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A Desert Ride

With Victor and Nate

The first time I rode with the Desert Cycling Club, the elites dropped me like a bad habit.
But today, I was hoping to keep up on the money stretch – a gradual 5-mile incline from the floor of the Coachella Valley into the foothills of the Little San Bernadinos. I had a secret weapon: fueled by turkey and stuffing.

We meet at 7:30 at Palm Desert Civic Park. It’s a big crowd of about 100. It’s mixed: young and old; men and women. The female leader announces an A-ride and three variations on the B-ride.

Against all good judgment, I go A . . .

Palm Desert, California is an insanely beautiful place to ride a bike. The roads are wide and well maintained—with bike lanes galore, some wide enough for golf carts.

I did today’s route last Saturday, which takes you through Palm Desert, Thousand Palms, Bermuda Dunes, Coachella, Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, and back to Palm Desert.

It’s dry and sunny, with basically perfect weather this time of year. There are snow-topped mountains to the west and south, and a sprawling range to the north that stretches to Joshua Tree National Park—which is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Desert Cycling Club A-Ride (65)

Find more Cycling Routes / Bike Rides in Palm Desert, CA

We head north, spinning reasonably. It’s nearing 8:00, and the B riders have peeled off. It’s in the mid-60s. About 40 riders turn north off of 38th Ave onto Washington. A double peloton stretches out to single as we start to push the pace.

I work my way toward the front and nestle in behind a big guy. I notice I’m about the only guy with hair on my legs. On a bike, that can only mean one thing . . . speed!

Three riders stand up on their pedals in quick succession and break away from us. By the time we make a hard right turn onto Thousand Palms Canyon Road, they’re 20 lengths ahead and the race up the incline is on.

I’m feeling strong. But the pace is only going to get faster. Suddenly I hear a wooooosh, and I’m skidding on a flat tire. I veer to the shoulder, and the peloton is gone like that!

I sit on a rock. This road is a thin scar in a hardscrabble desert. No traffic. Mountains and a clear sky.

I fix my flat, turn my bike back downhill, and spin the 14 miles to Palm Desert. I’m catching a flight back home in two hours . . . but I can’t wait until I can test myself on this route again.

Storytelling, at a Crossroads

Do you know a good storyteller? She’s the life of the party. The one who gets everybody rip-rolling, turns us deathly silent, then provokes a tear or two. We gather around. She regales us.

Now, imagine 25 of the most amazing storytellers you’ve ever met gathered in the same square mile, performing to circus tents full of 500 enthusiastic listeners. But it seems like they’re talking straight to you. That’s the National Storytelling Festival, in its 39th year.

I spend the weekend in Jonesborough, Tennessee — the oldest town in the state. It was founded in 1779, before the Volunteer state became a state. Almost 8,000 people prowl the town with me, on the hunt for stories. It’s like a film festival, only better. Tellers duck and weave by synapse and whim, bending narratives in response to giggling children, passing trains, or thundering applause.

It’s “night at the improv,” but better. David Holt plays 10 acoustic instruments; Bill Lepp gives me cramps as he invents insane tall tales; Elizabeth Ellis slows it down – I shed a tear. Antonio Sacre is energetic, yet tender. Clare Murphy is protean, spinning morality tales from the dawn of time. Donald Davis pays homage to Kathryn Windham; Holt remembers Ed Hicks. Tellers know they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Billed as “One festival, three days, a world of stories,” it was much more. A time to reflect on the nature of stories themselves, and how they move and sustain us.

Life is Precious


Today, I interview and shadow Precious Ncube. She’s 23 and carries herself with a quiet confidence, wielding an easy smile. She also is HIV positive, has lost both her mother and sister to AIDS, never knew her father, has no siblings, and bounced around a litany of households as a young girl.

Today, against all odds, she’s not only stable, but a leader. Her peers at the clinic have elected her President of their group. She aspires to run a nonprofit group someday, using her experience to give back to AIDS orphans. She’s studying how to sew to earn some income. She helps her grandma in the garden and around the house. Her greatest hope is to get married and have children someday herself. I learn that if Precious stays consistent with her medicine, she can keep her HIV viral load down and certainly have kids.
One of the most inspiring people I’ve met here in Zimbabwe is named Precious Ncube.

Carpentry and the Artist as a Young Man

Today, I’m shooter, audio grip and . . . set designer and carpenter?

Tichoana Mudhobi (“Tich”) is our subject. When we fail to get permission to shoot at the National Gallery where Tich has some paintings, I have to improvise. Sure, we filmed him at home, with his family, in his tiny room, hanging out with his sister and friends — but how can we show his art in a public space?

With two hours before sunset and a stack of Tich’s paintings in the bed of a pickup truck, I wander the grounds of Catholic Relief Services‘ compound in Bulawayo, hoping for inspiration. A driveway, a shed, a sidewalk . . . around back, there’s a stack of wooden paletts, and I have a vision.

30 minutes to build an art installation, ready go!!

Within minutes, I’ve grabbed our indefatigably positive driver Geofrey Mwedziwendira and with the claws of a well-worn hammer, we reduce a half-dozens pallets to their constituent 2x4s. Then we construct a simple two-tiered structure for 8-9 oil paintings. We leave gaps so when I shoot through the set-up, the art can be in the foreground and the three subjects behind.

Just in time for golden hour, we hang the final paintings and roll tape. I gently push and pull my Sachtler tripod along the Hollywood Dolly tracks, back and forth. Tich is in form, mentoring his art students, discussing each painting, musing about overcoming poverty, confident in his element. Having multiple paintings at eye level and all characters standing was key to creating an eyeline that worked. I flip the dolly to the other side, and the setting sun illuminates three hopeful faces. Another day in Zimbabwe.

The Boys . . .

I’m in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. Today, I’m spending time with four boys that have benefited from being part of Catholic Relief Service’s programs here. At first, they are reticent, eyes quiet and downturned. “Bonding” is penciled into the shooting schedule, so the boys start to feel comfortable before I start shadowing them with a camera. So that means . . . soccer! My old skills come in handy as we play a spirited game and I earn a little street cred with these little guys.

Nkosilathi is the oldest, the weight of his responsibility heavily apparent on his face. He’s 19, but has been raising his three brothers by himself since both of his parents died and an older sibling fled to South Africa — stressed by the chore.

Handsome is 14. His smile belies his status: orphan, absolutely poor. John is 12. He is second in his class. Nqobizitha is 9. He is short and slight as a 6 year old. Even saying his name requires a unique tongue clucking like from that movie The Gods Must be Crazy.

Their house is a concrete shack measuring about 10 feet by 8 feet. Without a bed, they sleep on the floor covered in blankets. Without a table, they eat with their hands from bowls resting on the floor. Without electricity, they’ve pirated a neighbor’s line via a wildcat cable.

But they have each other, newfound support from a local group, and things are looking up. Their spirit strengthens my resolve to do better in everything I do.

One Hundred Trillion Dollars

My client, Catholic Relief Services, has a few expats but overwhelmingly local hires. These Zimbabweans work long hours and face huge obstacles. In a difficult political situation, the economy crashed during the past decade. Hyperinflation means that everybody with savings lost everything. Imagine working for a lifetime, saving for old age, and then waking up to find out that your bank account holds worthless paper. One enterprising guy sells me a 100 trillion dollar Zimbabwean note. To buy bread or a Lion beer, it’s worthless, but for this guy it’s worth $5 today.

Zimbabwe shoot for Catholic Relief Services

 


Shooting in Zimbabwe means a lot of firsts for me. First time shooting in southern Africa, first time in Zimbabwe. We have a benign, but frequent police presence and were strictly limited to pre-approved locations. I’ve never had film subjects so keenly aware of the authorities. Undoubtedly, it’s the fresh memory of the 2008 post-election violence. Our home base was a Catholic school where I assume we could film nothing more provocative than noisy children — which skewered audio conditions for our interviews, but made us some friends.

Hats off to the Xirdalan Beer Appreciation Society

Just wrapped day 3 in Baku, which included three interviews and some fun broll about town — 13 hours in all, including a great dinner at Namli Kebap. (By the way, how is it that everywhere I go has its own website?). Dinner rocked with a selection of kebabs: lamb, spicy lamb, minced beef, and chicken; bulgar rice, an “improvised salad” (says my host) of aubergine, cucumber, and tomato (and yes, Azerbaijan’s rep as a place of super-fresh veggies is still intact). And is all went down smooth with the unremarkable, but smooth lager Xirdalan beer (which I was happy to discover has its own 10-member “FacebookBeer Appreciation Society.”) Well, now it has 11 !

LED Litepanels Deliver in Tight Interview Space


Despite the fact that I’m a one-man band here in Azerbaijan, I didn’t want to sacrifice quality. I have a local producer/interviewer and a translator, but I’m running camera (EX-1 @ 1080p30), audio, and lighting the whole kitten-kaboodle.

Given airline weight restrictions, I thought long and hard about what equipment to bring. I pared down my typical kit, and ended up with one small pelican (for the camera and fragile gear, including my 7” Sony HD field monitor); a shotgun case for the Sachtler tripod, 3 c-stands, and a well-wrapped Arri 1000k light; and a backpack for various grip/gaffer gear (the backpack went inside my checked-in suitcase).

Lighting was key. I didn’t know the locations in advance, so I needed to be flexible. For the Arri, I brought a chimera to soften it and an egg crate to reduce spill and focus the light.
I picked up a local dimmer with a 2k max, which would allow me to ramp the luminosity up and back. I also brought the lightweight LED Litepanel MicroPro, which doesn’t get hot, and is dimmable without changing the color temperature. I figured I’d use it for doc-style shooting in dark interiors or at night, or for interview fill.

This afternoon, my crew and I went to Deveci Broyler, an Azerbaijani poultry processing company. It was recently listed on the Azerbaijan stock exchange and accessed significant new capital, primarily because of its corporate governance reforms (Azerbaijani corporate governance is the topic of the film, and the client is the IFC, an arm of the World Bank Group). Well-dressed manager Elchin Abdullayev led us through a small, bustling office to his corner room. For the interview, I hoped to evoke a modern, corporate feel. Initially, I loved the glass office walls (“for transparency,” he quipped). The depth would help me throw the background out of focus! The only problem was that all the glass was reflecting everything around it—me, the producer, the lights. What to do?

I tried something new. I put the MicroPro on an arm extended from a c-stand, then literally suspended it 18 inches from my subject’s face, just out of frame. I never could have done this with a light that gave off heat. I removed the CTO filter, and really tweaked up the color temp toward a corporate blue. Since it’s powered with six batteries, voila, no cables. And the fact that colleagues were running in and out of offices in the background kept it real, showing the Manager in his element. The lighting on his face is more modeled than I would’ve preferred, but I gladly exchanged excessive facial contouring for the depth and interesting plays of light I was able to produce in the background.

Ultimately—and I never would’ve believed it—I lit this interview with a single tiny MicroPro LED light.

 

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