Tag Archives: documentary

St. George Slays the Injera

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 addis food

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.

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

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

International Development Video: Shooting in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

najib
Najib is great to work with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

look alike
Never thought I looked so Afghan . . .

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

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

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

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

 

Putting together the kit

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

My C100 rig: the good

 

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

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

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

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

 

My C100 rig: the bad

 

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

 

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

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

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

 

C100 rig: full specs

 

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

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

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

Canon EOS C100 Cinema Camcorder (Body Only)

Canon BP-975 Battery Pack (3)

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

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

Shape Mini Composite Shoulder Pad

Zacuto ENG Grip Relocator

Atomos Samurai Blade

Atomos Sun Hood for Samurai Blade

High Speed HDMI Swivel Cable 3ft

Atomos CONNECT-H2S HMDI to HD-SDI Converter

Noga DG Hold-It Cine Arm – Medium

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

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

Sony InfoLithium L Series Battery – 6.6A (3)

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

Zacuto 4.5″ Black Male/Female Rod (4)

Zacuto Z-Lite

Shape Back Pad

Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon

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

1. Beirut’s got an image problem

 

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

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

 

2. Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on

 

The first day of shooting goes according to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on.

 

3. Fishing is an endurance sport

 

Jet lag sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4. Shawarma & Robert Downey, Jr. go together

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. Byblos is irresistibly photogenic

 

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

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

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

Directing in Kenya, Distributing in Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note by Note — Great doc

Yesterday, I watched a doc while riding my bike trainer inside. As both a piano player and a filmmaker, I have to admit that “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037” is the kind of doc I wish I’d made myself!

It’s been sitting in my Netflix queue for a few years. Why did I wait? The film traces the year-long “birth” of a concert Steinway through a long line of skilled craftsmen who follow incredibly precise methods until the piano is complete.

The film, by Ben Niles, makes a strong case for the tradition of hand-made pianos. The sound is better, has more character, more soul. It’s a temptation to modernize some of the process, says one guy. Most piano manufacturers have.

One thread follows an elite French pianist selecting the appropriate grand for a big concert he’s doing in Manhattan. He plays piano after piano after piano like a kid in a candy store (really, Steinway’s basement), but none are up to snuff. Soon, his protestations are annoying. But the nerdy, passionate delight he takes in describing infinitesimally subtle details of tone, feel, and dynamics . . . you forgive him. He is deep in his art, at the pinnacle of his craft.

By contrast, one segment shows a teenage boy piano shopping with his Orthodox family. Back home playing the piano for the first time, the boy’s grandparents begin to cry. It’s a poignant scene: even the amateur interpretations of this young man can transport people. Music is a mainline to emotion, memory, and perhaps liberation.

Mecánico as Film Crew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shattered Sky: A Whirlwind of Good

Since the March 22 premiere of Shattered Sky at the DC Environmental Film Festival, it’s been a whirlwind of good: NY Times coverage and lots of contacts with festivals, colleges, and activists who want to play the film.

Most importantly, our Shattered Sky team is growing, and setting a solid foundation for a campaign to make a huge impact on the issues come September – the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the international ozone treaty.

The New York Times article quoted me well: “Shattered Sky is not about the science. It’s about what a responsible leader does when there’s a good chance the science is right. It’s important to remember that the first draft of the ozone treaty wasn’t perfect. It was a first step. It showed the world that America was committed to lead — and that made all the difference.”

The festival was super. Expertly run, our screening was super packed. We had Sunshine Mendez moderating, with Rolling Stone editor Jeff Goodell joining Dan Evans and me on stage for the panel afterwards.

We had a private reception at the nearby Hotel Rouge following the panel, with about 100 people. National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Schweiger talked about the educational partnership with Shattered Sky.

I’m personally really excited about this, and will write more as it continues to take shape. The outreach will focus primarily on high school and college. It will be national. It will be a combined science and civics curriculum. And it will focus on the positive message that America led the world to a solution on the ozone crisis during the Reagan Administration—and we can do it again on energy and climate.

If you’re on Facebook, you can see the photos of the film, the vibe, and the party.

It’s been a crazy month, but has exceeded all my expectations. Thanks to everybody for all you’re doing to get our campaign going. You know who you are!

NIH Research and the Lives it Touches

Had a shoot today at the National Institute of Health. Connected with a physician who is an expert on aplastic anemia. Spent some time in his lab. Did an interview. All for an episode of Bench to Bedside, a science documentary TV series that I’m shooting, editing, and writing.

Something he said really stuck with me. He said the American taxpayer is helping people around the world. We fund NIH. NIH does all kinds of research, there in Bethesda, Maryland, but also in collaboration with Universities around the nation. This research often centers on extremely rare diseases, even those that you don’t see much in the US. Gradually, with a lot of time, money, and expertise, our researchers indentify answers. As cures emerge, the world benefits.

In the case of aplastic anemia, Europe initially made great strides, and then US helped advance cures. Only 30 years ago, this disease was an immediate death sentence. Today, it’s on the verge of being something we can control. Instead of children dying within months and years, they can live full lives. Now, that’s a great bit of good news.

MLK Documentary Premieres on DirectTV Tonight

The new documentary film on Martin Luther King, Jr that I worked on recently premieres tonight on DirectTV’s Audience Network.

The film is written, directed, and edited by Kirk Mangels.

I directed a few interviews: with Colin Powell, Congressman Andrew Young, and sports journalist James Brown. We spoke of their experiences growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, and how their lives and careers were influenced by the great MLK. I’m very excited to see the movie tonight.

 

Volcanic Sprint Trailer on blip.tv

Click To Play

The sleepy town of Buea in the Southwest Province of Cameroon hosts Africa’s most grueling footrace: the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope, a marathon-length sprint 10,000 feet up a live volcano . . . and back down again. For the mainly local competitors, the race is their best shot at acheiving fame and fortune in a country short on both. But nearly half of all the runners will quit the race . . . Conquered by Mt. Cameroon.

Shut Up and Sing

I went to see Shut Up & Sing by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple tonight at a slam-packed Avalon Theater. The film was entertaining. Most impressive was the lead singer, Natalie Maines. I couldn’t have named one Dixie Chicks song earlier today, but this lead singer is a force of nature. In a good way. The film could have been better had the filmmaker been permitted more access or perhaps had the main characters been more forthcoming or less guarded; also, the decision to wrap production a few months before the Dixie Chicks won a bunch of Grammy’s probably sold the film short. Nonetheless, very good film. My favorite moment of the entire evening was more symbolic of Kopple’s iconic stature among American documentarians. During the Q&A, a woman asked Ms. Kopple about a character in her 1976 classic, Harlan County USA. Tonight, more than a generation removed, in front of hundreds of film lovers — some born since the film was made — Kopple answered.

PS. Go to the The Avalon Theatre. It rocks.

Encountering Cincinnati’s First Citizen

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

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

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

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

Cincinnati’s Urban Core

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

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

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

Documentary’s Modernist Standard-Bearers

Today, I went to the exhibit “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It’s open until July 29, so hurry and check it out. So many recognizable artists and architects appeared, it was like a roll call for early century iconoclasm and influence; I learned a lot. The exhibit launched with the nascent ideals of Utopia, innovations of Cubism, and radical concepts of Futurism (Giacomo Balla is my favorite). I first learned about the Futurists went I went to London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in 1998 shortly after it opened. Today, I was again intrigued by their efforts to devise a comprehensive theory, juevenile antics, and ill-advised ties with fascism.

In the Corcoran’s “Promoting Modernism” and “Performing Modernism” rooms, I saw film clips from some of the big names in early cinema: Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1924), Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), and Joris Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931). Ruttman’s ode to Berlin is urban and upbeat. It established the benchmark for all documentaries about cities to come. In the “Aetheticized Machine and Transportation” room, film clips included Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923); and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) . A few years ago, I rented this one and watched it three times in a week. Vertov’s film did more for point-of-view in documentary filmmaking than any work that generation. It was good to see it included, among the architecture, industrial design, and plastic arts.

Above the entrway to the exhibit is a quote by Corbusier : “A great epoch has begun: there exists a new spirit.” If that’s the core of Modernism, then we’re still smack dab in the middle of a Modernistic age.

Bismarck on the Mountaintop

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

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

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

Why is Africa Singing Scotland’s Praises?

I was in a color-correction session today for my first documentary feature, Volcanic Sprint, about Africa’s most grueling mountain race. And I noticed something. Before the race begins, the “Queen of the Mountain,” who is the defending female champion, is at risk of being disqualified. Amid rumors of a conspiracy, the Mayor of Buea speaks up: “Her supporters may interpret it as a kind of injustice done to her.” His words are calculated, yet visceral, and it’s clear he’s a fan as well. The scene helps establish the Queen as more than a sports star. An entire town is leaning on her. Then I noticed the Mayor’s baseball cap, which read: “Bank of Scotland.”

Why Scotland in Africa? Forest Whitaker truly deserved his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, a rough-hewn, focused story infused with documentary style. It is more enduring than the entertaining Blood Diamond. But why did Whitaker’s character, dictator Idi Amin grant himself the title “King of Scotland?” I thought I knew part of the answer. Colonized by the Brits, Uganda and Scotland share a common history. Then I encountered My Brutal Muse, a fascinating article by novelist Giles Foden who wrote the book upon which the movie was based. Foden called the mental roots of Amin’s behavior, “the psychological byproduct of his Oedipal relationship with the former colonial power.” When the Brits turned their backs on Amin, he “could sing Scotland’s praises and support its self-determination, while hating and hoping to split the UK.” So in quirky, and sometimes entertaining fashion, Amin was simply following the old adage of realpolitik: “My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend” (which also happens to be the name of a forthcoming documentary film by the The Last King of Scotland’s director, Kevin MacDonald.

Now, back to Volcanic Sprint and the Mayor of Buea (located in the Southwest Province of Cameroon, also colonized by the British.) His “Bank of Scotland” hat. Was it an accident of overlapping cultures or political commentary? Or simply a stylish protection from the equatorial sun? I think not: in singing Scotland’s praises, one African mayor is doing more than just associating himself with a prosperous foreign bank. After a fashion, like Whitaker’s Amin, he’s invoking the swagger of Braveheart.

Convenient Proof

What better time to inaugurate this commentary at the crossroads of documentary film and international relations than the day after the Oscars. And finally a documentary that moved people as much or more than the feature category. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim, won best doc feature: a great follow-up for this third-highest grossing documentary of all time. Even the Washington Post got in the act, spreading the love the “Goracle’s” way! And why not? After a bitter 2000, Gore could’ve gone a lot of directions. He took the high road. And at least in Washington DC where I live, the film’s message has become doctrine. Nobody’s disputing it. I just hope the film’s success helps pave the way for increasing American leadership in innovative climate policy. There’s a lot of great programs out there. We need to get moving on a number of them. And as for Al Gore: thanks, man, for sticking with it. We Americans love second acts.