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!