Based in Washington, DC, USAID is the world’s premier international development agency. USAID works to help improve lives, strengthen communities, and advance democracy. As its website says, “USAID’s work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity; demonstrates American generosity; and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience.”
So we at Dorst MediaWorks were proud to have been selected to work with subcontractor Nathan Associates to tell the story of USAID’s investment in Haiti’s private sector.
Our Washington, D.C. video production team set off for Port-au-Prince to spend a week documenting Haiti’s progress. What we encountered was a country that is still mired in extreme poverty, but with certain bright spots of hope.
This video production shows the experience of one factory employee, Hermine, who after suffering the devastating effects of the Haiti earthquake, is one step closer to her dream of owning her own home and providing a solid education for her son.
Hermine’s company received a grant to upgrade its equipment and open up a new business unit making t-shirts for sale to American companies. As a result, our hero, Hermine, gets promoted and takes on more responsibility. We see her training staff on the production room floor. Ultimately, with her salary increase, Hermine buys a small plot of land (to replace the house that was destroyed in the earthquake).
USAID’s investments in Haiti’s private sector help empower women and youth. This creates trading partners for American companies and helps Haiti on its path to self-reliance.
Dorst MediaWorks | Videos for Good. We are a video production company in Washington, D.C. We make videos for US-based international organizations. We’ve been to more than 100 developing countries, and are committed to treating our clients, subjects, and crew kindly, especially across cultural and language barriers. We aspire to authentic character-based storytelling and exemplary service. So, when its time to raise awareness, do some fundraising, or simply show results, call Dorst MediaWorks. Let’s make some Videos for Good.
One of the benefits of making a video in Vietnam is elbow room.
I’m flying Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, reportedly the busiest air traffic route in the world, with 20 daily flights. Our 787 Dreamliner must seat 500 people, and there’s not a free seat in sight. But far from cramped, I feel fine.
At 5’10” 165 pounds, I’m the largest person on the plane.
I’m in Vietnam to make a series of short documentary videos for the International Monetary Fund to chronicle their cooperation with the Vietnam Government. It’s a bit of a success story, with millions of people escaping poverty in the last generation alone.
One of our first stops is the National Economics University, where in addition to interviewing the director, I visit some classes and talk with students.
Smart and bilingual, these 20-year-olds couldn’t have timed it better. They’re coming of age when Vietnam is opening up to the world.
They are a testament to how the country’s strong education system is positioning it well to take advantage of the opportunities that are brimming in the world’s biggest regional economy, which stretches across southeast to east Asia and represents half of global production.
How far they’ve come! It’s insane to consider is that their parents very likely suffered through the famine of 1984, and their grandparents endured the “War of American Aggression.” Their great-grandparents resisted the French occupation as subjects of French Colonial Indochina.
Life is changing fast here, but these young adults are not looking back. They’re practical, motivated, and good-natured.
One of their dream jobs is working for Samsung, which has hired more than 160,000 employees in Vietnam and is set to export $50 billion worth of phones, TVs, and other goods this year alone.
After the Government’s sound economic management, such foreign direct investment is the single biggest factor in a resurgent economy.
Anna Saigon, 5 stars on trip advisor, is bubbling with internationals. Shaking beef (bo luc lac) and pork chops are the stars, and the Bia Saigon beer is light enough to down two at a time (ummm, it’s hot and humid here, don’t judge)!
The next day, back in Saigon, we hit up Sax N Art jazz club, which has an international cast of legit jazz artists. Sebastien is on keys and trombone — sometimes both at the same time! He stole the show, but hey, as a a pianist, I’m partial. The owner, Tran Manh Tuan, is on a multi-country tour. A prominent jazz saxophonist, he’s created something special here in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
When the International Monetary Fund hired Dorst MediaWorks to tell the story of its engagement with the Government in Colombia during the past decade, I was unsure how to tell it.
Sure, there was a lot of potential. Many Americans know bits and pieces beyond the drug trade: FARC guerillas had terrorized the country for a half-century, the economy was up and down, and the President just won the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s something to start with.
But so much of the IMF’s work is so inside baseball. And it’s only interesting to economists and policy wonks.
The good news, however, was that I got access to a diversity of smart, informed people who have been on the frontlines in Colombia: among them the Minister of Finance, Minister of Post-Conflict, Director of the Central Bank’s Board of Directors, the CEOs of Promigas and Telefonica, as well as a selection of professors and journalists.
Documentary films for an international organization
For this project, I ended up producing, directing, shooting, writing, and editing four videos, delivered in Spanish. I picked up a unit producer and interview while in country.
Some documentary videos stretch you in new ways. This one certainly did. I had never conducted a production all the way through in Spanish. That was a challenge.
And I had never done a series of videos that were so much about internal economic decisions. I chose to focus on the impacts that these decisions had – on Colombia’s stability and its ability to move forward with the peace process. I also wanted to chronicle the extent to which major public officials had relied on the IMF for sound advice during a difficult time.
The first video tells the story of Colombia’s peace plan that was cut short by an historically large oil shock and economic crisis.
Minister of Finance Cardenas turned out to be a great interview, and I used bites from him throughout the story in all four videos. He called the conflict with the FARC a kind of “handbrake on the economy” because for years, the country had to invest more in its defense and security than it wanted to, to the exclusion of infrastructure and rural development.
The Minister of Post-Conflict, Rafael Pardo spoke almost cryptically of “two years of secret talks and four years of open talks” just to get to a point where meetings were possible. I couldn’t help but thinking that a multi-episodic Netflix series about the behind-the-scene in the peace process would be awesome!
Juan Pablo Zarate, the Co-Director of the Board of Directors of the Central Bank, described the huge oil shock that hit the Colombian economy in 2014, but how the flexible exchange rate helped soften the blow. And other important figures spoke about the decisions they made to help keep the country from getting mired in a crisis, and how the IMF helped out along the way.
A Tax Reform Succeeds
The second video in the series goes into more depth about how a controversial tax reform also helped reduce the effects of the crisis, and keep Colombians out of poverty.
Ricardo Avila, the Editor-in-Chief of the large daily newspaper, Portafolio, explained how 23% of the central government’s revenue “depended on oil, and that almost disappeared completely.” This was a huge number and it blew my mind. How do you fill a 23% hole in any budget?
Ana Fernanda Maiguashca, a member of the Central Bank’s Board of Directors, said the reform was “tremendously important for the long-term sustainability of the Colombian economy.”
Peace is Good for Business
As a result of the quick reactions, the government was able to escape the worst of the economic crisis and move forward with the peace process.
The third video in the series opens with footage from the Nobel Prize Committee awarding Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Peace Prize.
At this point of the narrative, I turn to more voices from the private sector. Antonio Celia, the CEO of Promigas, turned out to be a jovial, whip-smart leader of the largest natural gas company in the country. He spoke at length about the pain and suffering inflicted by the FARC, which I’ll never forget. But he also spoke about the importance of extending opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to poor rural areas: “Peace is good for business, and business is good for peace.”
Business Goes to Quibdó
To show the impacts of the new opening, I chose to film in Quibdó, a small town in Choco, which had gotten itself ensnared in the conflict and isolated from most investment.
I got the perspective of Alfgonso Gomez, the CEO of Telefonica-Movistar, who estliabhsed a call center in the area.
I also interviewed a manager named Raquel, who described the scope of the operation: “I feel personal satisfaction in seeing how we help people, how we contribute to their lives.”
Most exemplary of the newfound opportunity in this isolated town was the perspective of worker Jennifer Quejada: “I had never I had never been able to give my son a birthday party before, so the first gift that I gave him was a birthday celebration with all his friends and lots of presents. Working here has been a wonderful experience.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
My video production company, Dorst MediaWorks is based in Washington, D.C., where global nonprofits, USAID subcontractors, and multilaterals are competing to do international development better than the next guy.
There’s a lot in flux right now. But assuming America continues with its small, but impactful, foreign aid programs, I’ll continue to make videos about them.
For the better part of 14 years, that’s there I’ve been–specializing in video production for international developent. Our videos illustrate development results, mobilize funds, or raise awareness. Topics include: health, agriculture, governance, the environment, gender, microfinance, and education.
Moreover, there’s the prevailing income and opportunity disparities. Few of the people I film have much accumulated wealth. Most would have difficulty securing a visa to travel to the USA (fewer now, given Trump’s misguided Refugee Executive Order).
When I point a camera, I’m initiating a relationship: with Kinote the coffee farmer in Kenya; Tich, a brave young man in Zimbabwe; Rabih the fisherman in Lebanon. We are forever linked.
That’s a big responsibility. In a world where you can livestream HD video to Facebook’s 1 billion users with three clicks, sometimes that responsibility is lost on people and organizations.
My mission statement would need to reflect that.
If capturing footage implies a social contract, editing is fraught with ethical implications. Once you string two clips together, your video is no longer objective. Non-fiction stylings, sure, but framed within an illusion of causality. And in this sector where rich-country organizations and filmmakers are telling stories about poor people, ethical choices are inherent in creative choices, whether we acknowledge them or not.
All this was running through my head as I agonized over a good mission to help guide my work.
Finally, after much back and forth, this is what I came up with: “Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.”
What do you think?
I like that it keeps my focus both on my client (who is paying me and has power) and the people we choose to film (who I will likely never see again and who have little power).
If I amplify the voices of those with no voice, then I’m using my camera for good.
If through my videos, I help strengthen the organizations that are doing this work, then they can expand to reach more people.
Little by little, the world becomes a better place. More opportunity and access. A little more peace and prosperity for the other 95% of the world’s population.
And for a measly 1% of the federal budget every year, that’s a return on investment that Trump supporters should embrace as well.
Here in Washington, DC, we have a lot of smart people working to make a difference in international development, and a cluster of global nonprofits, USAID subcontractors, and multilaterals.
With all this competition, it can be tough for you—a communications professional—to get the word out about your organization’s results.
As the founding producer of Dorst MediaWorks, I’ve specialized in video production for international development organizations since 2003. My primary counterparts are Directors of Communications, and we spend a lot of time brainstorming how to tell great stories.
Here are six international development videos that have animated our conversations and inspired us. Use the comments below to critique these choices, or add your own favorites!
“Still the Most Shocking Second a Day,” by Save the Children
Hands down the best video about the Syrian refugee crisis you’ll ever watch. It’s even better than its predecessor, “Most Shocking Second a Day,” whose message clearly struck a chord: “Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening” (and surpassed 55 million views!). Maybe it gets to me because I’m a parent, with a daughter. But that’s the point: it brings the crisis home. The protagonist is our daughter, our neighbor. Emotionally, you can’t dismiss her, particularly given how it’s filmed, with her experience so front-center. Knowing that, Save the Children emphasizes via the YouTube description: “The refugee crisis isn’t just a story on the news – it’s happening here and it’s happening now. Please watch and share.” Moreover, at the 01:30 mark, an annotation reminds us to donate via text. Spectacular strategy, well-executed video, with a wraparound fundraising campaign. This is as good as it gets.
“Price tag lipdub by 500 women in Uganda,” by SYPO
The most entertaining microfinance video you’ll ever dance in your chair to! My face hurts from smiling ear-to-ear! Well-produced, the video has fun music, choreography, and mobile camerawork that takes us to meet hundreds of women beneficiaries of a microfinance project. The message, “We want the same things that you want,” really hits home, making a connection. And their lip-syncing refrain of “It’s not about the money, we just wanna make the world dance,” is a brilliant (and ironic) send-up by the Dutch NGO SYPO. The YouTube description reads, “Every single one of these strong and resourceful women has started a business of her own.” I’m a believer: happy, agents of change, dancing their way into our hearts. That’s results!
“The Source,” by Charity: Water
Immersive storytelling at its finest! Charity: Water is known for its successful outreach, so it’s no surprise they give us this. “The Source” is a Virtual Reality (VR) video, so get out your Google Cardboard, or at least watch it in the Chrome browser for the full 360 experience. At one level, this is traditional documentary storytelling: six days in the life of an Ethiopian girl Selam as a water well is constructed in her village. What distinguishes this video is the VR novelty that puts you in the driver’s seat. Scroll around and be part of Selam’s world! You decide what to look at. When these VR videos are done well, I find myself watching them several times, like this one. “The Source” is part of a first wave of immersive VR videos that will only get better as the technology continues to become more accessible and we filmmakers learn how to work in this new medium.
“Project Daniel,” by Not Impossible Labs
The best storytelling around innovation ever! I had the opportunity to shadow Mick Ebeling in New York City for a few days last month for an upcoming DirecTV documentary. He’s a charismatic guy whose Not Impossible Labs has, quite incredibly, won two consecutive SXSW innovation awards … Several years ago, I saw this video and loved it. And I’ve been taking it to my clients ever since. I like to watch it together because international development organizations love to talk about being innovative, but rarely manage to show it well, like “Project Daniel.”
I love a lot of things about this video, but here are three things in particular. First, the opening sequence tells the entire story visually in 10 seconds: A boy without an arm throws an object and smiles. Tremendous! No words required. I will never forget that scene. Second, the story structure plays with time to great effect: we start at the pinprick of transformation (Daniel throwing the object), then back to Daniel’s injury, then to Mick’s inspiration, then fast-forward to Mick “putting the plan in action” and finally, the breakthrough … where we started. It’s fun, unpredictable, and serves the story well. Third, Mick’s passion and perspective: Without Daniel, there is no transformation and no story. But without Mick, there is no connection. We are Mick. We get inside his head, and can’t help but be in awe of his determination. Unforgettable. That’s true innovation!
“Kony 2012,” by Invisible Children
The video that provoked a Thermidorian reaction! It’s hard to understate the widespread influence this video had, the allegiance it inspired—and when the pendulum swung back—the hate. Love it or hate it, Invisible Children brought Joseph Kony to the national consciousness; it helped shape policy; and it inspired a cohort of college students to think about conflict-affected people in Africa. Not too shabby! This should be on every list for the next generation. It was that influential.
“One Future, #ZeroHunger,” by World Food Programme
OK, so maybe this one isn’t “epic.” It’s nowhere near as inspiring as “Project Daniel,” tear-jerking as “Shocking,” or entertaining as “Lipdub,” but this video is effective nonetheless. Why? It has one idea and delivers. Visually, it’s strong and memorable. The script is concise, and refreshingly devoid of any wonky insider lingo. Watch it again: it’s all stock footage. It reminds us all that strategy always trumps budget, which is great news for comms departments with shrinking resources. Now that’s epic indeed!
So, what do you think? What do you think of these choices? What are your favorites? What’s inspired you?
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
I 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
Unit 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
It 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
This 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.
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.
Suddenly, 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.
“Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.”
On Dorst MediaWorks’ portfolio of videos for international development organizations, you can skip around and see 30+ films from 15+ countries. Or you can filter by topic (education, health, small business, etc) or location (Azerbaijan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, etc). You can even click around on a world map to see where I’ve produced for clients ranging from USAID to Catholic Relief Services to the World Bank.
I like how the site is visually rich. The slideshow on the front page contains stills from my work. The pictures, films, and blogs — so many great memories of working in some challenging, interesting places with amazing people.
It’s an honor to be doing this work, amplifying the efforts of international development organizations, and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people they work with.
Visually, it launches with a bombed-out structure in Kabul, followed by a pre-dawn scene in rural Kenya—children are waking. An aspiring hip hop artist strums a guitar on a rooftop in one of Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling favelas. Then a Lebanese fisherman pulls in his catch.
Music is Tornado, by Jonsi.
Most of these stories are character-based, showing how programs improve the lives of beneficiaries. My clients include USAID and its implementing partners, the World Bank Group and its partners, and other international development organizations.
If you have time, stick around until the end of the 2:50 clip. There’s a graphic that lets you click into 15 of the videos you see here. You’ll hear the voices of Rabih, Sara, Kinote, and dozens of other people — in their own languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Tagalog, Amharic, Meru, and Shona.
Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.
For a post on the background and reflection that went into this mission statement, click here.
If 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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
As 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Beirut 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.
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.
Nairobi’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.
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.
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!
What 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.
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.
Egypt, 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):
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.
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:
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:
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 . . .
I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 . . .
Wrapped a short film for USAID today. It focused on the Global Development Commons, which is what they call a their new approach to development aid that has improved information flow and better partnerships. To tell the story, we used a documentary approach, highlighting emerging projects in West Africa centered around the agricultural value chain and in Bangladesh about disaster preparedness. What did they have in common? Technology played a big part, empowering partners to communicate better, and help people improved their lives.
I wrapped another short film project for the World Bank today. Really fascinating, and challenging job for the Global Development Learning Network. I directed remote crews in Tanzania, Mongolia, Japan, Ghana, and Nicaragua, where it was a real treat to get to know people and their work cultures. Then I wrote a script, edited, and tried to show how the GDLN is helping people connect better. The result: some interesting stories from around the world, where people have benefited in the worlds of health, private sector development, and education.
Wrapped a film today for the International Crisis Group, which is a group that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. Featuring a slew of experts, including Madeleine Albright, Louise Arbour, Richard Armitage, Betty Bigombe, Colin Powell, Mary Robinson, Strobe Talbott, and Ernesto Zedillo, the film does a fine job showing the expertise and impact of the Crisis Group. Dan Evans helmed this one — great job Dan!
Well, sometimes the sheer diversity of a workday is kind of fun. I woke up early (still jetlagged from trip to Italy), and edited in the piano music I composed yesterday for the short film we’re producing for the Department of Justice. With a crew call of 7:30am, Dan picked me up so we could interview Congresswoman Lois Capps on Capitol Hill. This was for a short film we’re making for WomenHeart. This group is doing some great advocacy work for women with heart disease. Quickly back to the office for a fine-cut review of a short film I’m editing for American Red Cross’ measles program. They have been busy trying to provide emergency humanitarian aid for the tragedies in Myanmar and China, so this project has been delayed. But it’s a pleasure to be working with a group that does so much good. Then meeting with the client for a rough-cut review of a short film I’m editing for the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Region. They captured all the footage and photos in Vietnam, and I’m justing writing the script and editing. They came back with some good options for traditional music they recorded, so it made it fun. Hmm, pretty brain dead after this day, so what did I do but go home and watch the finale of American Idol. Good times!
Today, two interviews with very interesting former public officials. For a gala video for Thurgood Marshall Academy, we filmed former Mayor Tony Williams, who spoke about how nurturing such an innovative school in DC’s poorest community was key to improving the city. After a quick lunch, Dan and I headed down to interview General Colin Powell, who was most recently Secretary of State, before Condoleezza Rice. This shoot was part of a new film we’re making for the International Crisis Group, for whom we made a short film in 2006.
Today we launched production for a new short film for the International Crisis Group. This group is one of the most important conflict-resolution outfits in the world, fiercely non-partisan, highly influential, respected across borders and party lines. Today was my first time to meet Dick Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State and current principal at Armitage International, based in Arlington. In the interview, he was sharp, frank, savvy, charming, and opinionated. I could understand how this former military man climbed the foreign policy ranks so adeptly and certainly wouldn’t bet against the success of his new company.
Today, we interviewed Bob Watson at the World Bank Group. Coincidentally, this is his last day on the job before he moves back to England to assume three different positions in the academic and policy worlds. It is also the last of 12 people Dan and I have interviewed all over the country (10 cities, 7 states) for this film about the struggle to save the ozone layer. In Watson, we may have saved the best for last. Having spent the past 15 years or so at the World Bank Group, Watson may be the world’s foremost expert on the interface between sustainable development and environmental issues. Mack McFarland told us that Watson basically invented the notion of the international scientific assessment, which united the voices of scientists everywhere so they could have more credibility with politicians. This process, refined during the 1980s, was critical for reaching scientific consensus and political agreement on how to deal with ozone-depleting substance. Today, the process is even more mature—and with regard to the climate challenge, is the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.