A Light Mission: Michael Mierendorf Rendering Meaningful ChangeAug 30, 2022 12:06PM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Michael Mierendorf knows how to turn a moment, a mood, and a mission into a movement, and he’s using this power for good. The Emmy Award-winning filmmaker has spent years illuminating important issues and causes, revealing often overlooked narratives under the limelight—now powered by solar.
After spending his early years exploring acting roles at Omaha’s Community Playhouse, Mierendorf headed to Trinity University in San Antonio to pursue studies in theater.
“I think the early theater training was good. It gave me a good sense of storytelling and communication,” Mierendorf said. “I originally wanted to be on that side of the lens, but I quickly figured out that acting was too far removed from real life. I didn’t want to perform scripts. I wanted direct contact with the world.”
After graduating with a degree in psychology and a minor in TV and film, Mierendorf narrowed his depth of field, finding success as an investigative journalist and documentarian. He was among the first on the ground covering post-war Vietnam, compassionately covered the AIDS crisis, and chronicled war and famine in Africa with devastating clarity.
When Christopher Reeve was ready to begin work again—after a catastrophic accident left the Superman actor permanently paralyzed from the neck down—he returned to the call sheet with the Emmy Award-winning film Without Pity, written and directed by Mierendorf. The film sought to amplify the voices of disabled Americans and was a project Reeves was proud to be a part of.
Mierendorf has worked on a number of successful documentaries, including Broken Child, Deadly Memories, and Losing it All. Each addition to his filmography underscores the director’s ability to connect audiences with the journey of his subjects. While filmmaking proved a successful venture for Mierendorf, he desired to buoy his skill to something tangible.
Determined to do just that, he utilized his talent and profile to help create equity, stability, and ultimately, a more connected and compassionate community.
He worked on the United Way board in New Jersey, and after returning to Omaha to care for his mother, received the Heart and Soul Award from the metro’s Stephen Center.
Beyond the awards, Mierendorf’s stewardship yielded invaluable experience and established him as a leader in his field. His next mission would require all of his skills.
While looking for volunteer opportunities on Taproot (an online job board), Mierendorf made a connection with Joe Kselman. Their backgrounds sparked a mutual interest.
“My Grandfather fled his home in 1939 when Nazis annexed Austria,” Kselman said. “He could only get to India on his visa.”
“After the war, he came to the States and had my mom,” he continued. “I grew up with his incredible stories about India and felt a real connection. When I finally traveled there in 2012, I was amazed by the beauty, but also by just how impoverished the untouchable caste villages were.”
Knowing he was there for a reason, Kselman analyzed his repertoire for ways to make a sustainable difference in the place he had grown to love. His eureka moment didn’t involve a single lightbulb flickering to life—it involved thousands of them.
“I had a background in Solar Energy. That was it, that was what I had to offer, so I tried to find a way to use it,” Kselman recalled. “We started an IndieGoGo [an online crowdfunding platform] to raise money, and my wife and I bought and installed 100 solar home systems in the village.”
Removing the village’s reliance on an unstable grid and outrageous utility bills meant freedom for those first hundred households. For six years, Kselman and his wife continued passionately fundraising and lighting the village, one home at a time.
The project, the board, and the funding grew, with only one puzzle piece still missing: an effective way to get the word out. That’s when Mierendorf volunteered his award-winning services to the mission.
“I have worked with hundreds of volunteers, but Michael was a game changer. He’s tremendously talented and just as generous,” Kselman noted of Mierendorf. “His ability to clearly communicate with our cinematographer in India, during COVID, mind you, so entirely via shared documents and Zoom calls, really made this film. But the way he could see and capture these people we were trying to help, without ever meeting them, really proves that beyond talented, beyond professional, he’s a passionate and compassionate human being.”
The film in question, Solar Village Project, compresses generations of struggle, years of effort, and boundless hope into a beautifully conducted nine-and-a-half minutes. In just three TikTok videos, viewers can meet the teachers, doctors, and citizens who are finding a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. They can explore the hospitals and schools given the power to function and discover ways to become part of a sustainable and long-overdue change.
Visit SolarVillageProject.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.