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Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon

photoBeirut is a complete blast. The people are dynamic, the food crazy good, and in a week I’m all over the country, from the Syrian border in the north to close to Israel in the south. Here’s five things I learned during my film shoot in Lebanon.

1. Beirut’s got an image problem

 

When I told friends I was going to Beirut, all conversations and Facebook comments were variations on “be safe, be careful.” Some mentioned Hezbollah. Most focused on the Syrian civil war, which has already sent almost a million refugees into Lebanon (a small country of only 4 million that is ill-equipped to welcome so many people.)

Turns out, concerns aren’t overblown. The night I arrive, police stop me for more than an hour near my hotel. They don’t like my camera equipment (it doesn’t help that the hotel is catty-corner to Parliament!) My taxi driver has a soccer ball, so we juggle on the cobblestones while Mr. Police speaks, at length, on his iPhone. No dice. Ultimately, my hosts book me in a less sensitive accommodation. Aaaah, sweet sleep.

 

2. Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on

 

The first day of shooting goes according to plan.

That literally is the most beautiful sentence you can write if you’re a filmmaker abroad.

“Yes, there are bombs . . . If you die, you die.”

This is 100% due to my team in Beirut, the all-Lebanese staff of the USAID-funded Lebanese Investment in Microfinance project. All logistics, scheduling, transport, and access issues are worked out in advance. Thanks Khalil, Carla, Mahmoud, Moussa, Liliane!

Here’s a few things I hear throughout the day—the likes of which don’t float around the local Whole Foods back home: “We had our own civil war for 20 years, and we didn’t all go running into other countries!” . . . “The refugees get a stipend at the border. Then they accept lower pay in our jobs. Our young men can’t compete!” . . . “Yes, there are bombs. But we go out almost every night: if you die, you die.”

Day one’s a wrap. I’m impressed at the work ethic and efficiency of my team. I’m also surprised by how sanguine people remain despite the dicey security situation.

Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on.

 

3. Fishing is an endurance sport

 

Jet lag sucks.

I don’t get to sleep until past 3am. I hate my 4am wake-up call. I despise the 4:45am pick-up. It’s still pitch black as we drive up the coast to the tiny fishing village of El Beddaoui, in Chekka.

What I don’t know is that we’re less than an hour from the Syrian border. And minutes from the sectarian violence in Tripoli—where we’ll go before lunch.

Rabih is a fisherman. He’s been on the water since 3am setting his nets. He bought his used boat and nets with a microfinance loan. Today, he work for himself and not for the man. It’s changed his family’s life, and I’m here to tell that story.

It’s the pre-dawn blue hour as I step on the boat. Here, at the dock, the water is serene, but soon in the open Mediterranean, the waves knock me around. I’m filming with the Canon 5D Mark 3, with the 16-35mm lens on a Manfrotto monopod—small, lightweight, great in low light.

“Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.”

As the sun rises, Rabih stands heroically above the horizon. The work is grueling, as he pulls up the thousands of yards of nets by hand, fish entwined, balled up in baskets on deck.

After two hours at sea, I shoot some b-roll around town, rejoin Rabih at the fish market in Tripoli (no issues), hang out with his family at home, then return to port where he’s prepping to head out to sea again.

I’m exhausted, but Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.

 

4. Shawarma & Robert Downey, Jr. go together

 

My second day of filming I spend on a cattle farm in Bekaa with Samir. He’s bought 10 heads of cattle over several years thanks to three successively larger microfinance loans, and expanded his business considerably.

Working around all that cattle dung inspired a terrible hunger, so Khalil recommends one of his favorites: Barbar Shawarma, which is located in Corniche, a seaside promenade in Beirut’s central district.

First, Khalil. This guy is really the project’s M&E Coordinator, but this week, he’s my extremely capable Unit Producer and translator. He gets along extremely well with everybody we work with across the country, and we never have a problem.

And as the week unfolds, he’s also acting food critic and cinema aficionado, since he can’t stop reciting the closing scene in Avengers, where Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man crashes to Earth, opens his weary eyes, and says, “You ever tried Shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna try it.” (Back story on that revised ending on Entertainment Weekly).

Well, I try Khalil’s favorite shawarma in shawarma’s birthplace, and it’s great!

 

5. Byblos is irresistibly photogenic

 

The rest of the film shoot takes me to five of Lebanon’s six Governorates (or provinces). I’m deep in Hezbollah country, where billboards of the Ayatollah Khomeini share real estate with ads for Pepsi and designer watches. And by Friday, I have more than enough quality footage to cut four short films.

Saturday is a day off. What’s brilliant is that long-time friends Stefano and Margherita live and work in Tyre, about an hour south. They pick me up and we drive up the coast to Byblos. It’s a respite, a quiet tourist town, and irresistibly photogenic. You’d think on my day off, I wouldn’t touch a camera, but the light was beautiful and I took 50+ photos . . . on my iPhone! Oh, and Byblos is a UNESCO world heritage site.

It’s a perfect way to close out a great week, where I feel good about the footage I captured and learned a lot about the culture and people of Lebanon.

Mandela, Cameroon, and me

sd-prince copyWhen I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.

I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.

It was a shock.

Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?

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After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.

As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.

But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.

Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.

I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.

I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.

I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.

I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?

Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.

Is [Angola] a Real Place? Do You Care?

angolaTwo years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”

Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”

Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.

At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”

Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.

But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!

What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.

The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”

The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”

Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.

When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:

Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.

Sure, there are explanations why. A dominant power exports its culture to the world—a logical extension of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power” theory.

Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?

Here’s one way it matters: Next month, there’s a big meeting in Moscow to determine how much money the 82 poorest countries in the world (40 of which are in Africa) can access for grants and interest-free loans. These countries are home to 2.8 billion people. An estimated 1.8 billion of those live on less than $2 per day. These poorest countries use this “cheap” money for infrastructure, education, health, and clean water. It’s an investment. It helps them be less poor. Maybe their children can live on $4 per day.

The convening organization is IDA, or the International Development Association, which is a unit of the World Bank Group. The pot of money has averaged about $16 billion a year the last few years and  it is shared by 52 rich countries. Even though the U.S. only gives about 11% of the total (or about $1.8 billion), it plays a catalytic role in getting the rest of the world motivated. The word on the street is that the U.S. may be wavering on its commitment to the poorest of the poor.

Now, $1.8 billion per year  is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.

The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.

Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?

Do we care?

Cycling: 7 Reasons “OMG WTF” is the Cruelest

OMG WTF v2.Still005I didn’t name it, but it’s spot on. The “OMG WTF” ride is the hardest ride I’ve ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out; put me between two pieces of white bread, and served me for school lunch. I went riding recently with a few cycling friends: Bill Berlin, Jay Stanley, and Bill Murray. We leave Arlington at 6am to miss Beltway traffic, and start pedaling around 7:30 from Frederick, MD.

It‘s my first time to tackle this route, which seems to have been designed for maximum elevation and suffering. It’s a figure-8 in and out of Gambrill State Park on Catoctin Mountain. With at least four categorized climbs (Cat-3), it’s a legit test. Lots of quality cyclists seem to come here: on Strava, 467 cyclists have ridden the first mountain climb, for example, over 1,400 times.

Jay’s Contour helmet cam captures some surprisingly good footage:

 

1. Reason #1. Hamburg Road

The first climb is up Hamburg Road, and it’s a doozy! It’s 3.3 miles long, with more than 1,000 ft of elevation gain (6.2% average grade). It takes me about 21 minutes and I average 9 mph. It’s incredibly painful, and I know I’m in for a long day, since I’m reduced to constantly checking my bike computer, doing fast math: “OK, I’ve gone 9.1 miles, 60 to go” . . . and an eternity later . . . “OK, I’ve gone 9.2 miles, 59.9 to go!”

 

2. Reason #2. Harp Hill

The second hill, Harp Hill, is “only” 1.8 miles. It’s also a cat-3 climb, but shorter — and as a result, not as painful. I cover the 630 ft elevation gain (average grade of 6.7 mph) at a slower 7.9 mph. Bad news: I’m slowing down.

 

3. Reason #3. The crosswinds

The next 15 miles or so are no picnic, to be sure, but they’re rollers and fun. It’s a beautiful Autumn day, with the sun streaking through the trees. Unfortunately, the crosswind is unpredictable and strong. It gusts upwards of 15-17 mph. Fortunately, most of the climbs are protected, narrow roads. But some of the open descents are too windy.

 

Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face.

 

4. Reason #4. Middlepoint Road

Middlepoint Road starts to wind upwards at the 35 mile point. Having not ridden much the previous two months, I was dreading this. It’s 1.8 miles long, with 740 ft of elevation gain (with an even higher 7.3% average grade). I’m just trying to survive.

 

5. Reason #5. Coxey Brown

Jay is talking about how Coxey Brown is the hardest hill he’s ever done, and I just want to get it over with. Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face. It’s insane: 1.9 miles long, with 1,024 ft of elevation gain, and 9.6% average grade. No rest for the weary!

 

6. Reason #6. 5.3 mph

Midway through Coxey, I feel like it’s my first day ever on a bike. It’s a old, narrow one-lane road, with odd off-camber turns and cracked asphalt. It’s not even 60 degrees this afternoon, but I’ve unzipped both my jacket and cycling shirt as far as they’ll go. It takes me 24 minutes to reach the top—at a paltry average speed of 5.3 mph!

 

7. Reason #7. The paperboy

When you suffer like this, you do things to survive. From the get-go on Coxey, I pull out a shameless maneuver: the paperboy. You know, riding far left and far right, just to manage the slope and stay on the machine. Far in front of me, Bill Berlin is pushing his Trek straight up Coxey. Respect!

Coxey has claimed another victim, but today it’s not me. Torquing up the extreme grades, Jay busts his hub. He ends up running up the hills next to his bike, then gliding down them—covering 6miles this way until we pick him up on the way back to Washington, D.C.

OMG WTF. If you’re ready to test yourself, do it. It’s a helluva ride.

Directing in Kenya, Distributing in Tokyo

steve-equatorNairobi’s Westgate mall terror had not yet seized headlines when I left Washington, D.C. to direct and shoot a short documentary there. While I’ve been all over central Africa, it was my first time in Kenya. I stayed at the Nairobi Fairmont, which had all the old-world charm of a century-old safari hotel, as well as a dash of unsettling colonial vibe.

The DC-based World Bank Group has sent me to a lot of countries in the past few years to document what it’s doing on the ground. You can take issue with how successful the institution’s been in some countries or some sectors, but I like what I’ve seen. Lately, I’ve been serving as director, shooter, editor — and I’ll usually work with a DC-based producer and a unit producer in the field.

This time, it’s the Inclusive Business unit of the IFC, or International Finance Corporation—that has me in Meru, Kenya on a coffee farm. When we get there, our coffee farmer is nowhere to be found. We scramble to find a replacement. Soon, I find myself filming a day in the life of Cyrus Kinote, his wife Rhoda Nkirote, and their two darling children.

steve-kids
Sometimes, the craziness just overtakes you . . . 

I direct and shoot, and enjoy working with IFC producer Marcus Watson, who has a good eye. I know this will be more believable if we let Kinote tell his own story, documentary style. I also want the visuals to show his agency and dynamism. So many development videos are bad because they have top-down narration and don’t really give space for the voices of the poor. I resolve to do better. Today, I want to film how Kinote earns a living, spends time with his family, and collaborates with his colleagues. I want to do it all from his point of view. In so doing, I hope the viewer might empathize with Kinote, and care that his life has improved.

Today, I want to film how Kinote earns a living, spends time with his family, and collaborates with his colleagues. I want to do it all from his point of view.

They say that working with animals or children can double production time. On Kinote’s farm, this definitely holds true. Kinote’s cows are lowing like it’s their job, perpetually interrupting the master interview! Finally, Kinote throws some extra food in the stall, and we buy ourselves a window of time.

Rose Moseti is a stellar unit producer (sorry for the eating pic, Rose!). She works for Camerapix, Kenya's best video production company: http://www.camerapix.com/
Rose Moseti is a stellar unit producer (sorry for the eating pic, Rose!). She works for Camerapix, Kenya’s best video production company: http://www.camerapix.com . . . Below, Marcus Watson is a fun producer to work with. He’s since left the IFC to take a job in Kenya.

Late in the day, I film a series of shots with the GoPro, where I affix the little POV camera all over the place: in a coffee tree, a pile of coffee berries, and a wheelbarrow—even around Kinote’s chest. The end result appears as a short montage starting at 2:29.

We did the interview in Kinote’s native Kikuyu. Back in Washington, DC, I edit the story and dub in English. It turns out that the IFC also wants a version to show to some important stakeholders in Tokyo, so I master a second version with Japanese subtitles.

For me, it’s a first: from Meru to English to Japanese!

steve-anthony
I really enjoyed getting to know Anthony Ngugi, who works for Ecom SMS, the outfit that trains all the coffee farmers and gives them market access. Anthony’s a charismatic guy who seems to relate equally well with the uneducated farmers and the company executives — and comes from a farming background hiimself.
Here's a still from the Japanese version. This is Kinote crossing a stream to his coffee fields.
Here’s a still from the Japanese version. This is Kinote crossing a stream to his coffee fields.

Directing in Brazil: In a Favela, an Oasis

Wphoto11hat is a favela? When I left Washington DC for a filming trip in Rio de Janeiro last week, I was apprehensive. It was my first trip to Latin America’s biggest country.  And instead of filming a documentary film on the beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana, I’d be a director/producer on a commercial in some of Rio’s poorest slums (favelas). What would I find? (I took this crazy pic on accident as a wave crashed on me during a walk on Ipanema beach!).

To prepare, I read a book entitled “Culture is our Weapon,” by Patrick Neatte and Damian Platt. It chronicles the severe poverty, ubiquitous drug trafficking, and endemic violence of the favelas. It follows the birth of AfroReggae, a transformative nonprofit that gives at-risk youth opportunities to shine, primarily in art and music (samba, hip hop, dancing, drumming, etc).

At that point, I spy three teenage boys in shorts and flip flops—and automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

I stayed in Ipanema with an old friend, Neil Breslin, who flew in from Luanda, Angola to be the Unit Producer. Neil runs a firm connecting businesspeople in and out of Angola and speaks perfect Portuguese. He also owns apartments in Rio, so it was a great change of pace to stay at a friend’s place rather than a hotel.

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Wrapped AfroReggae shoot at AR21 concert, with AfroSamba lead singer LeCao Magalona and M’zée Fula-Ngenge. Leviano Bar in Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

The first morning, we turn inland to a favela called Vigário Geral. As the stunning seaside landscape recedes behind us, Rio is revealed as a sprawling mega-city. Most striking is the trajectory of the favelas, precipitous, straggling, and clinging to hillsides.

Our AfroReggae contact drives with us. Then outside Vigário, a local teenage boy meets us. He sits up front and is our ticket in. There’s one way in and out, a desolated and looping off ramp that issues to a main street blocked by two industrial trash containers. Culture is our Weapon describes why favela residents erect such blockades: to keep out overzealous police who have been known to rush in with assault vehicles, purportedly chasing drug traffickers, shoot with impunity, and leave just as quickly. It occurs to me that AfroReggae was established after the massacre of 21 innocents in August 1993, right where I am now.

At this point our genial driver, Elton, turns into a spider’s web of narrow alleyways. Homemade super-sized speed bumps pepper the route, so we top out at 5 mph, and Elton executes an exaggerated zigzag for several minutes. We trace a large “U” until we rejoin the main street again. We’re in.

At that point, I spy three teenage boys in shorts and flip flops—and automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. This sent a shudder through me. I tell my car mates this is freaking me out. That I’m only used to people in uniforms with guns. Neil counters that we’re actually safer here. The boys won’t harm us. They’re simply keeping the status quo (to protect their drug turf)—whereas if you get robbed in Ipanema or Copacabana, good luck getting justice.

I hadn’t filmed a frame yet and already my worldview was turning upside down. Safer neighborhoods with gun-toting teenagers? Citizen blockades to keep out police? Moreover, I was already seeing parts of Brazil that most Brazilians never see.

AfroReggae’s impressive, new four-story community center was built in 2010. It is clean and imposing, with a gaggle of children playing ping pong and foosball in the courtyard. It has all the collective good energy of a YMCA. A massive sculpture of a fist extends from the roof — is it a warning or an expression of pride?

The first person I meet is Anderson Sa, AfroReggae’s co-founder and the lead singer of AR21, formerly known as AfroReggae Band. I’d seen Favela Rising, an average documentary about a fascinating subject, where Sa factored prominently. I shot Sa in his recording studio, practicing with his band, and mentoring a younger singer, LeCao Magalona, who headlines the AfroReggae band AfroSamba. Both Sa and Magalona prove to be charismatic guys and very skilled musicians.

My client for this job is a private sector company based in Reston, Virginia. They are growing their business overseas, with Brazil one of the priority countries. So they hired me to make a series of spots that will be distributed in Brazil first and foremost. I’m shooting, directing, writing, and producing. I’ve already written the script. The voiceover is in Portuguese. The story needs to resonate with a local audience—which is a change for me. Usually when I travel to film overseas, the resulting film or video is to be viewed by Americans.

All this is going through my head at nightfall as I’m getting the last few shots. A plague’s worth of mosquitoes have descended on us from a nearby marsh and are harassing my young on-camera protagonist. The poor boy can’t concentrate on anything else. People are streaming home.

Both Sa and Magalona prove to be charismatic guys and very skilled musicians.

Since my morning encounter with the rifle-toting teenagers, this is the first evidence that Vigário is an unsafe, unhealthy place. The dozens of people I’ve met are authentic, nice, and all doing their own thing like anybody in any neighborhood. I played soccer with some boys and challenged a young man to a pull-up contest (I lost). I saw (and filmed) a steady stream of talented youth in violin lessons, samba classes, and all manner of dance practices—from ballet for little tots to African dance for seriously legit young adults.

AfroReggae has helped create an oasis.

Adany Lima runs the only youth dance troupe, Movimentos, in Cidade de Deos, a favela made famous by a movie of the same name.
Adany Lima runs the only youth dance troupe, Movimentos, in Cidade de Deos, a favela made famous by a movie of the same name.

Film @ Egypt: Ahmed, Ambulance-Beater + 5 Videos

steve-liftRockEgypt, for me at least, is not one of those places you can parachute in and feel at home. It’s intense, with its own pronounced contours and customs.

A Washington, DC-based organization hired me to go to Cairo and film for four days. As DP and director, I’d pick up a unit producer and driver in country, (When I’m back home, I’ll write and edit a short documentary film).

Here’s a 1-minute clip from some stuff I shot on day 3 on a nature preserve. Check out the underwater clips!

Day 1 starts early. After a couple interviews, it gets fun. Khalil runs the agribusiness unit of a large company, so I decide to put us on motorbikes, winding through the vineyards on the way to his staff. Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast! Here’s a quick clip:

I decide to do Khalil’s interview in the greenhouse, since it’s quieter and there’s some shade. I get set up, using my Litepanel LED, then wait a bit until the golden hour is just right. Here’s a still (no color grading):

kstill-2

Anytime I can complete three interviews and some creative b-roll on day 1 in a new country, it feels great. This rosy feeling of accomplishment takes a hit, however, when my “unit producer” informs me she needs to “spend some time in the office” on day 2. She’ll be leaving me with the driver for beauty shots Tuesday around Cairo.

Anytime you can ride on the back of a motorcycle, filming, and get paid for it, it’s good times . . . What a blast!

This is well and good, except I speak no Arabic and Ahmed, my driver, speaks about 57 words of English.

Ahmed driver
Despite a language divide, Ahmed and I become fast friends

Now, I’ve shot city b-roll in some crazy places before, from Harare to Baku and Manila to Mexico City, but nothing compares to Cairo. Old lady drivers make Manhattan cabbies look like Zen Buddhists. It’s manic. Somehow things function, but it’s tight, chaotic, and extraordinarily loud.

After a lengthy argument, my unit producer relents—only to call at 10:30pm. She’s not coming; driver to pick me up at 7am.

I feel abandoned, but there’s work to be done. This is what it’s like to be an independent documentary filmmaker — you move forward, you solve problems, you do it all: shoot, run audio, direct . . . and I was ready to learn some Arabic along the way!

The next morning, Ahmed and I head to the pyramids. Without a unit producer, I wing it. Fortunately, Ahmed knows a guy who knows a guy. Because it is virtually impossible (and prohibitively expensive) to bring film equipment in the main tourist gate, I should get a horse and go around back where I can film the pyramids from a hilltop in the desert.

Good plan, right? Except the stable owner tries to get me to name the first price. Having lived in Cameroon—where people approach haggling with the vigor of Olympic athletes—I knew enough to wait.

“2,400 Egyptian pounds,” he offers. I laugh out loud. Stable owner wants $350. The next 20 minutes is a legendary back-and-forth where I feign disinterest, act like I’m walking away, and eventually settle on about $64. I immediately have this sinking feeling in my stomach that I could have gotten it for much cheaper, but I can’t haggle the whole day. I have a job to do.

A fence encircles the entire Giza pyramid area. It is reportedly 22 kilometers long. It probably helps the state capture more tourist dollars, because everybody has to enter the main gate, paying some 60 pounds.

Skirting the pyramid fence from the slum side is a start contrast. Dilapidated storefronts advertise horse tours or all-terrain vehicles. I pass a dead horse, a cemetery. Then we enter the desert:

mohammed-donkey
Muhammad knows no English, but is a nice boy who carries my slider to our destination. Thanks!

My guide, Ali, complains how tourism is way down since the revolution. He has a winning smile, and fortunately for me, a background in TV. When we finally reach the distant hilltop, and I capture the footage I want, Ali takes my camera and directs me with the confidence of a commercial director:

steve-hold-pyramidsteve-jump steve-liftRock

What saves the rest of day 2 is Ahmed, the driver. Every time I want to get out of the van and film, he makes it happen. Alternately, he charms security guards, tips people to watch our van, and finagles our way behind locked gates. Thank you Ahmed! You are a lifesaver.

At Muhammad Ali Mosque at sunset, Ahmed and I capture a stunning silhouette of this historic building:

Day 3 promises adventure. We’re accompanying the CEO of the company to an innovative pilot project where they’re raising seabass in a saline lake, Al Fayyum. The drive is only 150 kilometers, but because we start in central Cairo, it takes four hours.

Despite the 95-degree heat, this is my favorite day. Any time you can film on a wooden rowboat and underwater with a GoPro on a monopod, it’s cool. The clip posted up top is from this day.

The rest of the afternoon we take our time heading back to Cairo. At golden hour, we come across a family harvesting wheat. While my unit producer (back with us today) stays in the van on her phone, Ahmed jumps out with me. He spreads some small tips around to the grandfather and the children just to say “thanks,” as I film the family in action:

We continue down a rural road. The light is so nice, I jump out. Soon, outgoing young men gather around. They’re curious. Ahmed explains what I’m up to, and they enjoy hamming it up for the camera:

Day 4, I do an interview, spend some time with the company, and then spend an afternoon getting broll around the city. At sunset, Ahmed invites me for “koshari.” It’s yummy, and a fitting end to an intense week.

Because my flight departs at 4:35am, I awake at 1am, and Ahmed picks me up at 1:30. What we don’t count on is a big accident on a bridge, and I’m dangerously close to missing my flight. We’re going nowhere. And what’s not helping is a sea of gawkers who arrive on motorbikes, park them on the only functioning lane, and start directing traffic of their own accord. Where’s the police? Where’s emergency services?  . . . At a snail’s pace, we creep forward to the scene, which has the vibe of a democracy demonstration more than a traffic accident. At that moment, Ahmed spies an opening. An ambulance breaks free from the scrum. Ahmed reacts. We are hot on its tail, and race through the city at breakneck speed.

Eventually, even the ambulance is going too slow. Ahmed, with commentary, leaves the ambulance in his dust!

I make my flight! And head back to Washington, D.C. Thanks my friend . . .

Colombia shoot with the Canon 5D Mark iii

blogI’m in Cali, Colombia and using my new Canon 5D mark iii to direct and shoot a short documentary film here. Cali-native, Jose David Quintero, is the death-defying biker who flies down the mountain below San Antonio.

Here’s a short clip of stuff I shot yesterday and today, and edited tonight (not color graded). Music is not mine (it’s Morcheeba’s “Over and Over” from the “Big Calm” album. Buy it!

I used my new MYT glider. And found that a monopod, if used properly, can approximate the feel of a mini-jib. I used only two lenses, the Canon 16-35mm and the Canon 24-105.

Cali is much larger than I anticipated. Mountainous, its neighborhoods cling to San Francisco-like slopes. I couldn’t have done the shoot without Producer Santiago Chaher, the co-owner of Cefeidas Group, an international advisory group that does a lot of consulting across Latin America.

I’ll do another post later on other key discoveries: why Club is a better beer than either Poker or Aguila; why marranita is not all it’s cracked up to be (sorry Eulalia!); and how the cacophonous din of high heels threatened more than one interview.

 

Mecánico as Film Crew?

Delfino’s a cypher. I’m riding shotgun with this 40-something Mexican, camera in my lap, finished filming for the day in Mexico City. Delfino’s on about some subtle details of a fuel-injected engine. In English.

I hold up my hands in protest. Sorry man, I don’t understand a thing. He keeps at it. Turbo this, catalytic that. I smile.

Delfino’s clearly a master at his mechanic trade, but he can’t read or write. He’s fluent in English and Spanish, but struggles to make ends meet.

I’m here to make a short film for a DC-based group that invests in Vinte, an affordable housing company. Delfino is a first-time homeowner in a Vinte complex, where units start at $23,000.

How does the company do it? Partly it’s economies of scale. Delfino’s complex will eventually have more than 5,000 units. But it’s also the novel condominium business model, with security, paved roads, and reliable water, lights, and Internet. It’s a stellar option for people who grew up in Mexico’s messy informal settlements.

I’ve spent parts of three days here and have to admit, the neighborhood’s nice. It’s clean, quiet, and safe. Delfino’s three children, all younger than age seven, love the community park that has a biking path, basketball court, and jungle gyms.

We do the interview here. For Delfino, it brings back a flood of memories. His parents moved to California when he was a toddler (which explains his mastery of English). He dropped out of school at age nine, but rebuilt his first car engine at ten. His face lights up talking about that first car, how it won a race, how he realized he could build things. He had a gift.

When his father returned five years later, Delfino’s mom enrolled him in school, but it was far too late. Delfino was making good money as an apprentice mechanic. And besides, school was tough. Fixing cars was easy.

The interview wraps. In my ten-plus years working as a filmmaker, I’ve never let a subject help on set. Many volunteer, but it’s a polite gesture that I politely refuse. Before I realize it, Delfino is dismantling lights and rolling cable. He insists it’s his first time around this type of equipment. We work silently, as if we’re a team. Of course, he manages to pack everything up just right.

As he closes the last pelican, I reflect that this is why my job is so cool. Yes, the travel is incredible. But the best thing by far is the personal connections. And it’s the documentary process that I have to thank for it. The peculiar way that reality, premise, and personal narrative combine to create something unpredictable and authentic—and periodically, sublime.

Delfino’s had a hard life, but he’s in a good place now providing for his family. He opened up his life for a few days and I’m better for it. The master mechanic with the irrepressible smile.


Chincoteague: Crab Pots, Nature Loop

 In Chincoteague this week, it’s a perfect time to do some crabbing. These bunker baited our large crab pots, three of which we dropped off the end of our pier. The next day, we had 20 large crabs for a super feast. Old Bay, beer, and fries from Capt Zachs round it out.

The Chincoteague Nature Loop is 3 miles exactly, flat, and closed to cars before noon. Perfect bike riding material. I define a segment on Strava and do my best:

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