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Minnesota’s Storyteller: Through the Eyes of Daniel Bergin

September 3, 2020

By Kelsey Derby

Once called “Minnesota’s hippest history teacher” by the Star Tribune, Daniel Bergin has been TPT’s leading history filmmaker for the last decade. He’s worked on TPT films such as the Lost Twin Cities series, Out North, Jim Crow of the North, and many more, covering diverse topics all rooted in Minnesota history. Citizen, a closer look at women’s suffrage in Minnesota, is his latest debuting in October. His experience growing up on the south side of Minneapolis informs his storytelling, often encapsulating the hardships and struggles surrounding many iconic Minnesota stories but always looking for a seed of hope. Bergin is a laid-back, calming presence who takes subtle pride in what he does.  With a career built on connecting with strangers and capturing their stories on film, it’s clear Bergin has an impassioned interest in all people and their individual experiences.

After years with TPT, Bergin was recently promoted to Executive Producer as the organization continues to focus on meaningful local content. This comes just months after Sylvia Strobel is announced as the new CEO – her vision for TPT to continue being a, “true 21st century media organization ensuring all have access to quality, educational content on multiple platforms.”

We spoke with Bergin about his tenure with TPT – reflecting on how different media has shaped him, his vision to document inclusive history, and what he sees for the future of TPT.

On Influence

Bergin has been known to describe himself as a “PSA baby.” “You know, growing up in the 70s, I was really influenced by the idea of campaigns.” He mentions Schoolhouse Rock, United Negro College Fund, and the American Ad Council as memorable leaders in influential short television spots.  He jokes, “[those PSAs] really created a generation of us who physically can’t litter because we were so affected by Woodsy Owl and the Native American who teared up at the pollution that had devastated America.” Bergin is referring to the Keep America Beautiful campaign that aired in 1971 featuring Iron Eyes Cody, an actor dressed in Native clothing who was, in fact, not Native at all.  Bergin brings this fact up as he explains – clearly a falsehood that has stayed with him over time, informing the inclusive work he creates for TPT.

Bergin places great influence on Black photojournalist Gordon Parks being another influential force while growing up. He embraced Gordon’s decisive and powerful camera work and aesthetics.  With the recent passing of Civil Rights icon John Lewis, Bergin feels it’s also important to note the influence of Eyes on the Prize, the 14-part PBS docu-series surrounding the Civil Rights movement being a,“seminal nonfiction experience for me as a teenager.” The documentary’s ability to fully encapsulate the movement struck Bergin, and still has an influence on his approach to filmmaking. The film captures, “meeting the Freedom Fighters, and meeting some of the white supremacists, because they were interviewed too. That kind of struck me as a young person like, ‘okay yeah, you include their voice and sometimes they make the point for you, because they’re still ignorant.’”

On Restorative Narratives and Authenticity

In an age where filmmakers, authors, and historians alike are revisiting history in a more inclusive way, Bergin feels it’s clear restorative narratives are the future of storytelling. His films often find their way to a common theme: strength through resilience.  “Within a film where we acknowledge brutal racism that so many communities of color have experienced in Minnesota, it’s important to make sure we don’t do that without acknowledging the resistance and resilience, and strength, and hope and joy of that community as well,” he states. Bergin feels bringing light to these untold stories is incredibly important in not only preserving history, but also changing the way history is currently perceived.

In order to garner these renewed insights, Bergin finds his way to the roots of a story.  He recalls working on projects in the early days of his career and having trouble connecting with communities of color as the press had been historically damaging to their stories. He reflects, “I remember times when we were out shooting and literally getting turned away at a Broadway Avenue barber shop or beauty shop … eventually after building their trust and telling their stories in a way that really resonated, we sometimes would be the only ones allowed into a space … because we had been seen as trusted,” he says.

Bergin likes to focus on the authentic conversation that comes after the film. When reflecting on one of his most powerful and expansive documentaries, Jim Crow of the North, he says, “often the follow-up transcends the film that we just watched,” which is why is filmmaking continues to be so important to TPT’s mission of education through media.

On Finding Joy

“I love making movies and media making. I love the collaborative process: the synergy with both my colleagues, and also with community,” Bergin states. As a proud “south-sider,” who attended an alternative high school with artists-in-residence, Bergin credits the Twin Cities with placing value on art and artists despite not always overcoming the opportunity gap. “What we do well happens when we can come together and tap into community – that means giving diverse communities the tools needed to overcome the disparities,” he mentions.

When asked about his most joyful experiences, Bergin begins with Don’t Believe the Hype (2003), a broadcast, education, and outreach program for youth of color that aimed to empower youth through by creating media used as a vehicle to invoke discussion in the community. “It was just getting to know these young people and collaborating with them. I took satisfaction in seeing these teens of color working with our crew, which was mostly white and male,” he says.  Bergin is pleased that TPT is exploring a return to serving youth directly through media literacy efforts.

Bergin’s passion for filmmaking shines through as he discusses his time working on a project from 2004 about the Duluth lynchings, North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers. What he uncovered surprised him. “There is even joy within a difficult story, in fact, one of the most difficult stories in Minnesota History was the lynching in Duluth in 1920… What I didn’t expect and found to be inspiring was the story of this multiracial group in Duluth coming together to educate the community to do work on racism and create this amazing Memorial,” he remembers.

On Changing Times

As TPT moves forward alongside the rest of the film industry, it’s exciting to see how things have changed. “You know, it’s wild to be in this era of Ava DuVernay and all of the amazing Black filmmakers with hundred million-dollar Hollywood budgets … I remember seeing She’s Gotta Have It at the Uptown Theater, knowing that Spike Lee was literally going hungry to finish that film, and how precious and powerful the idea of a Black feature film was.”

Bergin hopes to see more inclusion in historical films that tell the stories of underrepresented populations. “It can’t be about us without us,” is a mantra Bergin is proud to embody and he is certainly doing his part to change the future of historical film.

“Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations,” Toni Morrison once said. As TPT moves forward in an increasingly unpredictable time, Daniel Bergin will continue to be a guiding light, creating inclusive, historical, educational content.  His main priority being what the organization holds near and dear: Enriching lives and strengthening our community through the power of media.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2020. All rights reserved.


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