Sue Useem ’05 took the road less traveled after graduating from Gettysburg College: she moved to an island thousands of miles from home and made it her headquarters for educating the world.
While life is quite different in Bali, Indonesia, she loves every minute of it.
Useem is the founder of Spotted Frog Productions, a non-profit documentary production agency she started in 2006 while living in Washington, D.C.
How did she escape the Beltway and land in a tropical paradise?
The process began during her senior year at Gettysburg, when she happened to have lunch with a visiting Congolese documentary filmmaker. Their conversation made an enormous and inspirational impression on her. “I realized that documentary film has incredible power to influence the dialogue on human rights and conflict,” she said. She moved to Washington, D.C. after graduating and accepted a position at the Indonesian Service at the Voice of America, a multimedia news organization that produces programs that cater to the Indonesian audience. “I quickly realized I really enjoyed working with Indonesians, and wanted to try and make some sort of documentary there,” said Useem. “So I saved my money, bought a camera, and took some time off.”
She flew to Indonesia and did exactly what she wanted to do.
She filmed her first documentary, Which Way to the War?, over a three-year period in the Indonesian district of Poso. “I visited Poso for an entirely different purpose,” said Useem. “I had thought it would make an ideal venue for exploring how rural Indonesians look upon Americans and our role in the world.” She realized a more compelling story existed in the divide between the control of resources. Which Way to the War? documents Poso’s religious conflict and terrorist attacks, and its redeeming rehabilitation in the aftermath.
The documentary premiered at the Action on Film Festival in 2009, and Useem took home the Best Female Filmmaker award. Organizations and universities worldwide continue to purchase the documentary, which Useem produced, directed, filmed, and edited by herself, to this day. Even Useem’s stock footage is making a global impact. The Animal Planet, Geographic Expeditions, National Geographic Society, Wharton Business School, and Voice of America are just a few of the hundreds of organizations that continue to use her footage in their productions.
But she didn’t stop there.
She moved to Bali, Indonesia in 2010 and has been working on her second documentary, The Peace Agency. “It’s about an Indonesian woman’s quest to bring peace and inter-religious tolerance to her war-torn region through the advancement of women and children,” said Useem. “The main character, Lian Gogali, has created an entire women’s grassroots interfaith movement as a single mother with the use of only one leg. I have been so inspired by her, and I hope others will be too.”
Travel is also an inspiration to Useem. She’s visited 28 countries around the world, and “every single place that I’ve been to has impacted my view of the world in a wonderful way,” she said. Indonesia remains her favorite place to be. “It’s an amazing global melting pot mixed with traditional culture and outstanding art.”
Gettysburg College was the perfect jumping off point.
“My education at Gettysburg is the foundation for everything I do,” she said. A philosophy major and political science minor, Useem studied abroad and was a facilitator for GRAB, the Gettysburg Recreational Adventure Board, while a student. “My professors were so helpful and encouraging with every idea I had; they empowered me to work in peace and justice,” said Useem. “Prof. Kerry Walters, my academic advisor, really encouraged me to pursue my interests in peace and conflict, and he has cheered me on this whole time!” Wonder what Prof. Kerry Walters thinks of Useem? "She is one of the most remarkable students I've ever had in my 26 years of teaching at Gettysburg," he said.
And she left quite an impression on Gettysburg College.
"As a student, Sue was vibrant, curious, energetic and wholly engaged in seeking to understand issues of conflict, violence and dehumanization,” said Philosophy Prof. Lisa Portmess. “In everything she did she brought exuberant vitality and moral concern, loved philosophical conversation, and threw her heart into issues of peace and justice."
A final thought on what she's doing:
“Being a filmmaker lets you be an artist, human rights advocate, and an entrepreneur,” said Useem. “I get to travel, meet people, and tell interesting stories to the world.”
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Tracey Dukert, assistant director of news content, 717.337.6521