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Joshua Abraham Bell ’99

September 14, 2020, in Los Angeles, California; took his own life.

Joshua was a gifted filmmaker, director, musician, and lover of earth. He struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. As his family encouraged, “Let us remember his brilliance, his kindness, his talent, his laughter, his dimples, his style, his many contributions to the world, and above all, his beautiful soul.”

Josh was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At Reed he majored in English and wrote his thesis, “Saltwater Man,” with Prof. Nathalia King [English 1987–] advising. The creative thesis featured three short stories, including “Hunting for Didjeridus,” which told of Joshua’s first foray into Aboriginal society in Northern Victoria, Australia. Through a series of chance encounters—and diligent research—he was invited to Arnhem Land and introduced to an Aboriginal clansman, Djalu, setting in motion his quest to learn the didgeridoo. 

“I heard the sound of the instrument and my life changed,” Josh said.

Over the next 12 years, he made five trips to Arnhem Land, bringing additional crew and building a unique bond with Djalu, his family, and the Aboriginal community. “Nothing could prepare me for the challenges of working within the community,” Joshua said. “It was wonderful and scary, tragic and mystical, simultaneously. My head was constantly spinning.”

Joshua earned an MFA in film at the University of Southern California, having started his career as a filmmaker at the Northwest Film Center in Portland. He spent nearly two years working with Cody Hanson ’99 on his first documentary, Elements of Style, about underground hip-hop in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

Joshua suggested that In Between Songs, the 2014 film he wrote, directed, and produced, had its beginnings at Reed, where his creative foundations and critical thinking were forged. The film tells the story of Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory beset by food shortages and high employment. A bauxite mining operation near their ancestral territory turns rock into aluminum, and yet for every ton of aluminum wrenched from the land, 13 tons of toxic chemicals leach into their soil and the water table. Very little of the $50 million promised in royalties ever reached the clans, and the mining has eroded their sacred traditions.

Joshua also directed the short documentary A .45 at 50th, recounting actor/activist James Cromwell’s involvement with the Committee to Defend the Black Panther Party in 1968. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his audio work on Visioneer, and commercial advertising clients included Coors, Toyota, General Mills, and Honda.

Joshua is survived by his wife, Heather; his daughter, Bowie; his parents, Carolyn and Edwin Bell; his sister, Stephanie Bell; and his brother, Randolph Bell.

“I won’t pretend to make any grand claims of friendship with Josh Bell,” said Miina Tupala ’99. “We would say ‘Hi’ in passing on campus. We didn’t party together or go grab beers off campus together. We were casually friendly. Ours was an easygoing acquaintanceship; smiles with no strings attached. And for me, that sums up what I considered the magic of Josh Bell. Despite our loose association with each other, he lives large in my memory as one gigantic bright spot of a personality. For all of the many quick interactions I experienced in person at Reed and beyond, I left every single one feeling better about myself, the world, Reed, the grey gloom, whatever. Josh was so quick with his smile and generous with his warmth. He personified, in the most positive way, that somewhat trite adage, ‘People may not remember what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel.’ 

“I feel thankful that I was lucky enough to have met Josh Bell and to have been the beneficiary of so many lovely smiles and kind words from him. I will remember him as a ray of light walking around as a lovely human being.”

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2021

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