Revisiting South Sudan

The adventure documentary Duk County: Peace is in Sight in the New South Sudan swept the outdoor film festival circuit last year, nabbing eight awards including Best Documentary at Boulder Adventure Film and both the Norman Vaughn Indomitable Spirit Award and the Moving Mountains Prize at Telluride Mountain Film. Outdoor adventure brand Marmot released the film, with the brand's Director of Public Relations and ambassador athlete Jordan Campbell, writing and directing.

Duk County tells the story of a mission to deliver eye care in a remote and war-torn region of South Sudan, Duk County (pronounced "Duke"). It chronicles the sight-restoring work of Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall, two world-class eye surgeons committed to eradicating blindness in Africa. Also working with the doctors: John Dau, one of the original Lost Boys of Sudan and visionary for peace in South Sudan’s tenuous independence, and a small team of professional climbers who volunteered as medical aids. The film, combining adventure with advocacy, also serves as the flagship initiative for Marmot’s Ambassador Athlete program, which Campbell launched in 2011.

We caught up with Campbell in Santiago, Chile at the South American premier of Duk County to talk about conditions in South Sudan and Marmot’s vision for what it means to be a sponsored athlete in the 21st century.

Duk County is one of very few documentaries to emerge from the world’s newest country. What are conditions like there currently?
Our medical mission in South Sudan took place just before Christmas in 2011. We threaded the needle, going in during a time when the inter-tribal violence had settled down, and right before it flared up again.

The recent fighting goes all the way up to the highest levels of the new South Sudan government. The president Salva Kiir is a Dinka, and in August 2013, he deposed his vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer. It turned into a civil conflict of epic proportions, disrupting the country unlike anything we’ve seen yet in terms of violence and humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the international community, the United Nations, has come together to try and broker a peace deal.

I recently spoke to John Dau, who hosted our team at the Duk Lost Boys medical clinic, and he told me there is a peace deal on the table right now that is being considered. South Sudan is an important new and independent African nation that was essentially forged by the United Nations in 2011. To see it erupt into civil conflict has been really devastating for a lot of people. 

The film screened twice at the United Nations, which is a first for adventure films. What’s different about Duk County?
This is a film that was born out of the outdoor industry. But it’s not a typical climbing or skiing film — there’s no ski porn. It’s a story about climbers, skiers, and mountaineers turning their attention to global stewardship. Guys like [Patagonia-sponsored climber] Timmy O’Neill came to South Sudan to volunteer. In that way, Duk County breaks the mold of adventure films. It speaks to such an interesting and compelling part of the world that’s really struggling right now, and that's why it’s gotten a lot of attention. 

You have a fulltime job at Marmot and 25-year career as a mountaineer. What made you decide to do a film?
It’s really been an evolution of both those fronts. My first Himalayan expedition was in 1992. I was just 24 then and this idea that climbers could change the world really captured my imagination. After we left South Sudan, there was a flare-up between two tribes in the village of Pibor about 150 miles southwest of us that turned into a terrible tragedy. Thousands were killed in just a few days. The violence spread to Duk County where 88 people where killed, including one of the eye care patients that I assisted. It was such a chill for all of us, and for me, a moral imperative to make this film. 

Did the trip launch Marmot’s Ambassador Athlete program?
It’s something Marmot has been doing informally for a while. In 1998, Tom Fritz, our vice-president of marketing, started providing support for the dZi Foundation [which supports remote, underserved Himalayan communities]. Since then, we’ve gotten behind amazing athletes like Sean Swarner who has survived cancer twice. But we’ve been really understated about it.

That changed when we realized there was an opportunity for Marmot in global stewardship and to reshape the somewhat tired narrative of what it means to be a sponsored athlete in the 21st century. 

So what does that look like?
Right now, we have five different categories of athletes sponsored by our company: freeride skiers, rock climbers, alpine climbers, mountain guides, and ambassadors. Our ambassador athletes focus on global stewardship, on giving back.

Consider this: In 40 years of business, we have customers who’ve grown up with our brand and who’ve skied really hard. Now they’re going on 60, or maybe 70, and they’re less interested in guys hucking off cliffs. They really respect and appreciate our ambassador program. And they’re not the only ones.

A couple of years ago, Paige Claassen, one of our star rock climbers, said, "Hey I want to be an ambassador athlete. I want to change the world too." Paige finished her Lead Now climbing tour last spring, a yearlong charitable initiative that’s raised over $20,000 for non-profits worldwide.

Beyond Marmot, is this ideal catching on?
Global stewardship is resonating throughout the entire outdoor industry. There are people who are talented outdoor athletes and enthusiasts who also want to do more. In this day and age, you have to come to the table with a desire to do your craft, and do it well, but don’t just show up and tell me you’re a great climber. What’s your bigger story? What do you bring to the world, to the industry, to our brand? The Duk County film helps fuel that imagination and maybe that’s why it’s done so well in adventure film festivals.

Purchase the just-released Duk County: Peace is in Sight in the New South Sudan DVD at www.johndaufoundation.org.