'03 films real life ... and changes his own

by Carl Burnett | 7/11/01 5:00am

One day in the spring of 1999, Jethro Rothe-Kushel '03 stood in a post office in Los Angeles agonizing over two postcards. If he mailed one, it would confirm his attendance the next year at a school where he knew he would fit in, a place that just felt right: Oberlin College.

Instead, he waited until closing time before deciding to mail the other card -- to Dartmouth.

"I knew it would push me to meet people not like myself," he said.

Rothe-Kushel's decision is typical of him. It seems like he's always trying to challenge himself in new ways, to surprise himself, to look at things from a point of view anyone else would have missed.

Maybe it's those same tendencies that have gotten him involved on the ground floor of so many different projects at Dartmouth. Right now he is a main force behind both DTV, the student-run television station, and the Basement, the vast web-based directory of student resources. He just started a job working for the media production group in Berry Library's Jones Media Center. And somehow he also finds time to attend classes, sleep, study and learn jujitsu.

Rothe-Kushel has earned something of a reputation as the person to talk to on campus for promotional videos. His list of past credits include last year's Cords Fall Fling video, a widely circulated promo for last winter's Step Show and videos accompanying the most recent Sheba show and last term's Milan Culture Night. His current project is a slide show for Sophomore Family Weekend.

Bagels with salsa

Rothe-Kushel grew up in Los Angeles in a "new-agey" household, the son of a Jewish mother and a Mexican father. "I'm a Mexi-Jew," he often says with a smile. "Bagels with salsa."

The idea of identity -- especially religious identity -- seems to fascinate him. He describes his chosen religion as "a shopping cart."

"I try to go to as many different religious services and organizations as possible, just trying to get a hold on" -- he pauses -- "what this stuff is."

His interest in the world's religions has led him to become a religion major at Dartmouth, despite strong interests in film and computer science as well.

Today, Rothe-Kushel's is one of the best-known faces in his class. That wasn't always the case. In elementary school, he said, he got picked on a lot.

"A lot of [my views] come from knowing what it feels like to be an outsider," he said. "It's given me a lot of faith in people. An important value for me is to have faith in people, no matter who they are."

"I was very depressed and had no friends until sixth grade," he said. "I think that sort of drove me away from people, and I had to develop a lot of hobbies on my own."

One of those hobbies was filmmaking.

"My parents bought me a video camera when I was nine. I used to make tons of silly little videos," he said. "Whenever I had an assignment at school, I'd make a little documentary. ... I have a collection of hundreds of these things."

"Film was solely a hobby and a break from the troubles I was going through. I never thought it would go anywhere."

He did well in school but admits he didn't work very hard on his studies.

"I guess I sort of played the rebel in high school," he said. He spent a lot of time making music with a friend, who dropped out of high school after two years to pursue music full-time. After four years of hard work, that friend's efforts paid off: today, he is the lead singer of The Calling, a rock group that released its major-label debut yesterday. For a while, Rothe-Kushel considered dropping out to join him.

Instead, thanks in part to his parents' encouragement, he finished high school and applied to 13 different colleges and universities before finding himself in the post office that day last spring.

The Battle of Los Angeles

During his freshman year at Dartmouth, Rothe-Kushel applied for funding for a summer research project.

"I knew I wanted to do something on poverty in Los Angeles," he said, "but I wasn't sure what."

The idea began to form in his mind that he should put his filmmaking talent to good use. So he began talking to everyone he could find, asking for advice about how to make a documentary.

"Everyone said to write a script and storyboard it and then go out and shoot it," he said. But he didn't want to approach it that way. He wanted to experience his subject matter firsthand and learn about it as he went.

He got the grant, returned home to Los Angeles, and started shooting. He began speaking with the homeless people he saw everywhere on the streets, getting a feeling for what their lives were like.

"I wanted to get out there and meet people I wouldn't normally talk to," he said.

He soon found out about a project called Dome Village -- 12 geodesic domes in downtown Los Angeles, set up as "transitional housing" for the homeless. He befriended the leader of the project, a "voluntarily homeless" man named Ted Hayes who came to serve as a mentor for him throughout the filming of his documentary.

When the Democratic National Convention came to the city that summer, Rothe-Kushel accompanied Hayes and a group of homelessness activists as they marched outside the Staples Center, where the convention was being held.

As the camera rolled, Hayes fell to the ground, shot by police with a rubber bullet from close range. Chaos soon ensued, and Rothe-Kushel found himself in the middle of it. Police began beating him with rubber truncheons.

"I was faced with a moral dilemma: keep filming, or put the camera down and help?" After noticing medics coming to Hayes' aid, he decided to continue filming, and he is glad he did.

His footage ended up on local TV news and yielded some of the most exciting and provocative material for his final project, a one-and-a-half-hour documentary culled from 52 hours of footage which has been shown several times at Dartmouth in the past year.

Uncharted Water

Throughout his two years at the College, Rothe-Kushel has been involved with DTV, an organization that was founded in early 1999, before he came to Dartmouth, but he has helped guide it since then.

"[DTV is] part of what I think is important: giving people a way to express themselves," he said. "I would like to see DTV as playing an integral part of the college."

Toward that end, Rothe-Kushel said he wants to involve the incoming freshman class in the station from the time they first arrive. His idea will take the form of a show called "Ten," in which ten '05s -- selected by their peers during DOC trips -- will receive video cameras and carry them around during orientation, documenting their experiences there.

Recently, Rothe-Kushel has started to get back into filmmaking, through the promotional and event videos he's now known for.

Film, he said, can be used to express "the value of the underdog. ... Anybody can own a digital videocam for $600 and it's a good thing [for] dispersing power, like the Internet."

"The arts -- film in particular -- has a special, magical way of affecting people emotionally and intellectually. ... [There is] value in storytelling if were gonna make any sense of this messy world."

Currently Rothe-Kushel is helping to organize an Ivy League film festival, to be held at Brown this fall. And a Dartmouth graduate student he worked with to organize a student film festival here last spring recently referred him to a music video producer in Los Angeles, who was so impressed by Rothe-Kushel's work that he asked him to co-direct a music video.

The idea excites him. One future possibility: working with his old high school friend-turned-rock-star on music videos for his band.