Films honor victims of Joplin tornado one year later

Monday, May 21, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 2:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 21, 2012
Filmmaker and Joplin native Chip Gubera returned to his hometown to document the stories of survivors of the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin. These images are from the documentary, "Joplin, Missouri," which will be shown at Ragtag Cinema on Tuesday evening.

COLUMBIA — As Missouri honors the one-year anniversary of the deadly Joplin tornado Tuesday, several documentary films offer firsthand accounts of the tragedy.

On Tuesday evening, Ragtag Cinema will host two screenings of "Joplin, Missouri," a film by Joplin native Chip Gubera that features eyewitness accounts of the tornado and footage from such sources as security and police dashboard cameras.

Gubera began work on the project immediately after the disaster. He lived in Joplin until he was 21. Now, 15 years later, most of his relatives still live in the area.

Gubera recalled the fear and helplessness he felt from Columbia when he was unable to reach his mother as news of the tornado broke.

"Eventually I got through to my mother and left a message," Gubera said. "By that time, she had checked on everyone, and everyone was fine, which was great news."

The next day, Gubera filled his car with water and a chainsaw and headed to Joplin to help in any way he could.

He had to return to Columbia after a short time because of work and family. But not long after that, Gubera received a call from his sister, a medical professional who told him about the stories patients had been sharing with her and the need to document them.

"A week later, instead of taking my chainsaw, I took my camera and just started filming," he said.

Gubera has worked on five feature films in the past 15 years. With his background in filmography — directing, writing and producing — he saw a documentary as a way to make a positive impact on the community in light of the tragedy.

"My goal was to paint a three-dimensional character of the community of Joplin," Gubera said. "The people: who they are, what they went through and how they responded in a very heroic way. But I also wanted to build up a three-dimensional character of the antagonist, of the storm, and make it seem real."

Gubera spent the majority of the summer shooting footage and completed editing on the film in April. A 45-minute television cut is in the works.

"This whole process has been cathartic for me," Gubera said. "It's amazing the amount of pride I've discovered I have for the town. I'm proud to be from Joplin. Things could have been so much worse, but that town is a tough town, and they sprung into action."

A portion of ticket sales for Tuesday’s screenings will go to Rebuild Joplin, a nonprofit organization established in May 2011 to "holistically address the post-tornado needs in the Joplin community," according to its website. Its current focus is to rebuild permanent housing in the Joplin area.

Screenings will take place at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at Ragtag Cinema. The film was previously screened May 11 in Joplin to more than 700 people.

"Hopefully (the film) can give the people of Columbia a chance to honor Joplin without actually going to Joplin," Gubera said.

"Joplin, Missouri" is narrated by George Noory, host of the late-night radio talk show "Coast to Coast AM."

Gubera originally intended to enter "Joplin, Missouri" in film festivals such as Sundance, True/False and Telluride during the coming year. Now, he and his team are investigating whether a series of individual screenings would raise more money to go toward rebuilding Joplin.

"I made the decision very early on to tell the story of Joplin for Joplin and not just be sensational about it," Gubera said. "I wanted to give an honest take of who the people are and what they did and the hope that this storm has inspired. I guess it's weird to say that the storm inspired hope, but it's true."

"Joplin, Missouri" is among several films detailing the events of May 22, 2011.

"Deadline in Disaster" was shown May 3 in the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. The documentary tells how the staff of The Joplin Globe covered the tornado and ensuing destruction while in the midst of the wreckage themselves.

The Missouri Foundation for Health has released the 16-minute "Who We Are Now: Joplin One Year Later" as part of its 2012 Reel Change film series.

The film focuses on the relationship between residents and organizations in Joplin as they work together to rebuild the community. It features interviews with tornado survivors, health professionals and community members who have helped lead the recovery effort.

The full film is available to view on the foundation's website,

Another documentary on the tornado premiered Saturday in Joplin. "Heartland" was directed by Erica Tremblay, who grew up in Seneca, 20 miles south of Joplin.

The feature-length documentary chronicles the efforts of one woman to return thousands of photographs displaced by the tornado to their owners. Filmmakers describe it as a "heartfelt portrait of the courageous men, women and children who survived this tragedy and a tribute to the precious souls who were lost."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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