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Sundance 2018: Nothin’ but Docs!

Sundance is even better than I anticipated. I watched nine documentaries in three days, met a hero of mine, braved the cold, boxed for photos, and soaked up Main Street life in the snow.

Main Street, a little tomfoolery

I arrived Tuesday excited. Sundance is, after all, atop the pantheon of North American film festivals for documentaries, along with Tribeca, SXSW, Full Frame, New York Film Festival, True/False, and Hot Docs.

For years, I was hoping my first time would be with my own doc. Being invited to a festival with your film is awesome, because you mingle with other filmmakers and share your work with a live audience! When Volcanic Sprint played at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, it was unforgettable! And when Shattered Sky premiered at the DC Environmental Film Fest, it was the culmination of four years of passion, labor, and learning. It was epic.

But before I’m a filmmaker, I’m a huge fan of documentary, and now that I live in Los Angeles, it was just a hop over to Park City, Utah. I snapped up a cheap Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach and took an Uber to my AirBnB near downtown. 

Update: Here’s Sundance winners. Now, loosely in order of how I liked them, what I watched:

Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Lui, was the first film I took in, and my favorite. I like how it evolved from a buddy movie to a mystery to an indictment of toxic masculinity. Structurally, it’s some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. Much more than a skateboarding picture, Minding the Gap has really stuck with me. Just go watch it; I can’t do it justice in words.

America to Me is Steve James’ new 10-part episodic documentary series that was acquired by Starz for $5 million during the festival. In a feat of endurance and patience—which James himself alluded to jokingly, before, during, and after the 6-hour session—we watched the first five episodes. It was stellar, and to be honest I could’ve easily stayed another five hours to watch the final five episodes! Like you’d expect from a James production (he is the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), you get strong, authentic characters navigating issues of class and race. It was a huge pleasure to talk with James afterwards. When organizers kicked us out of the theater for the next screening, he invited us all to keep chatting nearby. No trace of self-importance, James took all questions and earnestly answered. Likeable, smart guy. Legendary documentary professional. This is why I love going to festivals.

With a hero of mine, Director Steve James

Shirkers is a one-of-a-kind entertaining documentary by Sandi Tan. It’s quirky first-person filmmaking at its best. In the early 1990s, Tan makes Singapore’s first indie flick, but then her mentor and professor steals the footage. More than 20 years later, she gets her hands on the footage again, which sends her on a journey of memory and belonging. Tan announces herself as a new voice.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the story of the global hip hop artist. It pieces together raw home movies revealing the vulnerable, ernest activist behind the famous star. I definitely would’ve liked to see more about how she became such an accomplished writer, beat-maker, and dancer, but that’s a credit to Director Steven Loveridge’s storytelling. The artist comes off as a very likable, normal person, with a big heart and a legitimate desire to help her people. I read in Billboard that M.I.A. wasn’t sure she liked the movie. Well, I like her a lot more now that I’ve seen it.

Kailash won the Sundance grand jury prize, but it wasn’t even in my top three. The issue it highlights is important (child slavery), and the film was very well done, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. But it’s hard to elevate hagiography, particularly when most of it is in the past tense. This was a solid and motivating film, but you sort of knew where it was going.

Hal celebrates the under-appreciated 1970s director Hal Ashby, who made 7 films in 9 years, including the enduring Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, and others. I really enjoyed this one.

Sundance featured a slew of documentaries. They seemed to fall into three categories. First, personal stories with strong points of view: Minding the Gap and Shirkers. Second, famous people doing big things: Kailash and Hal. Third, legendary filmmakers coming back to Sundance: America to Me.

I watched nine in three days, and was in hog heaven. I’m a little ashamed that every doc in this blog I gave four out of four stars! Hey, I’m not a critic: I’m a lover of documentaries!

See you next year!

Hamming it up with Michael Aisner, eating some Olomomo nuts between films …

Video Storytelling: Visual Primacy and the Hero’s Quest

I’m a lucky man. Yesterday, I got to talk about my two passions–documentary filmmaking and international development–as one of four panelists at the Society for International Development’s (SID) “Storytelling with Data” event in Washington, D.C.

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SID’s DC chapter aims to be a “global town square” by convening development professionals from across the spectrum. Since I make videos for international development organizations, they invited me.

I kicked things off by asking people about their favorite documentaries, just to signal that my talk would be interactive (People mentioned the documentaries of Jeff Orlowski, Jenifer Siebel Newsom, and Michael Moore).

Then I showed them the Dorst MediaWorks reel. I wanted us all on the same page about what I do: documentary-style videos, with a focus on beneficiaries whose lives are improving–who most often tell the story through their own voices.

 

After we watched the reel, I wanted people to walk a mile in my shoes. What’s my approach to telling stories?

So I introduced a USAID project, Lebanese Investment in Microfinance (LIM), that I was hired to produce some videos for.

 

When the Sky’s the Limit, Where’s Your Story Start?

In five years, LIM awarded about $10 million in grants to nine microfinance partners in Lebanon, who then made 14,000 micro-loans totaling more than $30 million to thousands of rural entrepreneurs across the country.

“So, if you’re in Lebanon to tell this story, where do you start?” I asked. I paused. Nothing. Talk about drowning in data! 14,000 loans?

“What do you film? Where do you start?” I smiled. And waited…

If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.

And then people began lobbing up ideas. “Successes and failures of the project,” one man offered. “Challenges the entrepreneurs faced,” said a woman up front. “Lives changed,” shouted somebody from the back.

Yes! For me, telling the Lebanese microfinance story meant that I needed to identify individuals who struggled against great odds and succeeded. I wanted to tell a character-based story that would show the benefits of the LIM program.

I spoke with Beirut-based program officers for IESC, USAID’s implementer. They helped me identify some possibilities and we narrowed it down from there.

Ultimately, I made three videos, about Hala’s Flower Shop, Sameer’s Cattle Business, and Rabih’s Fishing Business.

 

Rabbi’s Fishing Business

We watched the first minute of Rabih’s Fishing Business together. I wanted people to see how I approached the storytelling.

 

 

“What did you notice about the first minute of the video?” I asked.

One guy up front piped up immediately: “There’s nothing about microfinance or the project at all in the first minute.”

Exactly!

Then, we talked about two important storytelling pillars that often get lost when people make videos showing the good work of international organizations: The primacy of the visual and the importance of a hero’s quest.

 

Visual Primacy

I read somewhere that when we watch videos, what we remember is 80% visual.

Think about it: so many videomakers labor endlessly on crafting just the right narration or interview sound bites, but then fail to exercise such care when their editor slaps up some moderately relevant b-roll footage (a term I hate by the way).

As a result, viewers respond a thousand different ways, jumping to whatever vague or unrelated connotations these visuals inspire.

Or even worse, explainer videos or descendants of the (once innovative) Girl Effect require viewers to read, read, read like they’re at a PowerPoint convention.

No!

And that’s why so many short videos, particularly those cobbled together — without strong visual stories — make no impact. They are a waste of time and resources.

So back to Rabih. Who is he? Rabih is a fisherman who’s having trouble making ends meet, because he doesn’t own a boat and has to pay a lot to rent one. He gets a loan to buy a boat, then increases his income, which helps his family.

There were a lot of ideas from the extended project team about what I should shoot to tell this story: the microfinance institution, the training conferences that the microfinance lenders attended, and even the association of microfinance organizations that the project established.

I resisted.

I wanted a hero shot of Rabih and his boat to start the film. And that’s what I got.

For the first 10 seconds, there are no words. This is by design.

 

Rabih-Hero-Shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My opening here is a poor-man’s version of the kind of thing Alejandro Innárritu achieves to great effect in The Revenant. In one of these long takes, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) into a natural cave, into the water, with the camera floating around him, gradually revealing his surroundings, a frightening perspective.  (See the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)

If I was making a feature with Rabih, I’d choreograph his departure to play out in one take. But this is low-budget documentary-style video and Rabih really is fishing and he’s in a hurry. So, I started behind Rabih’s head to get his point of view, so the viewer could inhabit his world, if only for a moment.

When I’m editing, I like to turn down the volume and see if the video is telling the story visually. That’s the ultimate test. This opening passes that test.

 

A Hero’s Quest

We connect with people with authentic passion.

I didn’t understand a word of Rabih’s interview, because it was in Arabic. But when I got the translated transcript a few days after meeting him, I absolutely loved what he said: “Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been a son of the sea … I saw fishermen and discovered my passion.”

These words vibed 100% with the commitment, agency, and persistence that I witnessed through my camera lens.

Who’s not immediately intrigued by an individual who is so passionate about what they do?

Then the whammy. A text block: “Today, Rabih will pay more than half his earnings to the boat owner.”

This is a BIG problem in need of a solution.

Voila! This explains why USAID established the microfinance project in the first place.

If you remember one thing, take this with you: In your storytelling, first establish the person and passion, then the problem. Otherwise, nobody cares.

Viewers can try to care. We all try to care about issues and their resolution. Rural poverty in Lebanon is an important issue. Yes.

But here, in a minute, is the power of story. The sort that goes straight to the heart, not the head.

We meet Rabih pre-dawn. We join him on his boat and learn of his lifelong passion to be a successful fisherman. We don’t have to try to care. We care, instinctively. Call it empathy. But its the storytelling gene built into us, refined over millennia.

As a result,  we’re invested in a solution.

As the video unfolds, we meet Rabih’s microfinance loan officer and Rabih’s family. We see Rabih sell his fish at the market. His world gets a big bigger and we understand it a bit more. By the end, as Rabih is tidying up his boat at dusk, we learn that his dream is to buy a larger boat and grow his business.

His life is improving and the USAID project is part of it.

This is the hope and the promise of international development. Rabih embodies this success story. Strong visuals and Rabih’s passionate quest to succeed help us care.

 

Also on the Panel …

Dani Clark works in communications at the World Bank. Turns out Dani also blogs at Medium, where she’s currently writing a gripping true-crime serial about a Texas man on death row. I started the first one last night and couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.

Kunle Badmus owns Kowree, a start-up technology firm aimed at helping African governments and businesses access opinions of their citizens and customers. Its’ true innovation is simplifying the feedback loop for improved communications and performance.

Allen Carrol gave a riveting introduction to Story Maps, a browser-based interactive storytelling platform that lets you combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content. For a visual person like me—who’s always looking for new and better ways to distribute video—I’m excited about the insane potential of Story Maps and can’t wait to start using it.

Thanks to Kenlee Ray and Riccardo de Marchi Trevisan for organizing the event (check out the Society for International Development’s DC chapter on Facebook). Stimulating event. Good times.

Flying the Phantom 4 in Senegal: 9 Reflections from the Trip

 

I flew the DJI Phantom 4 in Dakar, Senegal last week. Over a mosque, through a statue, hovering near curious children. It was a great experience and really elevated the production values of my international development video. This was my first trip to Senegal, but my 20th trip overseas to make a video for an international development organization, with my company Dorst MediaWorks.

Since I just bought the Phantom 4 last month and this was my first project using it, I wanted to share nine reflections from the trip.

 

1. Cinematic, yes

Bottom line, aerial shots take it to the next level. I’ve filmed in a lot of places in a lot of conditions, but I got truly excited when I put the Phantom 100 meters in the sky and started filming. Brilliant moving pictures.

 

2. Client love

At the first review session, my client loved the aerial footage. It was all they wanted to talk about. I spent 90% of my production days earthbound, shooting interviews and following characters, but the aerials garnered all the attention!

 

3. Content is still king

img_8173I was in Dakar to tell the story of how a newly renovated container terminal has helped Senegal’s economy, and how a unit of the World Bank helped make it a possibility. It’s a typical project for me, since I specialize in making videos for international development organizations, like subcontractors for USAID or partners of the World Bank Group. I bought the Phantom 4 because I knew it would be hard to show the sheer scale of operations from the ground—humongous cranes, massive containers flying through the air, rows of stacked containers. The copter was the perfect tool. If, by contrast, the story had been about an education project, the most I could have expected out of the copter would have been some transition shots. But on this gig, the Phantom gave pictures that were absolutely essential to the storytelling.

Here’s the finished film for the unit of the World Bank Group, MIGA:

 

4. Mohamed, thanks

img_8196Unit Producer Mohamed Srour was great. A white guy in West Africa already gets a lot of attention. Throw in camera equipment and a drone, and you get very curious crowds! Flying a drone in Africa is a magnet for attention. Mohamed has been plying his craft for almost 30 years and was a joy to work with. He allowed me to focus on the creative. If you ever need a fixer in Senegal, give him a shout: 011 221 776300208

 

 

5. Safety first

steve-beach-dakarIt was school vacation in Senegal, so loads of children were out playing during the day. Mohamed led us to some well-known spots to fly the drone, including the Mosque de Oukama. As soon as I sent the copter up, boys immediately started gathering around. I was glued to the DJI app on my phone, busy piloting, so the first time I looked up there were 30 boys crowded around me. As the sun set, the Phantom was about 300 meters west over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the app started beeping: the battery was running out! Even though I was pressed to land the thing immediately, I had the presence of mind to ask Mohamed to clear a safe landing area — the rotating blades can be very dangerous. Almost as soon as the Phantom landed on the sand, the envelope closed and all the boys crowded in again. We took a few photos, I high-fived everybody, and we wrapped for the evening.

 

6. Geofencing, ugh

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-3-20-49-pmThis version of the Phantom has geofencing built in. I guess drunk guys flying drones onto the White House grounds didn’t help. The good news is that people can’t fly copters into the paths of airplanes. The bad news is that I can’t fly the thing in Arlington, Virginia where I live — or anywhere within an approximate 20-mile radius of the White House (that’s the big red circle).  I can’t even take off. What surprised me was that in Dakar, there was similar geofencing around the airport there. DJI calls it a Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which is continually updated and also includes other sensitive areas like prisons, power plants, major stadium events, etc. Good idea, but bad news if you just want to practice flying at the local park and you’re too close to a no-fly zone. Like me.

 

7. So Easy!

I bought the Phantom 1 when it came out in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a gimbal and the GoPro I rigged up yielded shaky, unusable footage. But on the plus side, I became a proficient pilot. So when Red Bull hired me to direct a few episodes for a TV series, I flew the Phantom 2 Vision Plus: in Portland, Oregon and the Florida Keys. Then I got hired to operate camera for a PBS documentary in Jamestown, Virginia and I also flew there. But I hadn’t flown a Phantom for about 18 months when I got this Senegal gig. Yet it is so easy to operate that I had no problems at all.

 

8. Great value

I spent $1,600 at Adorama for the DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter Aircraft With Pro accessory Bundle. This costs less than a Canon 70-200mm lens; less than a tripod; even less than my trusty Litepanel 1×1 I take everywhere! At this price, the Phantom 4 is a great value.

 

9. Just fly!

The Dakar story about the container terminal took me to a company that imports most of its product from Europe. I wanted to illustrate how a company became more profitable now that the container terminal is more efficient. “Time is money,” said the project manager in English (even though he speaks only French and Wolof!), which was exactly what I was hoping to hear. After the interview and some b-roll, I got out the Phantom (I always do it last in case people object). I figured I’d get a quick establishing shot and call it a day.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-5-54-10-pmSuddenly, something special happened. The laborers went into hyper drive. With the copter overhead, I was able to see what I couldn’t see from the ground — they were all loading and unloading gas tanks in three independent dynamic assembly lines! Immediately, I lowered the copter to the far right of the scene and piloted a slow push left over a truck (see 00:12 – 00:23 in the video above). In one take, I was able to capture a beehive of activity that illustrated the project manager’s quotes perfectly. It was my favorite shot of the trip.

For more on the history of the DJI Phantom.

The History Of The DJI Phantom

From Ryan Lochte to Ashton Eaton: 8 Things I Learned at the Olympics

Until last month, my best Olympic memory was this: While in college in 1992 I traveled across Europe for a summer. In Barcelona, I splurged on Olympic track and field tickets for my 21st birthday. Sunshine, world-class runners, and … Evander Holyfield? What was he doing in the cheap seats? I have this enduring memory of sitting behind the boxing champ all day, surprised he had itty-bitty calves in comparison to his hulking upper body.

Then Rio happened.

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Self-portrait, Ipanema Beach

In my opinion, Brazil pulled it off. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Rio buzzed with Olympic spirit, and I saw Neymar, Simone Biles, Matthew Centrowitz and hundreds of other elite athletes doing what they do best.

The experience made me realize a few things along the way:

1. Make Up Your Own Mind

I arrived on high alert. How could I not? The negative news was relentless. I mean, just type “Rio Olympic problems” into Google and you get 26 million results: Zika, unsafe water, crime, corruption. Sure, Brazil was going through an unprecedented political crisis and their worst recession in a century. But, during my week in Rio, the Olympics went off great. Transportation was excellent. The metro was cleaner and faster than the DC metro in some cases. Volunteers were all over the place, affable and helpful. Crime wasn’t an issue, for me. Oh yeah, and nobody got Zika. Oops! Makes me wonder why our media was so down on Brazil. For me, it verged on some sort of implicit editorial prejudice against a poorer country. Journalists simply didn’t get the green light to expose London’s pockets of squalor and rampant inequality in 2012. But this year, they had free reign to hate on Rio. My take-away: be skeptical of what you read. And then make up your own mind.

 

2. Choose Your Corner: Lochte, Trump … or Not

On a daily basis, people wanted to engage with m on Trump. Not just Brazilians. Everybody. I don’t blame them. He’s fascinating, a Narcissistic blowhard without a censor mechanism. This was different than the years of Bush Junior, whom I felt I needed to defend to some degree, since dismissing him outright felt like dismissing American Democracy (since we voted him in twice and our Congress authorized the Iraq invasion). Trump ain’t elected. Yes, the Republican Party is broken for selecting him. No, he won’t be elected. No, he doesn’t represent America, our policies, our values. That felt great to say. Liberating. Now let’s go drink a beer.

But then Ryan Lochte happened. My first instinct was guilt. An American Abroad Behaving Badly. But then I had a Liberating Trump Moment. I don’t know Ryan Lochte. He doesn’t stand for me. In fact, he’s not representative of Americans abroad or American athletes at all. He’s one guy (here’s a complete timeline of Locate’s imaginative story). But he does have a supreme talent for accidental humor.

 

3. Fresh is Best: Açai!

img_7670If I could snap my fingers and import one thing from Rio today, it would be Brazil’s culture of fresh fruit juice. Every morning, I bought an açai bowl from one of my favorite corner juice joints in Ipanema: Polis Sucos or Big Nectar. My favorite: acai, with banana, strawberry, and granola mixed in. Yes, the food was great. And I was fortunate to have several friends who live in Rio who took me to their favorite places and introduced me to all the local delights—churrasco, feijoada, moqueca do camarao—but my favorite: açai and the fruit juices!

 

4. Even Elites Seek Mentors

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Ashton Eaton walks to the stands to talk with his coach

At track and field, we had tickets up top. But the Brazilians weren’t checking tickets, so we wasted no time boogying down to ground level … about 10 rows behind a group of Olympic coaches. The men’s decathlon was in full swing, namely the discus. When
defending Gold Medalist Ashton Eaton walked over to us the first time, I could almost hear his conversation with Coach Harry Marra. Eaton listened intently. It was impressive. Here was the best athlete in the world—maybe the best decathlete in history—and he could have relied solely on experience, technique, or mental focus. But he chose to connect with his coach after every throw. It made him stronger.

 

 

5. Know the Rules of Your Game

That same morning, my heart sunk during the qualifying round of the Women’s 4x100m relay when Allyson Felix dropped the baton. Disqualified! I was crushed. What I didn’t know—and wouldn’t learn until dinner with friends later that night—was that she had been bumped by the Brazilian runner next to her. The team filed an appeal with the IAAF and got a second chance, qualifying for a chance to win the gold, which it did. Great summary here.

 

6. Stay Determined

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This street performer hammed it up for loose change. That was cool, until he kissed me on the cheek. Here I am, seconds after …

This one is more Brazil and less Olympics. Everywhere you go, commerce comes to you: on the beach, in the metro, at red lights. Men and women selling everything from candy bars to drinks to clothes—and all manner of random chochkies. Having lived in Cameroon, I got used to this sort of thing long ago. Here in Rio, the traveling salesmen weren’t aggressive. Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty in Brazil, but these people were doing their best to get ahead. They deserved as much respect as the guy with the desk job or the woman driving a bus. Did I want a tablecloth at the beach? No. But was I known to buy Kit Kats on the metro en route to Olympic events. Yes!

 

 

7. Golf no Bueno

Golf is an Olympic newcomer. But apparently, golf’s elite didn’t get the memo. The top-4 golfers in the world—Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson didn’t go. And 8 of the top-20 golfers in the world didn’t think it was worth their time. Most cited img_3671the “threat” of zika, but it was clear they didn’t respect the Olympics. Why should they? They get more money and prestige winning any number of other tournaments around the world: the British Open, the Masters, the US Open, and so on. At last May’s Players Championship, a golfer named Retief Goosen placed 15th and still earned $212,625. I propose that sports with mature, commercialized, global leagues—such as golf and tennis—take their Olympic cue from Men’s Soccer, which is largely an under-23 endeavor. That way, the Olympics can maintain its self-respect in every sport it allows in. The LA Times disagrees, but it doesn’t seem right when the best don’t come to play.

8. Run Your Own Race

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Centrowitz, moments after his gold-medal run.

It was a cool Saturday evening at the Olympic Stadium and I didn’t hold out much hope for Matthew Centrowitz. Sure, I saw the American 1,500m runner qualify during our Olympic Trials and vaguely knew he grew up somewhere near Washington, D.C. But Americans don’t win distance events, right? An American hadn’t won gold in the 1,500m since 1908. Yes, Centrowitz got 4th in London, but at the starting line Ethiopian and Kenya runners predominated, including Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic winner and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic winner. The gun fires! The first lap is slow at 66 seconds. And the second lap is even slower at 70 seconds. It is the pace of a high-school mile! Centrowitz, in the lead, seems to be conserving his energy for the final sprint, and nobody is calling his bluff. At the bell lap, with the runners still in a tight pack, the pace ratchets up, and Kiprop finds himself in 9th place with no choice but to sprint up the outside—burning a lot of matches just to make it up to Centrowitz’s shoulder. Watch the last lap: it’s incredible. It’s more like a battle—elbows flying, runners tripping, all fighting for position since position means victory. In the lead, Centrowitz is protected from all that. It’s like he’s running in a vacuum. His own race. At no point does he appear to “start a sprint,” or look around, or even alter his exquisite form in any way. On the homestretch, he maintains form all the way, and amidst an absolutely insane crowd screaming bloody murder—including me—he’s the first to cross the line. Gold! Centrowitz’s last lap is a sprinter’s pace—50 seconds. He looked around as if utterly shocked. His father, in the stands, literally loses his mind! After the victory, Centrowitz the Younger says: “I came into this championships with a different mind-set. Thought to myself, I’m in great shape. Just run to my capability . . . It was about being the best I could be on this day.” Centrowitz never let the chaos behind him dictate his strategy. He ran, and won, his own race.

Sarajevo Shoot: International Development Video

When I touch down in Sarajevo for a film shoot for a World Bank Group project, I‘m mindful that this Olympic city suffered through the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare – 1,425 days long.

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This bridge is Šeher-Ćehajina ćuprija.

I’m here to make a video for an international development organization, but all I can think about is the Bosnian War, which ended 21 years ago. My driver, Chola, doesn’t have to point out the bullet holes pockmarking the exposed facades along the Miljacka River. When I learn he was Bosnian special forces, I imagine how these streets, for him, are more than just a vehicular grid. Buildings are tactical. They block artillery fire. Perhaps on this corner he lost a fellow soldier; or on that one, he returned fire.

Even two decades removed, how do you shake off war and just drive a car?

And how do you grow up in Yugoslavian brand of Communism, brave a four-year war, and then transition to capitalism on the margins of Europe?

This is running through my head as I load four pelican cases of video equipment in Chola’s car. Sarajevo has a long history as a cosmopolitan city, but post-war identity politics seem to be delaying the country’s pivot to Europe. It’s not like Bosnia isn’t capable. After all, in 1981, Sarajevo’s GDP was 133% the Yugoslav average. In 1984, it hosted the Winter Olympics. Moreover, during Communist days (pre-1992), Bosnia had a significant industrial base – all state-run of course. But since then, the country has had a hard time adapting to a market economy.

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That’s why I’m here: to help with that transition. Dorst MediaWorks makes videos for international development organizations. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) hired me to chronicle a project of its Corporate Governance unit, which works with a local organization to help improve local companies’ corporate governance (Watch films I made for the same group in Colombia and Egypt).

What is corporate governance? It’s the processes and structures by which companies are directed and controlled. Here in Bosnia, most companies are young, family businesses. They lack formal structures, such as independent boards, defined succession planning, and other hallmarks of larger companies. As a result, they find it difficult to access capital and grow regionally and internationally.

We’re heading east of town now on a winding road to film a small-business owner. He’s operating out of the renovated site of a Bosnian weapons armory. Amila, a confident, bilingual staffer at the IFC is my Unit Producer for these three days. It’s May and it’s raining, and Amila calmly reconfigures our shooting schedule to accommodate my obsession with rare patches of sunshine.

We arrive at the business and I unpack. I’m excited to be using my new Sony FS7 abroad for the first time. I’m looking forward to putting it through its paces, and plan to do a full blog post later about how much I loved using it!

From a work perspective, my two days in Sarajevo and one day in Banja Luka are a success.

bosnia3Personally, my absolute favorite part of my job is coming into contact with different cultures: meeting people, listening to their music, eating their food, learning about their hopes and fears, politics and history.

Sarajevo’s Old City is a joy. Much of it is a pedestrian zone, with small shops, ancient structures, a natural habitat for a coffee culture. I emerge at Vijecnica, which is both a library and City Hall. Fire-bombed by the Serbs during the war, it is recently rebuilt. Nearby, I stumble upon the Latin Bridge, where 102 years ago, a young Serb nationalist shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand—and launched World War I. I meander up through parks and by mosques. Hungry, I stop for a hladno pivo (cold beer) and a cevapi (pita bread stuffed with grilled meat).

Back at my hotel, the day’s footage is definitely done cloning. It’s time to string out the interviews and upload an MP3 for the transcription service. I hope jet lag doesn’t keep me up too long tonight. And I’m praying for sunshine tomorrow.

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I’m in good hands with Chola and Amila. Great work team!

Dorst MediaWorks’ Aerial Act: Flying the Phantom 2 Vision +

photoCopterI’ve flown the Phantom 2 Vision + in some historical, challenging, and fun locations during the last two months. I wanted to report what I learned—including one harrowing mission in the old-growth forests of Portland, Oregon.

Dorst MediaWorks is a video production company in Washington, D.C.  but our clients often send us around the country and internationally as well. So far, the Phantom is delivering on its promise to capture smooth shots that amps up the production values of our work!

First, I’ll cut to the chase. For the price, the Phantom 2 is a great value. It’s about $1,500 once you get a pelican case and a few extra batteries. Buy it, you’ll pay it off in one or two gigs.

I got the Phantom 1 when it came out a few years ago. I flew it a lot, and got the hang of it. Then I mounted a GoPro on it. But my footage was never good enough to include in a broadcast. It wasn’t ready for prime time.

But give credit to DJI. They improved the Phantom 2 Vision + in several major ways: (1) The 3-axis gimbal makes for very smooth footage; (2) the integrated camera keeps it simple; (3) the new and improved battery lasts longer (only count on 20 minutes rather than the advertised 25); and (4) the DJI Vision app allows you to watch what you’re filming on your iPhone (mounted on the included smartphone holder). You can also adjust the angle of the camera mid-flight!

In mid-September, I landed in Miami to direct a shoot for the new Red Bull Channel. Because our flight was delayed, I didn’t arrive in Key West until around 2am. The next morning, our call time was 6am, and my soundman handed me a new Phantom 2 box. In this sleep-deprived state, I put together the copter on set.

I was scared out of my mind of crashing the copter within the first few minutes in the Atlantic, but somehow I kept it dry and out of trouble and captured a few establishing aerial shots for the show:

The next week, Story House Production hired me to DP a shoot for PBS in Jamestown, Virginia. The fascinating thing about the documentary is that recent forensic archeology suggests cannibalism took place here during a particularly desperate winter in America’s earliest settlement.

A week later, I got the call by Red Bull to do another show in Portland, Oregon. This time, I’d be following an extreme arborist, who does his thing hundreds of feet in the air.

We trekked into Portland’s Audubon Sanctuary, which has some tremendous old-growth trees. We wanted to show what an expert tree climber this guy is and how he spans from tree to tree in the canopy! The problem running a copter here is that it’s so dense that you can’t get a single satellite—much less the six that the Phantom requires to fly steadily!

For the first two hours, we captured footage with our A-Camera and the GoPros. I was trying to convince myself we’d get enough coverage without the copter. After all, there was only an extremely tiny window of opportunity to take the copter up to the 250-foot level above the trees. I’d have to launch it without satellites, through a 10-foot opening. If I failed, the copter would crash and die. But without the footage canpoy footage, we wouldn’t have a full visual story. . .

Last week, I was in Hong Kong, and captured some stuff there. Just like the trees in Portland, the skyscrapers interrupted the satellite coverage. Only when I got the Phantom up to about 15 stories did it stop acting whacky and start to triangulate the satellite signals. This was something I learned—rarely am I flying in an open field. And when you’re flying the Phantom around obstacles, it pays to be careful.

Keep the copter alive to live to fly another day!

 

Directing for Red Bull in Hong Kong

shrimp chorizoThis shrimp chorizo burger in Hong Kong’s K-Town Bar and Grill in Kennedy Town was $28. Yowza!

I’m used to traveling the world to make videos for international development organizations, but this time around I’m in one of the most expensive cities around. I’m here to direct and produce an episode for a series on the new Red Bull Channel, hired by Story House, a production company with offices in Berlin, Halifax, and Washington, D.C.

On the team are DP Paul McCurdy, who’s wielding the C300 and a Red Epic on the Ronin for slow-motion. Our soundman is Mark Roberts, who’s on top of everything and nice to boot. When David Chung is not fixing for us, he runs his own local production company, Lemonade and Giggles. David captured this:

We get a lot of coverage on our first day. In addition to directing, I’m also running second camera. I’ve been trying to get better at the Glidecam, and I was really happy with it today. It gave me a lot of options for smoothly following the action. And when I needed to lock down or get a stable interview, I just set it down or balanced it on my belt. Here’s a little clip following our protagonists down some windy stairs and along a sidewalk — something that would have been too bouncy to even consider trying without the Glidecam. Check out the banyan tree roots that stretch for 40 or 50 feet down the sheer rock wall. Amazing!

I’m interested in experimenting with the Glidecam in other situations where you’d never dare filming on the move. Like following trail runners bouldering over the rocky Billy Goat Trail in DC, or other outdoor stuff.

I’m not sure if Red Bull will become the new ESPN, but this story’s going to be a good one!

St. George Slays the Injera

bira_logo_georgeIf you’re a butcher, don’t open up shop in Ethiopia—the country is fasting.

For most, this means not eating meat or dairy. They fast for Lent, which seems to go on longer than normal. And people fast Fridays. And Wednesdays. And yes, there are other prophets, and people fast for them too.

I’m no a food critic. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I run Dorst MediaWorks. We make videos for international development organizations. This time, I’m here to make videos for USAID projects.

It’s my first day in Addis Ababa, and the fasting explains why my unit producer, Addis Alemayehou, is angry.

Or maybe that’s because he picked this week to quit smoking.

In any case, Addis (the man, not the city) looks like he can take it, so I rub it in: “This injera with spicy beef is pretty darn good,” I grin, still baffled that meat is literally off the table 200 days a year.

1 addis food

 

Addis heads 251 Communications, a local PR and business facilitation outfit that’s riding the crest of Ethiopia’s economic boom. He’s also the former Chief of Party of a successful USAID project (I’m here to tell the story of how it made a difference). Addis grew up in Canada, is whip smart, and seems like the perfect bridge for a dynamic Ethiopia looking to nail down new markets.

During the next five days, I film different entrepreneurs and their businesses. They’re in different sectors—apparel, shoes, handicrafts, tourism—but all have benefited from USAID support, mostly in the form of technical advice to improve their production processes and “export-readiness,” as well as trips to U.S. trade shows. As a result, they’ve increased exports to the U.S., grown their revenue, and hired more people. My client is IESC.

The second night, Addis takes me to Yod Abyssinia, which is part restaurant, part cabaret. I join a gaggle of expats and friends who are enjoying local music and dance. In what is swiftly becoming a trend, I eat more injera. I try Meta beer.

Meta is supposedly the upscale beer, but I prefer St. George. It’s an unassuming light lager, like 90% of beers in Africa. The way it slays your thirst after a bite of injera and spicy beef is like a Miller Lite washing down a Ben’s Chili dog at Nats Stadium on a sweltering DC afternoon. It quenches, it doesn’t inebriate (suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of this rating of Ethiopian beers).

The next morning, I film another business. Sara is an ambitious entrepreneur who’s taken her company from a domestic firm with seven employees to a 300-person firm that supplies the Gap. Here’s the final video on that one:

My driver is the genial Kirubel Melaku, and his van I dub “Big Red.” It looks like somebody dipped Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine in a red bath. It sports red carpet on the ceilings. Need I say more?

Big red

Outside of Addis, the country gets poor and hardscrabble pretty fast. It’s the dry season, and dust whips across fields and covers the highway. A pack of gaunt horses assembles on the highway median, inches from speeding vehicles—it’s the only place with wind, explains Kirubel, so bugs bother the horses less.

Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm.

We fit in an afternoon of b-roll footage, and I find myself shooting in Trinity Church. There, in all my beady-eyes reverence, I’m at the grave of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.

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Lots of buildings are going up. Outside the city, there are scores of roadside scaffolding shops. Long, young denuded trees are stacked and bundled, ready for transport to urban construction sites, where workers will scale the fragile trellises. My only thought is that if Ethiopia doesn’t stop using trees for scaffolding soon, there won’t be a tree left in the country.

Last year, Kiru drove Bono around when he visited Ethiopia, and he shows me pictures. Cool! Another European passenger downloaded the Billboard Top 100 on Kiru’s phone. That explains why, as we crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I put Pharrell’s Get Lucky on loop. Somehow, it fits.

The Chinese are everywhere. The largest shoe factory, the largest steel factory, building the largest highway—trucks and motorcycles and phones. I wonder if the Chinese write stuff about us on their blogs: 美国人到处都是。最大的汉堡包特许经营店,含糖的可乐类饮料,最糟糕的不合身的运动服。和美国的游客大声,脂肪和忘却。

By the third day, I realize I can’t say a single word in Amharic. It’s not for lack of trying, but honestly, it’s incredibly opaque. No cognates, nothing to hang on to! The whole day I’m trying to learn something, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

Suddenly, I have the most bizarre synapse and am saying “thank you” without a hitch. “Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm. It’s odd, but it works!

All in all, the people I meet are bright and friendly. And especially going there on the heels of a film trip to locked-down Kabul, Addis is literally a breath of cultural fresh air!

I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.

Finally, no dispatch from Addis Ababa would be complete without a knock-down drag-out darts competition with a dozen locals at a German pub:

Darts, dance, beer, injera. A couple new friends and a dynamic city. Despite the fasting, I’m all ready to go back!

International Development Video: Shooting in Afghanistan

ABADE-1120As I take my first steps on Afghan soil for a 10-day film shoot, I can’t shake the knowledge that the Taliban just launched their spring offensive.

I’m walking the gauntlet, a no-man’s-land, since Kabul airport doesn’t seem to permit cars anywhere near it (fewer bomb threats?). So under an intense sun, I push my cart stacked with video equipment for four city blocks to an awaiting armored SUV.

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Kabul Airport, jetlagged, and trying to take it all in

I’m here to make some international development videos for a subcontractor of USDA (since 2004, my company Dorst MediaWorks has made videos for international development organizations). It’s my 11th country in the last four years, but I’ve clearly underestimated Kabul.

I move into what people call a villa, but what’s really a walled compound. Like a prison. It has 10 armed guards on duty at any one time—a UK ex-special forces type and nine locals. When I go out, it’s in an “armored” with an armed guard. We get security briefings every morning, don’t leave the villa except to work, and return home before nightfall.

My friend Joe, a USAID veteran, skypes me several times from the States—most likely to give me a pep talk . But I don’t answer. For some reason, I don’t want any more context than what I have in front of my own two eyes. It’s verging on overwhelming. 

“[A]pproaching a checkpoint outside of Kabul, a soldier bangs violently on our window. We stop. My heart’s pounding.”

My job is to make some short documentaries about a successful USDA project, CBCMP, that is improving how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture functions. It’s a capacity building project. In a country where more than 70% of the population derives some or all of their income from the agricultural sector, it’s important work. If farmers are more successful, the thinking goes, there’ll be less poverty, less opium, and perhaps a weaker Taliban.

Editor’s note: Check out the final videos in this YouTube playlist, “Afghanistan: Agricultural Capacity for USDA and IESC”

The first shoot day, I can barely open the SUV door it’s so heavy (bullet-proof glass, armor). Kabul is crowded, dry as dirt, and framed by the most imposing snow-capped mountains I’ve ever seen. Hardscrabble stone homes, etched into the mountainsides, snake to impossible heights—overshadowing my memories of Rio’s favelas (my blog post from Brazil).

I run all the creative—directing, shooting, audio, and lights. I have a series of young men serve as my unit producers, ushering me around, asking questions in interviews, and making sure I don’t commit any cultural gaffes (“don’t look at any women,” one says the first day). They are smart, dress in Western clothes, and I get along well with all of them, especially Najib Siawash.

najib
Najib is great to work with.

Interviews are in English or Dari. I’ve just conducted a bunch of Arabic interviews in Lebanon (Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon) and will soon head off to Ethiopia where we’ll do Amharic. I start reflecting on all the interesting languages I’ve filmed recently: Meru in Kenya (Directing in Kenya . . .), Russian and Azeri in Azerbaijan, Tagalog in the Philippines, and lots of Spanish.

I think about how I love the documentary process, how at its best it can be respectful and authentic. I think about how in the edit, I’ll use people’s voices rather than narration or dubbing, and how this makes all the difference.

Hardscrabble stone homes, etched into the mountainsides, snake to impossible heights

After a few days, I’m fed up with filming government workers in government buildings, so I insist (again) on a day filming some farmers. With the security situation, it takes an act of Congress to find common ground between the local Deputy Chief of Party (“let’s go to Jalalabad!”) and the hardcore UK special forces guy (who prohibits travel anywhere).

So the next day we set off for some farms on the outskirts of Kabul. Looking around on the drive, I never get over how men dominate every public space. It’s like aliens abducted the women. In some commercial districts, we pass literally thousands upon thousands of men and boys, without seeing more than a handful of women.

For the next week, I have a dozen conversations with both locals and expat aid workers about the absence of women in the public sphere. It’s like I’m obsessed the way I keep bringing it up, but I do a good job being sensitive and listening. I never can escape a deep conviction that half of the population is being shut out of jobs, opportunity, and personal liberty.

So I film some women farmers, some of whom are wearing a blue full-body chador, or burqua. Afterwards, Najib takes my iPhone and starts snapping, including this odd video:

On the way back, approaching a checkpoint outside of Kabul, a soldier bangs violently on our window. We stop. My heart’s pounding. I have my camera rig on my lap and a hundred scenarios run through my mind, the least of which is the camera get confiscated.

I never get over how men dominate every public space. It’s like aliens abducted the women.

The driver unlocks the doors. The military guy sticks his face in the back seat, two inches from mine . . . and breaks into a huge smile. He leans back a touch, and over his rifle, he stretches out his right hand. Before I realize it, I’m grasping it in in a big friendly handshake. The soldier breaks out in his native Dari, then as quick as he appeared, he’s gone.

Najib translate: “Sorry to stop you, I thought you were my friend!”

Apparently, I look like Afghans who come from the Panjshir Province. What’s more, Afghanistan’s greatest national hero, Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” hails from there. He was assassinated two days before 9/11, and he is celebrated here on a national holiday called “Massoud Day.”

look alike
Never thought I looked so Afghan . . .

Now that I’m home, I follow the news with renewed interest. Today, the Tailban attacked an election office. Last week, gunmen indiscriminately shot women and children at the Serena Hotel. I hope against hope that next week’s election will go off peacefully, bringing to power a new President who can quell the violence and move Afghanistan in the right direction.

Leading a Photography Workshop in Kabul

IMG_0120-smallWow, what fun! I really didn’t expect to have such a blast leading a photography workshop for local Afghan staff of a USAID project.

I was already on location to make some capacity building videos about a successful USDA project, CBCMP, that is improving how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture functions. That’s a typical assignment for me: making videos for international development organizations. (Check out the YouTube playlist with the final videos; and my blog post).

But the photography is a rare treat. In addition to the workshop, I visited five companies to take photos of their work.

ABADE is a $105 million USAID project that offers technical assistance and business advisory services to Afghan companies on the rise. It stands for Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises.

 

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Twelve staff joined, from as far away as Herat and Mazar. Most work in Kabul. All of them have other primary jobs—from program coordinators to monitors to engineers. But they had one thing in common: they wanted to learn how to take better photos (event organized by the incomparable Che Cuspero, ABADE’s Communications Manager).

The questions were great. I stayed practical. Most would be sharing the project’s only camera—the Canon 650D—so our conversation revolved around how to better use this camera. We covered camera fundamentals—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Then we talked about how to approach a scene better prepared, with a checklist of what to shoot. Finally, we analyzed a bunch of photos together—which showed how much the group had learned.

Thanks everybody for the interactive session! Great to meet you Yama, Bibidil, Elham, Kabul, Abid, Ibrahim, Mochtar, Boya, Wais, Abdullah, Toor, Obaid, and Nasir.

Stay in touch! And keep taking photos!

C100 rig: My love-hate affair . . . mostly love

steve-kabul-cameraI just wrapped a three-country shoot—in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—using my new Canon C100 rig for the first time, so I wanted to report on the pros and cons.

When I first considered the C100, I wanted the beautiful pictures that my Canon 5D Mark III gives, while addressing the 5D’s main limitations: no sync sound, not good handheld (too shaky), no built-in ND, and short record times.

 

Putting together the kit

 

In a dream world, I’d throw down some trust-fund cash on the Arri Amira with some compact Fujinon zoom lenses, the Cabrio T2.9 18-90mm and the Cabrio T2.9 85-300mm.

But currently my business is more documentary stuff, where I direct, produce, and frequently (but not always) shoot. At this point of my career, I can’t bill top dollar for my camera like a dedicated commercial DP might.

So while a lot of my friends are investing in the C300, it was off the table for me (at $14k for the body alone). The more I researched and talked with friends, the more I realized I’d need a ton of accessories to make the C100 operational. I got some good advice from Brooklyn-based DP/Producer Cameron Hickey. And fortunately, I worked with Jessica at Abel Cine to put it together (full rig specs below). Full price tag was around $9k.

 

 

When I travel, I break down the C100 rig to its 23 (!!) component parts. The first few times I put it together, it took forever. These days, it takes about 15 minutes. I keep it assembled the entire shoot.

 

Verdict: A hate-love affair . . . mostly love

 

I shot for five days each in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia—three very different places. I definitely grew more accustomed every day, and am happy with the quality of its pictures at a good value—with one glaring exception, as I’ll describe below.

I shot 1920×1080 24fps, capturing ProRes to the external Atamos Samurai, which solves the AVCHD codec issue that people complain about. I used the two lenses I already had for the 5D—the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 and the Canon 24-105mm IS 4.0.

Here’s an interview set up in Kabul (and a still of the resulting footage) and an interview set-up in Addis Ababa. I was happy with what the C100 (and 2.8 lens) did. In Addis, we were shooting at a textile factory, where every indoor location was loud with people and machines, and every outdoor location was loud with traffic from the nearby highway. The only quiet space was the storage warehouse. I used natural light for the key and reflected back gold. It turned out great!

 

 

My C100 rig: the good

 

So, with no attempt to be official, here are some first impressions.

Image quality: The clear winning edge is the pictures. I’m happy with the final product.

Upgrades from 5D: The sync sound, built-in ND, and longer record times were super easy and worked like they should. It’s great to upgrade from the 5D’s limitations! With my external recorder, I’m getting 4 hours of ProRes footage on one SSD. I brought a second SSD, but never needed it. The rig rests on my shoulder like a regular ENG camera. It’s comfortable, but heavy. I’m pleased with how stable the pictures are, even when I zoom.

Ergonomics: The good. Canon’s put most of the buttons where they’re easy to locate without looking. With my right pointer finger: record, aperture, and ISO. When it’s time to make more drastic changes (ND filter, white balance), I can hold the rig with my right hand on the Zacuto ENG grip relocator and adjust stuff with my left hand.

 

My C100 rig: the bad

 

The glaring exception to all this good stuff is the interface between the C100 and the Atomos Samurai. I’m currently using the Samurai not only as a recorder, but also as a high-resolution monitor (1280×720, 5″).

The visibility is great about 90% of the time for me . . . until you’re in full sunlight. Then it’s just really tough to see. I struggled with this.

The ergonomics can be miserable. I have it connected via the Noga Cine Arm. The Samurai can get loose and rotate around on me at the most inopportune times. I like to jump on tables or crawl on the floor to try and get a good shot, so I regularly put some good torque on the Samurai that the Cine Arm sometimes couldn’t handle.

Also, the 3:2 pulldown can be hairy. For the first week, I didn’t understand it and kept getting crappy interlaced footage. Finally, I read the manual (duh!) and realized I’d been doing it wrong.

 

Conclusion

 

So, I’m in love-hate with my new C100 rig. During every shoot day, I’m 95% happy with the thing, but if you catch me in full sunlight or when the Samurai recorder is not cooperating, I hope you don’t catch what I’m muttering under my breath!

Then when I get back to the computer and see the pictures, I’m back in love again. . .  In this business, like so many, there’s give and take. And  I’m getting 4 hours of nonstop ProRez footage with a great Canon codec at less than $10k.

In terms of being a full-proof run-and-gun documentary camera, my C100 rig is not quite there. I’m hoping that with more practice on it — and perhaps an alternate solution for the Samurai — it will be everything I hoped for.

 

C100 rig: full specs

 

I started in  documentary film  as a director/producer and have kicking-and-screaming learned all the technical stuff that makes a shooter competent. The C100 has been no exception for me. It’s been a lot of research and conversations and practice.

So, here’s a list of what I’m using and a link to where I bought it. If I can help one person cut the time in half that it took me to figure this stuff out, it’ll be worth it.

If you found this useful, let me know! Thanks for reading!

Canon EOS C100 Cinema Camcorder (Body Only)

Canon BP-975 Battery Pack (3)

SanDisk 32GB Extreme SDHC Class 10 Memory Card (3)

Zacuto Studio Baseplate with 12″ rods for Canon C100- C300-C500

Shape Mini Composite Shoulder Pad

Zacuto ENG Grip Relocator

Atomos Samurai Blade

Atomos Sun Hood for Samurai Blade

High Speed HDMI Swivel Cable 3ft

Atomos CONNECT-H2S HMDI to HD-SDI Converter

Noga DG Hold-It Cine Arm – Medium

SanDisk Extreme II 240 GB SATA 6.0 Gbs 2.5-Inch Solid State Drive SSD SDSSDXP-240G-G25 (2)

Premium Belden 1505F Digital Video BNC Cable w. Canare Conn. – 1.5′

Sony InfoLithium L Series Battery – 6.6A (3)

Sony InfoLithium L Series AC Adaptor/ Charger – Dual Position – F970

Zacuto 4.5″ Black Male/Female Rod (4)

Zacuto Z-Lite

Shape Back Pad

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:

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.

 

Azerbaijan Interview: Without a DIMMER ? !


Coming to Baku to film a short documentary meant checking to make sure that anything I plug in doesn’t blow up like a firecracker. I brought an Arri 1000k light for interviews, which runs on both the USA’s 120 volt and the 220 in Azerbaijan. All I had to do was buy a 220 lamp from B&H, which I did. I got 4 plug adapters so I could charge my various batteries, phone, computer, etc, and I was good to go . . or so I thought! Hours before my departure, I realized my dimmer only ran on 120 volt. . . . So began a hunt, as I was taxied around town by my implacable driver, Jarulla. We soon strike gold at Santral Electrik, a halogen dimmer rated up to 2k watts. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter, my new hero Ceyhun, was not only an able salesman, but a quick electrician, who rewired the thing, transforming it from a home wall dimmer to a mobile video-production dimmer . . . There I was, good to go for interview set-ups. Thanks to Ceyhun!

In Baku: Russian, the Persistent Lingua Franca


So, here I am with (left) Ilaha Mammadli, a finance journalist from “Trend,” an international news services with offices in Baku. On the right is Rasmina Gurbatova, the film’s director. . . Most people speak Azeri to each other on the streets, but this interview was conducted in Russian. And although the vast majority of people in Baku speak Azeri, many people communicate in Russian. One expat told me it is elitism. Is it possible that despite 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism in Azerbaijan, Russian is still the urbane lingua franca here? Haven’t most cities that were colonized by the USSR (Budapest, Vilnius, Dresden) dispensed with its Lenin statues, Politburo leaders, and vestiges of Russian culture (language, etc) long ago? Baku, however, is an exception: is this because Baku has been a multi-ethnic crossroads for as long as it’s been a city? Only recently has it become majority Azeri. . . . For me, it’s a surprise that card-carrying Azeris still speak so much Russian without it messing with their Azeri nationalism . . .

Innocuously named “Chef’s Salad”


What comes to mind when you think “Azerbaijan” and “food”? If you’re like me . . . nothing. So, what a surprise to arrive here Sunday and discover . . . some incredibly fresh, tasty cuisine! Here’s a photo of the Chef’s Salad that I had for lunch Sunday. It was maybe the best salad I’ve ever had. Most salads in the US are lettuce-dominated. Unless you LOVE lettuce, that’s not awesome. The good salads have an overpowering dressing, like a gorgonzola or blue cheese. These are yummy, but overpowering . . . Today’s “Chef’s Salad” at the “Restauro 90A” on the first floor of the Landmark Hotel blew my socks off. What you see is a perfect balance of: mixed lettuce, grilled chicken, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, capers, parmiggiano, parsley, dill, mint, and purple and green olives. The only dressing is a subtle olive oil. Everything was in harmony. The tomatoes were sweet. The artichokes were the best I ever had. The capers were the largest I ever saw. . . . I’ll let the economists argue over the “WHY,” but all I know is that all these veggies taste awesome and the veggies in my country don’t. . . . Now tell me: Which country is “developed”?

On the 20th Floor Above a City of Contradictions

On the 20th floor deck of the Landmark Hotel in Baku. Filming the hubbub of a city in transition. It’s cold, this “city of wind,” with the Caspian’s expanse so thorough, I feel like I’m at the ocean’s edge. About 12 years ago, the per person income was less than $1,000; today, it’s more than $10,000. The sole reason: oil. And the newfound wealth is evidenced in a hundred cranes bowing over the cityscape. Pricey cars share the streets with old Russian Ladas. Slick businessmen strut past old rural grandmas. A sleek, postmodern glass facade reflects a 13th century stone wall of the Old City. Baku, a contradiction.

Welcome to Baku!


Baku is a big city with a tiny airport. I’ve landed in Azerbaijan, a country with about 9 million people — 4 million of whom are jammed into this cosmopolitan city on the Caspian Sea. I’m here to shoot a documentary . . . Newly landed, we queue up to jam through a single door. On the other side, travelers are chain-smoking in an endless passport-control line. This of course is comfortable compared to my second connecting flight: In Istanbul, a people-mover had dropped us off at the base of our airplane — in the middle of a driving rainstorm! All us travelers were drenched before we could mount the stairs. The Turkish Airlines flight was straight out of Pan American Airways, with turquoise seats and friendly stewardesses (!). I half expect to see Leo DiCaprio flying the plane. . . . After 20 hours: DC-Franfurt-Instanbul-Baku . . . I’m here!

Harlem for Earth Institute

“We the rich are literally dumping on the poor,” said Lisa Sharper today while I was interviewing her for a short film that documents eco-hazards and eco-opportunities in Harlem. Sharper’s NY Faith and Justice group has collaborated with WeACT and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion to engage Harlem’s communities around the issue of environmental justice. This is a hot topic in a place where public health indicators suggest something very fishy: some communities in Harlem and the Bronx have the nation’s highest asthma rates, for example. Why? Well, as Sharper explained, there are no public dumps in Manhattan, but 40+ in the Bronx. And of the seven bus depots in Manhattan, six are in Harlem. So, every hour of every day, buses go though Harlem, creating these corridors of pollution that settles in clouds on schools, homes, children. Lots of it. WeACT is into its 12th year on an MTA Accountability Campaign, that’s trying to get the city to think more about the health of Harlem’s people. Having not seen or heard much about this story, I didn’t care much. But now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have two reactions: first, I’m ashamed to live in a country that lets this happen; and I’m hopeful that progress can happen fast.

Volcanic Sprint Plays Houston’s Real Films

Great time today in sweltering Houston, where a pocket of film-lovers and runners came to a showing of Volcanic Sprint organized by Real Films. The Aurora Theater, an inspired second act for a 1920s church, is intimate, with a wood-paneled ceiling and walls. The Q&A goes an hour, with people interested in Cameroon’s situation almost as much as the particulars of the race. And with Saint Arnold Brewing Company a sponsor, the night is complete. Jeff Mills and his wife Barbara are founders of Real Films (and principals of Houston’s own IO Communications). Not only did they put on a classy event, but they made me feel right at home — if only for a day in Houston.

Jackson Hole Film Fest Rocks!


I have to admit that this film festival is killer! Not only did the programmers get some amazing films here, but all the organizers are relentlessly nice, and have created a very low-key atmosphere for us to just hang out and meet each other. In between watching amazing documentaries like “Class C” and “Man on Wire,” I hobnobbed with a lot of very inspiring people — including a sizable DC contingent. Here, from left, are Virginia Williams, producer of Frontrunner; Karim Chrobog, director of War Child; Brian Liu, director of Disarm (which won its category in the 2006 Jackson Hole Film Fest); and yours truly. Cool festival.

Boulder Theater & One World Running

Two showings of Volcanic Sprint today at the Boulder Theater. A shade over 200 people came out, and the Q&A’s were awesome — a credit to Boulder’s running community, some of whom even signed up to run the Mt. Cameroon Race next year! Craig Mintzlaff wrangled up a half dozen sponsors; and Danny Abshire, head of Newton Running came to both showings, and said some kind things about the film. We collected dozens of pairs of near-new running shoes for Michael Sandrock’s nonprofit One World Running. Good show Boulder!

Bolder Boulder – Volcanic Sprint

So I arrived yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite cities. Precipitous mountains hem in a kelly-green valley; smart growth has yielded wide pedestrian walkways, and bikes outnumber cars in some areas. Oh . . and the people are all apparently required to be super nice.

I did an interview for Bret Saunders on KCBO’s Morning Show. Local journalist Ryan Thorburn wrote an article on Volcanic Sprint that came out in the local Daily Camera . Volcanic Sprint is playing at the classic Boulder Theater here on Sunday. The occasion? Bolder Boulder
is one of the largest road races in the country, and this Memorial Day weekend is going to be a blast!

Atop Mt Cameroon

Spending so much time with Volcanic Sprint had bred a familiarity that ultimately made the mountain race seem pretty accessible to me. Wow, was I in for a shock! The Mt. Cameroon trail basically goes straight up, through rainforest, savannah, and curling around a 2000 lava flow that reformed the mountain and lengthened the race. The ascent is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and just getting my air above 12,000 feet was tough. I can’t imagine for a moment running. The descent was the most painful thing I’ve attempted in a long time. That runners go from summit to base in a little more than an hour is — and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here — one of the most impressive athletic feats I’ve ever witnessed.

Check out this clip we recorded from the summit!

2008 Race – Photojournalist!

I decide to cover as much of the race as possible taking photos. The race starts at 7am at Molyko stadium, and I streak out with the runners to rejoin Hans, my moto driver. We have about 28 minutes to document the 4.5 miles of ascending road until the lead pack hits the trailhead at Upper Farms. Buea’s denizens line the race route in droves. The rising sun is soft, the light refracting over smoky hills. The rounded mountain peak is barely visible.

I run, walk, hike, and snap photos along the way. The rainforest is never-ending. It takes the best runners about 35 minutes to traverse the rainforest segment before they confront the even steeper slopes of the savannah. It take me 1 hour 45 minutes. Eventually, I make it to about 7,000 feet, to a little hut between hut 1 and hut 2, then run most of the descent to Upper Farms. I arrive only moments before Sarah Etonge. Then literally thousands of us accompany her down, children, mothers, cars honking, flags waving, and me mounted backwards on an idling motorcycle knowing my privilege to chronicle the Queen’s final race.

The Eyes of Children

Almost as soon as I finished Volcanic Sprint last year, I imagined having a public viewing where we shot in — in Buea, Cameroon. It would need to be free and in the open air. I pictured it showing in the dirt in-field where the Mt. Cameroon Race begins and end, at Molyko Stadium.

Tonight, it happens, and the Buea Post Weekender edition publicizes it well. Moki, Dan, and I say a few words on stage, then Volcanic Sprint plays. As many as two or three thousand people attend, stretching back beyond the track to packed stadium bleachers. I sit crossed-legged in the dirt and watch them watching, blue light flickering on childrens’ expectant faces. Buea’s children: watching their neighbors, their heros, dance upon the big screen.

Where Are They Now?

It’s Saturday, the day before the race. Call time is pre-dawn. It’s a familiar ride in the bed of the pickup up Buea’s main drag, which traverses Mt. Cameroon’s southern slopes. The Queen of the Mountain is just as electric and personable as the day we left her in 2006, when Buea Town unveiled a statue in her honor. She’ll run the race for the final time this year, and hopes the Cameroon Athletic Federation will help her secure a job afterwards. She is, after all, 40 years old.

Max informs us he’s not running the race as a way to honor his father, John Ekema who died last month. The tall, dried raffia palms rattle as Max pulls them off his father’s grave, only 15 feet behind Max’s shack. A fading plastic wreath reads “RIP John Ekema,” beside a torn pink plastic sandal (“my father’s favorite shoes”). The site’s volcanic stones are strewn with an offering of feathers and spent red shotgun shells. The late Ekema, besides being the first winner of the Mt Cameroon Race and a subsistence farmer, was an avid hunter.

Volcanic Sprint Press Screening in Douala

Every time I’m in Douala, I’m amazed it functions, what with the cramped streets overflowing with kinetic traffic, pedestrians, and commerce claiming every patch of level earth. Since my last visit two years ago, the Chinese moto manufacturer Sanili has taken over. Maybe it’s the jet lag, but that 1990 song by Sinead O’Conner, Black Boys on Mopeds, cycles repeatedly in my head.

The press screening for Volcanic Sprint takes place at the French Cultural Center. I meet Jean-Marie Mollo Olinga, one of Cameroon’s most notable film critics, who wrote about our film’s premier in Yaounde yesterday. Following the film, Unit Producer Moki Charles joins Dan and I on stage. Soon, the journalists are debating among themselves about the merits and subtleties of our film. . . Next stop, Buea.

Cameroon Landed

After an interminable series of flights from San Francisco to Atlanta to Paris to Douala, Dan and I emerge on the hot afternoon tarmac of Douala airport. It’s the dry season, and I’m already too warm for comfort. We settle into Oubangui Hotel and eat grilled bar fish at a shack on Rue le la Joie with long-time friend Aretha Louise Mbango.

Mt Cameroon Race of Hope 2008

Off to Buea, Cameroon today for the 2008 Mt Cameroon Race. San Francisco to Atlanta to Paris to Douala. The trip is packed: Friday the Cameroon premier of Volcanic Sprint, at the French Cultural Center in Douala. Saturday, we’ll film Sarah, Max, Walters, and others for some DVD special features. Saturday night is the open-air projection of Volcanic Sprint at Molyko Stadium — free for the whole town. Sunday is the race, where we’ve again hired four cameramen. After the race, I’m participating in the shoe donation — 400 pairs to the top 100 finishers in each of the four categories: men, women, youth, and masters. Monday, we’ll do some more follow-up stories, and then say good-bye to Buea.

Always a Statesman

At Stanford. Interviewed George Shultz today for the independent documentary I’m producing, SHATTERED SKY. I was really hoping to link some of the lessons of the fight to save the ozone to today’s climate challenge, and Shultz didn’t disappoint. We focused on his days as Secretary of State under Reagan, and what a key role statecraft played in forging a US consensus to do something about the emerging ozone hole.

Boulder viewing party

In Boulder Colorado today for a viewing party for VOLCANIC SPRINT at the house of Michael Ainsley. He assembled about 15 of his friends and acquaintances that he thought could offer feedback on our emerging distribution strategy. Elite runners, a famous photographer, TV people, race organizers, executives, and sports entrepreneurs — a great mix.

Linking Ozone and Climate

If you can get a job you like in Boulder, Colorado then run—don’t walk—to accept it. Driving into the city is not only absolutely beautiful, but also a lesson in urban planning: green mountains cradle this small-ish city within. It is obvious the city has set aside a lot of public space for parks, sports, and great views. This general sense of livability and work-life balance is reinforced by the number of mountain bikes and sandle-wearing scientists I see at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I’m here to interview Susan Solomon, who led a vanguard expedition to Antarctica in 1986 that proved the science behind the hole in the ozone. Impressive. Solomon is also chair of one of the working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—so she gives incredible insight into the links between ozone and climate.

Nobel Prize . . . Thanks to the Stratosphere

At the University of California Irvine today interview Nobel Prize winning scientist Sheri Rowland for the short film we’re making for the Environmental Protection Agency. Rowland was the one who, in collaboration with Mario Molina, discovered the science behind the ozone hole. I didn’t quite understand much of the nitty-gritty, so I looked it up before interviewing him: Wikipedia: ozone depletion and read up even more on Rowland.

Transamerica through a Veil

So Dan and I are on location in San Francisco today making a short film about the ozone layer for the Environmental Protection Agency. We interviewed Bill Reilly, former EPA Admnistrator. Reilly is our best interview so far, probably because he not only played such a big role in inspiring US leadership to protect the ozone back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also because he’s still fighting the good fight today.

Reilly’s making big news: a few months ago, he led the biggest “green” private-equity buyout in history. He joined the board of TXU, which agreed to cancel the construction of eight future coal plants, and agreed to invest $400 million in energy-efficiency measures to meet a portion of future demand. The report on it from the NGO perspective: NRDC article; and from the corporate persective: TXU press release; and from the news media perspective: A Utility Buyout that Has Many Shades of Green.

The shoot went well, and we manage a pretty cool set-up with a background of the city’s iconic Transamerica building in silhouette behind a gossamer veil.

After interviewing Reilly, I walked away with the sense that this one man is a true connector, bridging the worlds of policy, government, finance, and environmental advocacy. May he continue the good work . . . . In the absence of any executive leadership the last six years, we sure need it.

Taking the Ozone Train to Jacksonville

Today in Jacksonville, Florida. I interviewed Lee Thomas, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This was for a short film for the EPA on the history of the ozone challenge. My co-producer, Dan Evans, and I will interview 10-12 key players (in about 7-8 states around the country) who impacted the science, politics, and industry associated with ozone-depleting substance.

“Ozone-depleting substances!” What a drab phrase. A mouthful. Or I could write “all the chemicals that were first discovered to be burning a hole in the stratosphere, the presence of which scared the living daylights out of people in the early 1980s.”

Back to Lee Thomas. Southern gentleman, wicked smart, but humble. Currently in the private sector and serving on multiple “green” boards. Back in the 1980s, he had the unenviable task of convincing the Reagan Administration that it was high time to do something about the ozone. We interviewed David Doniger last week, who was a key player in NGO circles, filing lawsuits against the EPA, trying to urge them to work faster and do more to protect the environment. Well, what did Doniger think about Thomas? He called Thomas’ leadership “the most important in the last generation.”

Oh, and that includes current leadership on the climate change issue. More on that to come . . .

Encountering Cincinnati’s First Citizen

Friday in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine is a flurry of life, as documentary research leads me to politicians, ex-con weightlifters, millionaire arts patrons, and a cabal of partying idealists. First, friend and co-producer, Joe Brinker and I meet Bill Baum, principal of Urban Sites. Baum’s been developing property for a quarter century in Over-the-Rhine, through all the bad times, and is leading the charge during this new phase of activity. His speciality: preserving the historically significant facades while renovating the outdated, cramped tenaments into modern, spacious lofts. Coming from DC, I’m amazed at the low cost of these condos, especially since downtown is just a few minutes away by foot. Baum is soft-spoken, straightforward. Later, I would talk to Jeanne Golliher, Director of the Cincinnati Development Fund, who says that “there is a special place for Baum in heaven”; and that his renovations in Over-the-Rhine “are setting the standard.”

Joe and I take several hours to walk around Over-the-Rhine and meet people: do they think things are changing for the better here? Somehow I’m soon engaged in a benchpress competition with Ken at Lord’s Gym. Orlando, who’s the volunteer, explains the mission of the gym, that it’s an outreach of the nearby Lutheran Church. Across the street, Washington Park is a big green space that, if it were cleaned up a bit, could rival the best that Boston or DC have to offer. But there are at least 20 or 30 people drinking out of paper bags, just sitting around — and barely a stone’s throw from a school! On one side is Music Hall, which is absolutely stunning. Later, I would watch a documentary, Music Hall: Cincinnati Finds Its Voice, which gives a great history of the arts in the life of Cincinnati.

After some famous Cincinnati chili for lunch, we meet Reverend Damon Lynch of The New Prospect Baptist Church. Lynch figured prominently in Cincinnati’s 2001 riots. Many people paint him as an apologist for the riots, and to some degree they are right. But I see him as an advocate for the poorest of the poor. Maybe one of the most vocal they have. Lynch’s quote that sticks with me: “There’s a difference between economic development and community economic development.” As this project continues, I’ll need to get a better handle on Lynch’s perspective. Is it the same as that of Over-the-Rhine’s 80% African-American population?

Joe and I race up to the Kroger Building, downtown, to meet with Vice-Mayor Jim Tarbell. “Cincinnati’s First Citizen” as some people refer to him, have a love affair with this throwback of a councilman: he rides a scooter around the city; owns a bar; has an infectious smile; is a keen historian; loves his city. I acquire bits of the Tarbell legend throughout the day: he squatted in a St. Paul’s Cathedral to save it from the wrecking ball, he formed the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce back when there wasn’t any commerce, he dresses up in top hat and tails for Opening Day, in hommage to the hometown Reds. Why can’t all councilpeople be like this, I wonder? From an upper story overlooking the exquisite architecture of Over-the-Rhine, we attend Class Tarbell: History 101. And after two hours of historical vignettes and charming asides, I feel energized . . . and realize: I’m going to make this documentary.

Cincinnati’s Urban Core

I arrive in Cincinnati today for a five-day pre-production trip for a new documentary, tentatively entitled Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine. My co-producer Joe Brinker has arranged a slew of meetings. My goal: to determine whether I’m interested enough to pursue the emerging story of this neighborhood people call Over-the-Rhine, which according to our research is on the cusp between decay and renaissance. Potentially, it’s a compelling American story that will resonate nationally.

I’m hardly in town for an hour when we sit to lunch with Councilman John Cranley. At first, he’s guarded, but soon realizes that our intentions are above-board. We explain we’re interested in telling a positive story about progress in the area, and that our chief interests are the business and social entrepreneurs who are making a difference. Cranley gets fired up and goes into detail about the policy measures and investment facilities that he believes are responsible for the changes. And he rips off a dozen names and numbers of people for us to follow up with. Great start! Next, Joe and I are drinking coffee with the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Peter Bronson. Bronson wrote a book called Behind the Lines: The Untold Story of the Cincinnati Riots, which I had read so I was eager to talk. Ultimately, Bronson turned out to be an affable guy, but with a singular focus on safety and security issues. To be honest, he didn’t strike me as somebody who spends much time in Over-the-Rhine, however. Next, Joe and I had an appointment with Michael Spalding and Roula David, the co-owners of Vinyl, a funky new restaurant in Over-the-Rhine. I’d seen an article on them and their daring plans to open several chic restaurants in this depressed neighborhood, so I really wanted to meet. We sit on the brick veranda of Vinyl as the late-afternoon sun begins to set. I look around and the architecture is as distinctive and historic as the best I see on a daily basis in Washington DC. Yet, most everything is more run-down (I would learn later that there are about 500 vacant buildings in this area; and that it’s been named to the National Historic Trust for Preservation’s 11-most endangered list). As we talk, Michael and Roula greet passersby: young professionals on their way home, a few homeless people they knew by name, and even Marge Hammelreth, the Executive Director of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation.

I start to realize that Cincinnati is a small town. And Over-the-Rhine is smaller still. Logistically, this is not a bad thing for a documentary project. Michael and Roula are the real deal. Both live and work in Over-the-Rhine. Both are putting their money where their mouth is, fixing up old properties, conceiving of hip bar concepts, making a buzz. By the end of summer, they say, they’ll have three restaurants nearby. For my first day ever in Cincinnati, not a bad start.

Bismarck on the Mountaintop

“What’s African about this volcano summit?” I was asking myself in a sound-design session today for my documentary film, Volcanic Sprint. Our footage was extreme up on the summit of Mt. Cameroon (the halfway point of the race). But it was so freezing that the camera intermittently failed to capture audio. When a female leader summits, race staff shout encouragement in a sing-songy chorus of English and Bakweri dialect. It’s a joyous barrage, carving out space from the wind and cold and expanse.

When the men leaders summit, however, the audio cuts off. You can’t even hear the 50 mile-per-hour winds. In the silence, my thoughts go tangential and I imagine the racers talking in German. Who knows why. But if World War I had gone differently, Cameroon might still be German Kamerun. In fact, three other African states share similar histories of German colonization: Togo, Namibia (South-West Africa), and Tanzania (Tanganyika). Racers would be clad in lederhausen.

During our session, the music composed by Asparagus Media ultimately carried the drama, and when we needed wind, our sound designer, Howard at TEAM, made it happen. Then I remembered something I learned during production in Cameroon. When the town of Buea erected a statue for perennial winner, the Queen of the Mountain, her son Pierrot told me, clearly proud, that it was the second statue in the entire province. “What’s the other one?” I asked. Without hesitation he answered: “Bismarck.”

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