Sebastian Lindstrom has a restless soul. As a child growing up in Sweden, the only thing he really enjoyed was going on vacation, so he began studying abroad as a high schooler, served in the Swedish Military Special Forces, and co-founded a children’s charity in Ghana before he started college. But it was a trip he organized while at the University of Hong Kong that really set him on the path to wandering with a purpose: He was majoring in international business and global management when he decided to recruit a team to travel the length of Africa, from Morocco to South Africa, filming “untold stories and unsung heroes.”
Drawing on his university connections as well as his membership in the Sandbox Network–a worldwide incubator for “extraordinary young leaders” under the age of 30–Lindstrom put together a group that would eventually visit 16 countries across the continent. “We were a skeleton crew of random people who wanted to explore,” he says. “People would pay for themselves, and we would never stay in hotels, we would sleep in tents if necessary, and travel as cheap as possible. The premise was to see if we could find a best practice that shows how grassroots nonprofits operate. We wanted to focus on positive stories that would inspire people to take action.” That trip (and the people he met along the way, including filmmaker Alicia Sully) would form the basis for What Took You So Long, Lindstrom’s “disruptive” filmmaking lab, dedicated to traveling to the most remote corners of the globe to document people who are doing good things (and making money making ads for companies doing good things, too, of course).
The results of that first African trip can be seen on What Took You So Long’s YouTube channel in a collection of short videos spotlighting the tiny charitable operations they visited along the way. “A lot of development people who travel around, they come in with big SUVs,” Lindstrom says. “We look like backpackers. When we would come to an organization, usually we would stay with them. They helped with translation, helped with security, and that connection enabled us to capture more genuine video content. They would host us, and as a thank you we would shoot a video for them.” The team also assembled a long-form documentary they proceeded to show in 20 cities across the U.S. and Europe, using Open Space Technology to host discussions after each screening on how to make aid more effective.
One of the original goals for What Took You So Long was to build a collaborative network of grassroots organizations, but “it’s very hard to incentivize people to share their resources,” Lindstrom reports. So his restless soul kept carrying him forward: He finished school and found himself swept up in documenting global camel milk entrepreneurship. “For one year, we filmed in 20 different countries,” he says. “We started working with herders, different camel milk organizations, and it became a very niche project.” That niche led to what Lindstrom calls “a lot of interesting media opportunities,” including a camel milk speech at TEDx Norway in 2011–and that opportunity blew open the door to a whole new community. What Took You So Long has since served as the official film crew for the 2012 TEDx Summit in Doha, Qatar, been instrumental in organizing the first-ever TEDx Mogadishu, and are now helping both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Development Program set up events in that long-embattled Somalian city.
“Everything we’re doing now is linked to what happened then,” Lindstrom says of his Mogadishu experience. “We’re not only spreading the story of their rebirth through the videos and livestream from the conference, but the story continues. Every week, we get emails from journalists around the world who want to get in contact with our speakers. It’s a dream. And for me, it was a really big day when everything came together, because it shows you that you can really do something that inspires other people to feel alive. I think that’s really important to me, if I would explain my purest perception of why I’m here.”
What Took You So Long continues to launch guerilla filmmaking expeditions supported by volunteers and crowdfunding, as well as taking paid gigs commissioned by larger agencies. Meanwhile, Lindstrom himself has found something new to disrupt: education. This fall, he enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Center for International Education, his studies focused on “non-formal education solutions in conflict zones.” Luckily, the UMass professors are more than happy to support his occasional departure on a What Took You So Long project, and thus does Lindstrom’s perpetual, purposeful vacation roll on. “I think it’s important that there’s a purpose with the majority of the trips you do,” he says. “I had in my head that the purpose is something that you will keep for a lifetime, but I realized that the purpose can change, as the environment changes, and you change. So I think you just need to figure out what is your purpose at the moment, and then be okay to be flexible.”