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.
Sundance is even better than I anticipated. I watched nine documentaries in three days, met a hero of mine, braved the cold, boxed for photos, and soaked up Main Street life in the snow.
I arrived Tuesday excited. Sundance is, after all, atop the pantheon of North American film festivals for documentaries, along with Tribeca, SXSW, Full Frame, New York Film Festival, True/False, and Hot Docs.
For years, I was hoping my first time would be with my own doc. Being invited to a festival with your film is awesome, because you mingle with other filmmakers and share your work with a live audience! When Volcanic Sprint played at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, it was unforgettable! And when Shattered Sky premiered at the DC Environmental Film Fest, it was the culmination of four years of passion, labor, and learning. It was epic.
But before I’m a filmmaker, I’m a huge fan of documentary, and now that I live in Los Angeles, it was just a hop over to Park City, Utah. I snapped up a cheap Jet Blue flight out of Long Beach and took an Uber to my AirBnB near downtown.
Update: Here’s Sundance winners. Now, loosely in order of how I liked them, what I watched:
Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Lui, was the first film I took in, and my favorite. I like how it evolved from a buddy movie to a mystery to an indictment of toxic masculinity. Structurally, it’s some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. Much more than a skateboarding picture, Minding the Gap has really stuck with me. Just go watch it; I can’t do it justice in words.
America to Meis Steve James’ new 10-part episodic documentary series that was acquired by Starz for $5 million during the festival. In a feat of endurance and patience—which James himself alluded to jokingly, before, during, and after the 6-hour session—we watched the first five episodes. It was stellar, and to be honest I could’ve easily stayed another five hours to watch the final five episodes! Like you’d expect from a James production (he is the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), you get strong, authentic characters navigating issues of class and race. It was a huge pleasure to talk with James afterwards. When organizers kicked us out of the theater for the next screening, he invited us all to keep chatting nearby. No trace of self-importance, James took all questions and earnestly answered. Likeable, smart guy. Legendary documentary professional. This is why I love going to festivals.
Shirkers is a one-of-a-kind entertaining documentary by Sandi Tan. It’s quirky first-person filmmaking at its best. In the early 1990s, Tan makes Singapore’s first indie flick, but then her mentor and professor steals the footage. More than 20 years later, she gets her hands on the footage again, which sends her on a journey of memory and belonging. Tan announces herself as a new voice.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the story of the global hip hop artist. It pieces together raw home movies revealing the vulnerable, ernest activist behind the famous star. I definitely would’ve liked to see more about how she became such an accomplished writer, beat-maker, and dancer, but that’s a credit to Director Steven Loveridge’s storytelling. The artist comes off as a very likable, normal person, with a big heart and a legitimate desire to help her people. I read in Billboard that M.I.A. wasn’t sure she liked the movie. Well, I like her a lot more now that I’ve seen it.
Kailash won the Sundance grand jury prize, but it wasn’t even in my top three. The issue it highlights is important (child slavery), and the film was very well done, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. But it’s hard to elevate hagiography, particularly when most of it is in the past tense. This was a solid and motivating film, but you sort of knew where it was going.
Hal celebrates the under-appreciated 1970s director Hal Ashby, who made 7 films in 9 years, including the enduring Harold and Maude, Being There, Shampoo, and others. I really enjoyed this one.
Sundance featured a slew of documentaries. They seemed to fall into three categories. First, personal stories with strong points of view: Minding the Gap and Shirkers. Second, famous people doing big things: Kailash and Hal. Third, legendary filmmakers coming back to Sundance: America to Me.
I watched nine in three days, and was in hog heaven. I’m a little ashamed that every doc in this blog I gave four out of four stars! Hey, I’m not a critic: I’m a lover of documentaries!
Because we’re all hard-wired for story, focus on people and their passions first, not on your own programs.
It’s been more than 4 years since I first wrote about Kinote, a coffee farmer in Meru, Kenya who was working hard to build a larger house for his family.
For a DC-based client, I was in rural Kenya to tell Kinote’s story. The larger context was the agricultural extension agent (and his NGO) who was helping the farmers improve yields and sell direct-to-market.
Despite the many differences between us, Kinote’s quest to grow his business and provide for his family was something I identified with.
His story came rushing back to me as I added new clips to my company’s updated reel, “Videos for Good.” [Dorst MediaWorks Reel 2018].”
That’s because Kinote’s two young daughters are the first two people you see in the video, wiping sleep out of their eyes crawling out of bed.
Kinote’s not alone. Every person in the reel brings back a torrent of memories for me, usually their hopes and dreams.
How do you tell these stories? I mean, corporate governance and capacity building are super abstract.
It’s the people and their passions.
I don’t recall the details of the programmatic interventions on any of these project, but I definitely remember the hopes and dreams of the people I chose to film.
LeCow is a Brazilian teenager from a sprawling favela who’s dream is to become a musician (13 seconds.)
Sara wants to grow her clothing company and export from Ethiopia to America (34 seconds. Spolier: She succeeds, and I see her products at The Gap at a Maryland suburban mall 12 months later!)
Rabih’s chief ambition is to grow his fishing business in Lebanon (At 38 seconds.)
The beautiful thing about the documentary video process is that you give voice to people. Done properly, it’s founded on listening. You look people in the eyes. You follow and observe them. In their own voices, whether that’s Meru, Arabic, or Tagalog, they share what matters to them.
Why do I remember LeCow, Sara, and Rabih like we met yesterday?
Early on, I found myself writing scripts that featured the organizations that hired me, rather than their beneficiaries.
My big “aha moment” came during a strategy session with a big multilateral client that does a lot of work throughout Latin America.
They were understandably focused on programmatic nuts and bolts: logistics, buzzwords, metrics. They were in their own world.
I just wanted to learn about the people they serve.
Fortunately, the Director of Communications had just spent a week in the field and she had a lot of great stories.
The people we want to focus on, we all agreed, are no different than you or me. They have jobs and families. They have a past and a future.
Finally, the makings of a script outline! What if we just show their before and after, I proposed, and be honest about how your organization is helping them achieve their dreams?
Kinote is doing his best to increase coffee production so he can build a three-room house, tripling the size of his current house.
Rabih (00:38), the fisherman: “My dream is to expand my business, and buy a larger boat.”
Maxima (00:41) who I met in the slums of Manila: “I intend to keep working to provide a better future for my grandchildren.”
Kinote, Rabih, and Maxima are agents of their own change. Today, their families and communities are better. Our project helped them along the way.
That’s the story.
Organizations that do good: a conduit of authentic communications
So much of successful communications by organizations that do good is simply getting out of the way.
Are you the SCR arm of a Fortune 500 company working in your own community? Let the people you help tell their own story in their own voices (and minimize the product placement on your branded t-shirts in the video!).
Are you a large issue-oriented nonprofit, focused on water or nutrition or women’s reproductive rights? Your best stories feature the people benefiting from your activities.
Are you a foundation funding 501(c)3s? Is there a way that people can help illustrate the larger issues you care about?
The Dorst MediaWorks reel “Videos for Good” speaks to these creative choices, with animated text: “What is your greatest dream … goal … hope … desire.”
Hala in rural Lebanon: “I started alone in this (flower) business. But today I have four shops and four employees.”
Anthony, in Kenya: “Visiting them (the farmers) you’ll see bigger smiles, because there’s hope now.”
Again, animated text: “My health … civil society … conflict … economy … education is better.”
“My governance … agriculture … rule of law … job …is better.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing nonprofit marketing, a fundraising video, or nonprofit media of any kind.
Focus the lens on the people you serve. Help them tell their own stories in their own voices. In so doing, you’re connecting your audiences with hopes and dreams that resonate.
“My life is better.”
Let the people you serve tell the story
Their passions are the secret sauce in impactful storytelling.
When they achieve their hopes and dreams, with a little nudge from your organization, this illustrates results.
In the future when we all look back at our careers, we probably won’t regret taking too many risks.
On the contrary, most of us are experts at playing it safe.
Why are we so chronically cautious? For those of us with creative businesses, getting in a rut can be a fast-track to failure.
Calculated risk-taking, however, can help us gain new skills, land new clients, and grow personally and professionally.
I’m not talking about impulsive or self-sabotaging risk-taking, where you bet it all on one roll of the dice. I’m talking about the calculated kind—using intellect, effort, and resourcefulness—to take your creative business to the next level. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!
In my experience running my own small creative business (we make videos for international development organizations), here are 7 of my best calculated risks and what I learned along the way.
1. Go for it!
The year was 2000, and barely a year out of my Master’s program, I was a writer for the World Bank Group’s external website and internal online daily, “Today.” It was a good job in the field of economic development, exactly where I thought I wanted to be. I liked interviewing the diverse staff and writing about something different every day. But there was a glass ceiling: after a while, I wasn’t doing anything new. And I had a nagging feeling that what I really needed to be doing was making documentary films. Yet I had no relevant education, experience, or mentors.
Against all good judgment, I struck out on my own. Thanks to the reputation I’d built as a quality writer, I landed several contracts right away. The lesson here is to listen to yourself. When your inner voice starts telling you that you’re settling, don’t settle. If that means you need to become your own boss, then make it happen. It’ll be easier if you’re at a point in your life, like I was, without children or a mortgage. If you fail, find a way to fail forward.
2. You have to give to get
During the summer of 2001, still hungry to learn more about documentary, I attended the DoubleTake Documentary Institute held at Hampshire College. Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman, Ira Glass, and others held master classes on documentary and storytelling across disciplines. It was inspiring, and made me want to make videos more than ever! Meanwhile, as a freelancer, I was making progress, doing writing, web, and multimedia jobs—but not any video yet. Something had to give.
At the time, my friend Darin ran a nonprofit benefitting D.C. schoolchildren. What if I made him a free video? Sure, he said (surprise!). Suddenly I had to figure it out. Yikes! I had no idea how to shoot, direct, or edit. So I hired a talented shooter and editor, and I did the rest. Somehow it worked! The Heads Up video turned out great, Darin was happy, and I had the beginnings of a portfolio. During the next year, I repeated the “Free Strategy” several times. It was a pretty bad business strategy: I was robbing Peter (my freelance business) to pay Paul (the free videos). But this was the start of an education in video production I never had. Within a year, I had a solid portfolio.
The lesson: I knew a couple things about myself. First, I didn’t want to go back to school to learn video. Second, I didn’t want to work as an intern at a video production company to gain skills and knowledge. My “Free Strategy” gave me a real-world situation where I had the incentive to make quality videos for real clients on a real schedule. I gave my time and some free videos. But I got much more. I learned a lot, and fast.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it – just surround yourself with creative talent
By the end of 2003, I was getting pretty good making short videos for nonprofits, but I’d never done anything too complex. When I bid for a campaign of videos in Tokyo, I didn’t think I had a chance. I simply didn’t have the experience or portfolio.
I won the contract—undoubtedly because I underbid significantly. Initially, I was in over my head. Pre-production was exceedingly tough. Fortunately, I hired my former schoolmate Kayo to serve as Tokyo-based Unit Producer: she also co-wrote the script, translated, and was a total rock star. We engaged a local crew and used 10 actors, and ultimately spent an exhilarating week at some of Tokyo’s most beautiful locations. Less than four years after starting my company, I pulled off a complex international bilingual production. The video even won an award.
The lesson: Most importantly, I continued my education. The talented Cinematographer Stefan Weisen came to Tokyo with me and essentially co-directed. And eons before he launched his uber-successful creative agency, Gigawatt Group, Mark Devito edited. Two super creative, talented partners. This project was really a watershed point for me. Before, I was doing small stuff around D.C. After, I believed I could pull off any video production anywhere in the world. The lesson: you really can “fake it ‘til you make it” if you’re prepared to surround yourself with talented people and work your tail off.
4. To be uniquely creative, use your special networks (and a credit card)
The year was 2006. I was getting adept at writing, directing, and producing all kinds of corporate videos, but I still hadn’t made a long-form documentary. Looking around for a subject, I kept thinking of my experience living in Africa. My idea: make a film about the most extreme running race in the world—the marathon-distance trail run up a live volcano in Buea, Cameroon. The problem was I just didn’t have the budget. What to do?
I remember sitting down to lunch in January 2006 with an old friend, Paul McKellips, who’s made his share of indie features. He saw me waffling, and gave me a good motivational drubbing. His message: you have a great story. Now go to Africa and tell it! The next month, I put everything on my Visa card and flew with Dan Evans and Ryan Hill to Cameroon. I relied on Ryan’s experience with Nat Geo, Dan’s resourcefulness, and my network—which was key. My best Cameroonian friend, Jean Paul Fosso, was working with the Cameroonian Sports Ministry, so I had full access, and even ended up shooting from a helicopter during the race (crazy scary!). Another close friend, Louise Mbango, connected me to Moki Charles, a producer for Cameroonian Radio and Television. He took a week off from his day job to be our Unit Producer and hired seven additional shooters to film on race day. I directed the 10-day shoot. Then Dan and I scripted and edited for a year, working in between paying gigs. Awesome!
Ultimately, Volcanic Sprint won the non-fiction category at the Big Bear Lake Film Festival and was an official selection of the Jackson Hole Film Festival, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and Boulder Adventure Film Festival. It was distributed globally by American Public TV Worldwide. You can even watch it on Amazon and iTunes today (and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDB). I earned back my investment and then some.
To tell this unique story, I needed my friends to give me rare access. My hook-up with the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope was one-in-a-million. The lesson: look again at your own networks. They may inspire more creativity than you give them credit for!
5. Target your weaknesses
The year was 2008. My business was taking off. I had hired Dan full-time and we were scrambling to finish a lot of corporate videos. We started our second documentary, Shattered Sky, which contrasted America’s leadership preserving the ozone layer with inertia in the face of climate change. The problem was, from my standpoint, Dan was having all the fun, shooting and editing. I was the one wearing the monkey suit, writing proposals, going to meetings, producing, bent over my computer. I had the itch to be more creative. I wanted to shoot.
Sure, I’d been shooting for years, first with the Panasonic DVX100 before HD was a thing. But I wasn’t proficient yet. So I started taking the Sony EX1 home to practice at night and on weekends. It didn’t come naturally for me. But I kept at it, and gradually improved. So when Dan moved to Portland to start his own production company, I had the confidence and ability to do all the shooting myself. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours behind the lens, first with the Canon 5D, then the Canon C100, the C300, and now on my Sony FS7, which for my money is the best documentary camera value out there.
The lesson: shooting didn’t come nearly as easy to me as writing and producing. But I worked really hard. I targeted my weakness.
6. Forge unorthodox partnerships
The year was 2013. The previous three years had been the most fulfilling in my professional life. I wrapped Shattered Sky, and then shot, wrote, and edited 10 episodes of a documentary TV series called Bench to Bedside. Less than three years after learning Final Cut Pro, I was nominated for an Emmy award for editing. I was doing every aspect of filmmaking and loving it!
Meanwhile, I was directing a commercial shoot one day working with DP Doug Gritzmacher. It was intense: 20 actors, 9 scenes, a big crew. It was approaching midnight and we were about to get kicked out of our location (Frederick Memorial Hospital). I was tired and couldn’t visualize the last scene the way I’d scripted it. There was no way we were going to finish in time and I was stressed out! Fortunately, Doug changed it up on the fly, basically directed the scene for me, and saved the production! The next month, he hired me to direct some interviews for a DirecTV documentary, MLK: More than a Dream—and I got to interview Colin Powell, James Brown, and the incomparable John Lewis. Month after month, I hired him or he hired me for various projects. But along the way, he started packing—to move to Denver!
Doug’s choice was an odd one. He’d spent 15 years building a clientele in D.C. and he was leaving now? (He wanted to settle in a place where he could ski, hike, and mountain bike in his backyard, which I couldn’t blame him for!) So in part to cement an emerging partnership, we launched Z-Channel Films, a full-service video production company. We really had no idea what our business plan was, but it felt like the right thing to do. It was certainly unorthodox timing. I helped Doug pack the U-Haul the same day our website went live.
Ultimately, Doug and I were rewarded for our efforts. Z-Channel won a Telly Award for one of our first collaborations, Saving Sally(the one where he saved the shoot). Then when AARP hired me to direct a couple projects in California, I had them fly Doug out from Denver. Those two short films – Skateboard Mom and then Super Humans Unmasked—surpassed 5 million views on Facebook! And then the incredible happened. Z-Channel Films was the first production company DirecTV chose to work with to make a documentary out-of-house. On Veteran’s Day 2015, Jobs for G.I.s premiered nationally on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.
The lesson I learned: be open to new partnerships, even when it doesn’t seem that logical at first.
7. A.B.L.: Always be learning
The year was 2013 and drones were in the news. When DJI released their first Phantom copter, I was fascinated. Although I had zero experience flying, I immediately bought the first-generation model and started practicing. But the first six times I tried to fly it, I crashed. But I kept at it, and my (empty) neighborhood soccer field became my practice grounds. Gradually I got proficient. The problem was, the Phantom didn’t have a gimbal. So when I MacGyvered a GoPro on it, the footage was shaky. Try as I might, I couldn’t use the footage.
Fast forward a year. A local production company hired me to field direct and run second camera for a new Red Bull Channel series. The night before my first gig they called: “Can you fly a copter?” Sure, I bluffed, even though it’d been a year. I arrived in Key West to find the audio grip holding a brand-new Phantom 2+ still in the box. I put it all together—on the boat!—as we motored to our location. I knew the Phantom 2+ had a gimbal and a pretty good camera. But my stomach was churning: would this thing even fly? If so, would I crash it in the Atlantic? Fortunately, on that first harrowing mission, I barely avoided baptizing the copter: Here’s a YouTube clip. Red Bull liked the footage so much that in subsequent months, I flew the Phantom in Portland and Jamestown. Here’s my blog about the experience. These days, I fly the Phantom 4 all the time. It’s a great tool for cinematic aerials: check out what I did last month in in Dakar, Senegal.
The lesson: Always be learning. We may not be able to use our knowledge right away. But in this business, learning is the best calculated risk you can take!
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.
Until last month, my best Olympic memory was this: While in college in 1992 I traveled across Europe for a summer. In Barcelona, I splurged on Olympic track and field tickets for my 21st birthday. Sunshine, world-class runners, and … Evander Holyfield? What was he doing in the cheap seats? I have this enduring memory of sitting behind the boxing champ all day, surprised he had itty-bitty calves in comparison to his hulking upper body.
Then Rio happened.
In my opinion, Brazil pulled it off. I had one of the best weeks of my life. Rio buzzed with Olympic spirit, and I saw Neymar, Simone Biles, Matthew Centrowitz and hundreds of other elite athletes doing what they do best.
The experience made me realize a few things along the way:
1. Make Up Your Own Mind
I arrived on high alert. How could I not? The negative news was relentless. I mean, just type “Rio Olympic problems” into Google and you get 26 million results: Zika, unsafe water, crime, corruption. Sure, Brazil was going through an unprecedented political crisis and their worst recession in a century. But, during my week in Rio, the Olympics went off great. Transportation was excellent. The metro was cleaner and faster than the DC metro in some cases. Volunteers were all over the place, affable and helpful. Crime wasn’t an issue, for me. Oh yeah, and nobody got Zika. Oops! Makes me wonder why our media was so down on Brazil. For me, it verged on some sort of implicit editorial prejudice against a poorer country. Journalists simply didn’t get the green light to expose London’s pockets of squalor and rampant inequality in 2012. But this year, they had free reign to hate on Rio. My take-away: be skeptical of what you read. And then make up your own mind.
2. Choose Your Corner: Lochte, Trump … or Not
On a daily basis, people wanted to engage with m on Trump. Not just Brazilians. Everybody. I don’t blame them. He’s fascinating, a Narcissistic blowhard without a censor mechanism. This was different than the years of Bush Junior, whom I felt I needed to defend to some degree, since dismissing him outright felt like dismissing American Democracy (since we voted him in twice and our Congress authorized the Iraq invasion). Trump ain’t elected. Yes, the Republican Party is broken for selecting him. No, he won’t be elected. No, he doesn’t represent America, our policies, our values. That felt great to say. Liberating. Now let’s go drink a beer.
But then Ryan Lochte happened. My first instinct was guilt. An American Abroad Behaving Badly. But then I had a Liberating Trump Moment. I don’t know Ryan Lochte. He doesn’t stand for me. In fact, he’s not representative of Americans abroad or American athletes at all. He’s one guy (here’s a complete timeline of Locate’s imaginative story). But he does have a supreme talent for accidental humor.
3. Fresh is Best: Açai!
If I could snap my fingers and import one thing from Rio today, it would be Brazil’s culture of fresh fruit juice. Every morning, I bought an açai bowl from one of my favorite corner juice joints in Ipanema: Polis Sucos or Big Nectar. My favorite: acai, with banana, strawberry, and granola mixed in. Yes, the food was great. And I was fortunate to have several friends who live in Rio who took me to their favorite places and introduced me to all the local delights—churrasco, feijoada, moqueca do camarao—but my favorite: açai and the fruit juices!
4. Even Elites Seek Mentors
At track and field, we had tickets up top. But the Brazilians weren’t checking tickets, so we wasted no time boogying down to ground level … about 10 rows behind a group of Olympic coaches. The men’s decathlon was in full swing, namely the discus. When
defending Gold Medalist Ashton Eaton walked over to us the first time, I could almost hear his conversation with Coach Harry Marra. Eaton listened intently. It was impressive. Here was the best athlete in the world—maybe the best decathlete in history—and he could have relied solely on experience, technique, or mental focus. But he chose to connect with his coach after every throw. It made him stronger.
5. Know the Rules of Your Game
That same morning, my heart sunk during the qualifying round of the Women’s 4x100m relay when Allyson Felix dropped the baton. Disqualified! I was crushed. What I didn’t know—and wouldn’t learn until dinner with friends later that night—was that she had been bumped by the Brazilian runner next to her. The team filed an appeal with the IAAF and got a second chance, qualifying for a chance to win the gold, which it did. Great summary here.
6. Stay Determined
This one is more Brazil and less Olympics. Everywhere you go, commerce comes to you: on the beach, in the metro, at red lights. Men and women selling everything from candy bars to drinks to clothes—and all manner of random chochkies. Having lived in Cameroon, I got used to this sort of thing long ago. Here in Rio, the traveling salesmen weren’t aggressive. Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty in Brazil, but these people were doing their best to get ahead. They deserved as much respect as the guy with the desk job or the woman driving a bus. Did I want a tablecloth at the beach? No. But was I known to buy Kit Kats on the metro en route to Olympic events. Yes!
It was a cool Saturday evening at the Olympic Stadium and I didn’t hold out much hope for Matthew Centrowitz. Sure, I saw the American 1,500m runner qualify during our Olympic Trials and vaguely knew he grew up somewhere near Washington, D.C. But Americans don’t win distance events, right? An American hadn’t won gold in the 1,500m since 1908. Yes, Centrowitz got 4th in London, but at the starting line Ethiopian and Kenya runners predominated, including Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic winner and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic winner. The gun fires! The first lap is slow at 66 seconds. And the second lap is even slower at 70 seconds. It is the pace of a high-school mile! Centrowitz, in the lead, seems to be conserving his energy for the final sprint, and nobody is calling his bluff. At the bell lap, with the runners still in a tight pack, the pace ratchets up, and Kiprop finds himself in 9th place with no choice but to sprint up the outside—burning a lot of matches just to make it up to Centrowitz’s shoulder. Watch the last lap: it’s incredible. It’s more like a battle—elbows flying, runners tripping, all fighting for position since position means victory. In the lead, Centrowitz is protected from all that. It’s like he’s running in a vacuum. His own race. At no point does he appear to “start a sprint,” or look around, or even alter his exquisite form in any way. On the homestretch, he maintains form all the way, and amidst an absolutely insane crowd screaming bloody murder—including me—he’s the first to cross the line. Gold! Centrowitz’s last lap is a sprinter’s pace—50 seconds. He looked around as if utterly shocked. His father, in the stands, literally loses his mind! After the victory, Centrowitz the Younger says: “I came into this championships with a different mind-set. Thought to myself, I’m in great shape. Just run to my capability . . . It was about being the best I could be on this day.” Centrowitz never let the chaos behind him dictate his strategy. He ran, and won, his own race.
In December, Doug Gritzmacher and I joined Producer T.J. Cooney for a few days in San Francisco to film a bunch of adults that dress up as superheroes.
It was one of our first projects under the banner of Z-Channel Films, our new company. Doug and I have been collaborating off and on for years, and we’ve finally decided to take the plunge and work together in this new initiative (more on our motivation and background).
As for the superheroes, I was skeptical. What was the catch? Were they Comicon junkies living out a suspended adolescence? Or bored middle-agers with aspirations to be cast in Kick-Ass 3?
As soon as I met Roxanne Cai, however, I got an immediate appreciation for her commitment and true motivation.
Since Roxanne founded the California branch of The Initiative, she’s led efforts to pick up used drug needles around the Mission District. Not just once in a while. But every week for four years. At last count: about 200 trips and about 7,000 needles off the streets.
That’s not all. About once a month, the group hosts a pop-up Street Boutique. They dress up as superheroes for fun and to attract attention to their good deeds. Then they hang up all the clothes on mobile racks so people can consider options in a dignified manner.
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.
I 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.
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.
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!
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.
When I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.
I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.
It was a shock.
Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?
After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.
As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.
But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.
Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.
I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.
I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.
I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.
I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?
I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?
Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.
Two years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”
Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”
Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.
At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”
Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.
But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!
What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.
The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”
The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”
Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?
No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.
When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:
Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.
Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?
Now, $1.8 billion per year is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.
The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.
Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?
I went to my 20th college reunion last weekend at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. It was insanely entertaining catching up with people, most of whom I hadn’t seen in two decades. Writing “two decades” just made my fingers tremor. How am I old enough to be 20 years removed from anything—much less, you know, a college graduation?
Anyway. Wandering through the hallways of Townsend with James and Courtney was particularly nostalgic. But beyond the material memories (that paintings, those couches, the still un-tuned piano) I was attentive to an existential difference—back then, I lived a blessed non-linearity, characterized by marathon debates and the expanded sense of possibilities that youth conveys.
In this very common room, I defended the existence of God in a late-night debate against a guy named Graham (he was pretty damn smart; he won). That table over there was where I studied for my favorite class, “Hunger, Plenty, and Justice.”
We knew we could change the world.
Back in DC yesterday, I found an email from Kiva telling me I had $148 in available credit. I haven’t done much on Kiva for a while and it got me thinking again about changing the world.
In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.
I joined Kiva in March 2007. Since then, I’ve deposited $672. I’ve made 121 loans to the working poor in 53 countries. When they pay back, I re-loan the money, so I’ve lent about $3,100 now.
A few years ago, I became disillusioned because I saw a lot of people lending for stupid reasons—so somebody could open a bar or the like. Nothing innovative. Nothing the local market wasn’t already supporting.
On the “Solar Explosion” team page I wrote: “1.5 billion people still lack electricity. Only a global solar explosion can change that and end poverty.”
And in the spot where you write “About us,” I put: “We know if you really want to fight poverty, you start with distributed renewable power – harnessing the sun in your own backyard! Micro-solar technology already exists that can transform people’s lives. The problem is that banks are only financing the old model: centralized power stations and expensive transmission grids. We lend to inspire awareness, so microfinance does more and more solar financing projects. Our goal is a solar explosion! Join us today!”
In summary: small-scale solar technology exists, but the financing doesn’t. It’s gonna take tailored models in different countries so poor people can do solar power in their own backyards and pay it off over time.
“Solar Explosion” started slow, but today, there are 51 members who’ve made 572 loans to the tune of $14,525. Still not much, but a start.
In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.
With electricity, children study more, get smarter, and perhaps get better jobs; family members are more productive, perhaps doing small businesses from home. And everybody is connected to the outside world, by simply plugging in a TV or charging a cell phone.
At the end of the day, there are tons of people who know way more than I do about distributed solar, about solar financing, and what the bottlenecks are. And perhaps Kiva’s not the best way to jumpstart this.
But it’s one way.
If you join Kiva, join “Solar Explosion.” Lend to green projects, especially solar.
I didn’t name it, but it’s spot on. The “OMG WTF” ride is the hardest ride I’ve ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out; put me between two pieces of white bread, and served me for school lunch. I went riding recently with a few cycling friends: Bill Berlin, Jay Stanley, and Bill Murray. We leave Arlington at 6am to miss Beltway traffic, and start pedaling around 7:30 from Frederick, MD.
It‘s my first time to tackle this route, which seems to have been designed for maximum elevation and suffering. It’s a figure-8 in and out of Gambrill State Park on Catoctin Mountain. With at least four categorized climbs (Cat-3), it’s a legit test. Lots of quality cyclists seem to come here: on Strava, 467 cyclists have ridden the first mountain climb, for example, over 1,400 times.
Jay’s Contour helmet cam captures some surprisingly good footage:
1. Reason #1. Hamburg Road
The first climb is up Hamburg Road, and it’s a doozy! It’s 3.3 miles long, with more than 1,000 ft of elevation gain (6.2% average grade). It takes me about 21 minutes and I average 9 mph. It’s incredibly painful, and I know I’m in for a long day, since I’m reduced to constantly checking my bike computer, doing fast math: “OK, I’ve gone 9.1 miles, 60 to go” . . . and an eternity later . . . “OK, I’ve gone 9.2 miles, 59.9 to go!”
2. Reason #2. Harp Hill
The second hill, Harp Hill, is “only” 1.8 miles. It’s also a cat-3 climb, but shorter — and as a result, not as painful. I cover the 630 ft elevation gain (average grade of 6.7 mph) at a slower 7.9 mph. Bad news: I’m slowing down.
3. Reason #3. The crosswinds
The next 15 miles or so are no picnic, to be sure, but they’re rollers and fun. It’s a beautiful Autumn day, with the sun streaking through the trees. Unfortunately, the crosswind is unpredictable and strong. It gusts upwards of 15-17 mph. Fortunately, most of the climbs are protected, narrow roads. But some of the open descents are too windy.
Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face.
4. Reason #4. Middlepoint Road
Middlepoint Road starts to wind upwards at the 35 mile point. Having not ridden much the previous two months, I was dreading this. It’s 1.8 miles long, with 740 ft of elevation gain (with an even higher 7.3% average grade). I’m just trying to survive.
5. Reason #5. Coxey Brown
Jay is talking about how Coxey Brown is the hardest hill he’s ever done, and I just want to get it over with. Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face. It’s insane: 1.9 miles long, with 1,024 ft of elevation gain, and 9.6% average grade. No rest for the weary!
6. Reason #6. 5.3 mph
Midway through Coxey, I feel like it’s my first day ever on a bike. It’s a old, narrow one-lane road, with odd off-camber turns and cracked asphalt. It’s not even 60 degrees this afternoon, but I’ve unzipped both my jacket and cycling shirt as far as they’ll go. It takes me 24 minutes to reach the top—at a paltry average speed of 5.3 mph!
7. Reason #7. The paperboy
When you suffer like this, you do things to survive. From the get-go on Coxey, I pull out a shameless maneuver: the paperboy. You know, riding far left and far right, just to manage the slope and stay on the machine. Far in front of me, Bill Berlin is pushing his Trek straight up Coxey. Respect!
Coxey has claimed another victim, but today it’s not me. Torquing up the extreme grades, Jay busts his hub. He ends up running up the hills next to his bike, then gliding down them—covering 6miles this way until we pick him up on the way back to Washington, D.C.
OMG WTF. If you’re ready to test yourself, do it. It’s a helluva ride.
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.
They say there’s freedom in structure. But how do you tell a story that spans 20 years in a traditional 60-second commercial spot? That was my challenge when Paul McKellips, President of FBR Media, asked me to direct “Saving Sally.” McKellips wanted to show the research and development that goes into developing life-saving medicine, with a focus on the people it saves.
First, I wrote the script with McKellips, who in a former life was a successful film and TV director and producer. Working with him went really smooth.
Visually, my solution was to shoot the spot with two distinct looks: For the bookend scenes with Sally’s family in the hospital room, I wanted to go more realistic and handheld. For the flashback to the years of discovery and progress, I’d do a dreamlike blue, exclusively dolly.
I also wanted to find a way to use visual FX during the compressed flashback scenes to convey complexity and chronology. The FX would be a secondary storyline. I knew the viewer wouldn’t be able to process all the FX in one pass, but that was kind of the point—there’s a lot that goes into developing medicine.
Then I storyboarded with my friend, Director of Photography Doug Gritzmacher. He did an amazing job visualizing all the scenes in advance—so we could think about how to integrate the visual FX in post.
In post, “Saving Sally” came alive. It was my first time collaborating with the insanely talented Peter Von Elling, whose visual FX wizardry exceeded my expectations.
As a documentary filmmaker, I tend to work on small teams. On location, there’s a lot more concern with reality — however that’s defined. When I’m director/camera on documentary shoots, I follow the action, concerned with emotion, interaction, human feelings. On the “Saving Sally” shoot, I spent days in advance working with a pretty big crew to ensure that we could conjure up emotion on set. It’s a big difference.
On the day of the shoot, I left Washington, D.C. behind and went to Maryland. Line Producer Kurt Uebersax ran the set like a well-oiled machine. Carl Glorioso, director of the Frederick Film Office, hooked us up with an ideal location at Frederick Memorial Hospital—where we staged some incredibly realistic scenes without trucking in a boatload of extra props.
I knew it was going to be tight—9 scenes in a 12-hour day. With about 20 actors and scenes on three hospital floors, we were moving fast. But it was 10pm and I still had two scenes to shoot, with some serious overtime charges looming—for actors, hospital, etc, if we didn’t wrap soon. I was exhausted and my creative synapses weren’t firing (despite a fourth cup of coffee!). But Gritzmacher (and Gaffer Chris Walter) actually accelerated the pace. I got everything I needed.
In post, “Saving Sally” came alive. It was my first time collaborating with the insanely talented Peter Von Elling, whose visual FX wizardry exceeded my expectations.
Much of my work over the years has been documentary, where you get more time to let events unfold, and time to tell the tale. But this year I’ve been directing more commercials, where every second counts. I’m lucky to have established my video production company in Washington, D.C., where there are really so many talented people working in the business. They really helped “Saving Sally” come alive!
We interrupt this regularly programmed blog on film and video so I can vent about something that I didn’t realize I cared so much about: the bad, boring, blowhard Washington Nationals.
They’re bad: 9th of 15 NL teams, with a losing record, 29-30. But they’re worse than their record indicates. Of 30 teams in baseball, the Nats are 28th in batting average, 27th in slugging average, 29th in runs scored, and 30th in on-base percentage.
Because they don’t score, they’re boring. At least the Colorado Rockies lose games 9-8 and fans can chat about the 10 home runs they saw! Yes, Strasburg and Harper are exciting, but they’re both injured (along with about a fourth of the team).
Worst of all (and it pains me to say this), the Nats are blowhard. When New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan predicted he’d win the Super Bowl in his third season, I thought he was full of it.
That’s because since birth, I’ve been a Steeler fan. Steelers and their fans can be a lot of things, but we don’t tend towards acting the fool or self-aggrandizement. It’s about the team. And Coach Mike Tomlin is the anti-Rex Ryan.
Is Nats skipper Davey Johnson any different? His pre-season boast, “World Series or bust” became a rallying cry before 20 year-old Harper and 24 year-old Strasburg had even played a full season together!
And the DC media ate it up. It’s been a dry spell here. But sometimes you have to ask yourself whether it’s sports journalism or wish fulfillment. In fact, the hype has inspired a rash of Onion-like articles proactively inducting the pair into the Hall of Fame.
But this is American sports. Hyperbole rules. I get that. Big-market teams have big pocketbooks, hyped players, and braggart media. ESPN talking heads play armchair quarterback with all the reserve of Ann Coulter heckling an ACLU gathering.
Yet what I didn’t realize is that I cared so much.
After going to exactly one Major League baseball game in the two decades between 1992 and 2011, I’ve been to 20+ Nats games in the past two seasons. Where’d this passion come from? Did I catch . . . “Nattitude?”
SORRY PIRATES, I’VE FOUND A NEW MATE
I broke up with baseball at 11:52pm October 15, 1992. That was the moment Barry Bonds’ throw to Catcher Mike Lavalliere arrived a split second too late. The Atlanta Braves’ Sid Bream score the walk-off, overcoming a two-run deficit with two out in the bottom of the ninth to dispatch my Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1992 NLCS.
The Pirates of my youth were stacked: the power-hitter Bobby Bonilla, CF Andy Van Slyke, aces John Smiley and Doug Drabek, and a skinny kid named Barry Bonds.
But because the small-market Pirates couldn’t sign these budding stars to big money, they lost them all. In 1993, they finished 22 games back, and have been stuck there ever since.
I was only 20 at the time, and baseball and football were my favorite sports. But the way money dominated baseball didn’t seem fair.
So I broke up with baseball. Went cold turkey. Stopped pouring over statistics in the morning paper. Packed away my Topps mint-condition cards. Muted my amazement that Dave Kingman could ding 35 homers while hitting .210; stopped comparing Rickey Henderson to Lou Brock to Ty Cobb; Nolan Ryan to Steve Carlton to Sandy Koufax to Walter Johnson. Stopped it all.
Life went on. Studies, travel, new aspirations.
Lots changed in me, but little in baseball.
In 1992, when the Pirates lost Barry Bonds to the free-agent market, I wanted to be a college professor. The next year, I was an aspiring homeless advocate. By 1995, I wanted to be a professional piano player; in 1997, a management consultant, and (finally) in 2001 a documentary filmmaker.
All the while, the Pirates were losing, and I didn’t care. Baseball was dead to me. And it’s not clear to me if MLB tried to fix what ails it. In fact, the Pirates still haven’t had a single winning season. In 20 years.
OMG, DID I CATCH “NATTITUDE”?
Fast-forward. In Washington, D.C., with a family, career, and the Pirates-pain dulled by the passage of time, I didn’t see it coming.
The 2012 Nats snuck up on me. After their 2011 losing record, they became exciting! And it brought up a lot of great memories of baseball and my youth. I started buying SRO tickets to watch this underdog team—hanging at the Red Barn, drinking IPAs, and eating burgers at Shake Shack—just enjoying the new stadium!
I’d check stats in the morning paper, like I hadn’t done in 20 years, text friends with predictions on upcoming games, dissecting last night’s.
I was becoming a fan again.
So, as a new fan, here’s my two-cents: Nats, thanks for making baseball fun again. It’s been a while. I don’t need a World Series this year, nor predictions about it. Nats media: I don’t need the hype. I’m happy to see you build a good, solid franchise (perhaps like the Pittsburgh Steelers) that is in contention for many years to come. You’re a young franchise, and GM Rizzo seems to be doing a great job building young talent. Don’t start swinging your money stick around like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers. It cheapens the sport. Acquisitions like Jaysen Werth ($126 million) and Dan Haren ($45 million) remind me why I’m paying $9 for a lite beer. And it reminds me of the Pirates.
So, if I’m going to trade in my self-imposed baseball isolation for the big-market Nats, it only feels right if you do it with class.
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 . . .
Every spring here in D.C., the cherry blossoms come out and the city shuts down. I decided to go to the tidal basin for a few hours and take part in the mayhem . . . through my camera lens.
I set up at three locations: by the MLK, Jr. Memorial, around the corner facing the Washington Monument; and across the polo grounds on the banks of the Potomac. I brought the Canon 5D Mark III, the MYT Works glider, and several lenses: 16-35mm, 24-105mm, and 100-400mm.
I didn’t have a shooting plan. I was just having fun. Lots of tourists stepped through the frame, smiling, happy, with good energy. A Japanese woman with friends. A picnic at water’s edge. The golden hour gave way to blue.
I edited the footage today. I decided to use “Jilted Lovers” by the New Zealand band, The Naked and Famous. What inspiration? I pictured that Japanese woman. What if these lyrics were her story? What would capture her eye? What would she be thinking? Would she give in to bittersweet nostalgia? Or could she find release in the beauty all around her?
I decided to go to the tidal basin for a few hours and take part in the mayhem . . . through my camera lens.
The clip runs just short of 3 minutes. Hope you like it.
Seven years ago last month, with both legs dangling out of an old African military helicopter, I trained my film camera down at small dots of racers during the world’s most extreme running race. The participants in the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope still had 25 miles and 10,000 vertical feet to go to reach the roof of West Africa. We screamed up the main drag from Molyko Stadium, spitting up red dirt above thatched-roof huts to Upper Farms with its thousands of joyous fans.
It was my first time directing a documentary. I had no cash. So I put everything on credit cards, hired a knowledgeable DP to head up filming, and then Dan Evans left Washington, DC to fly to Buea, Cameroon. Little did I know that it would go on to do well in film festivals, get distribution around the world, and remain to this day the only documentary that chronicles this extreme running race.
If you like documentary films or running, or appreciate projects that are really a wing-and-a-prayer, then spread the word about Volcanic Sprint.
If you like documentary films or running, or appreciate projects that are really a wing-and-a-prayer, then spread the word about Volcanic Sprint. How can you help? Share the FB post that accompanies this blog post. Rate Volcanic Sprint on IMDB (we don’t have many ratings, and a few boneheads gave us 1 out of 10 ratings, so you can help counteract that . . . if you want!).
When I first got the call, I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. It was November 2010. The TV series was called “Survivor Tales.” It was its first year, and more an idea than a series. Produced by an upstart production company in DC with a skeleton staff, they’d just lost their DP/editor when he moved to NYC to work on a (now defunct) reality show, and outsourced creative to an underling. They were halfway through their third episode and needed some pickups in rural Minnesota . . . on a ranch . . . of a dog . . . named Dakota.
I was like, “Yeah, I’m in!”
First, I got familiar with the footage they had in-the-can. Unfortunately, it was rough. Master interviews in a server room, the rattle and hum of machines over voices. And a run-and-gun style that might have made sense on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq (where my friends John Collin and Ryan Hill have captured some beautiful images, notwithstanding the inhospitable environment), but was just sloppy for this context.
The next day, I found myself at the University of Minnesota. It was sink-or-swim time, since we were a crew of two — the producer and me. I ran camera, lights, and audio. I found a deep, quiet hallway for the interviews. At the time, they only had budget for the Sony EX-1, so I needed all the depth I could wrangle. Then I started directing broll of the doctors, mostly lab setups to help bring to life their cutting-edge research.
The next day was more fun, chasing a black Lab around a 100-acre ranch. This dog, Dakota, had beaten brain cancer thanks to a revolutionary vaccine the doctors were hoping to adapt for people someday.
Footage from that first shoot eventually made it into episode #10, “Dakota’s Brain”:
The good thing about when a DP/editor skips town, the production company needs to find a replacement DP and editor. They liked my Minnesota footage, and then entrusted me with the writing and editing of the show.
Little did I suspect, but this gig would grow to me serving as DP, writer, and editor for 10 episodes over the next two years.
The next month, I flew to LA. where I spent four days with Toby Forrest, who was bravely overcoming an incredibly devastating spinal cord injury to become an accomplished actor and singer. The narrative arc on this story was amazing.
One night I followed Toby verité style to a gig at the Viper Room on Sunset. I got a Director credit on this show, which became episode #1, “Toby’s Story”:
Like every shoot, “Toby’s Story” had challenges. At the Viper Room, I would have preferred a second camera, and we weren’t allowed lights, tripod, or an assistant. Most challenging, on the final day we had about an hour of sunlight left to shoot a conclusive scene, but we were stuck in the Valley in Van Nuys and my producer didn’t have any ideas. What’s more, we didn’t have a wheelchair-enabled vehicle. What to do?
Fortunately, having graduated high school nearby (Redondo Union High!), I knew just the place. I took the wheel of Toby’s van, drove south on the 405, and pulled into Redondo Beach right at golden hour. “Toby’s Story” concludes with what I shot next. “Will I walk again, I don’t know,” muses Toby in extreme closeup as he gazes toward the sun-dappled Pacific. “Will I be independent again? I sure hope so. Will I adapt to my circumstances? Most definitely.” Cut to Toby’s point of view. A jogger, in silhouette, exits frame left. Music track fades up. It is the end of Suite 68, which brought down the house at the Viper Room. Against a wistful final guitar lick, Toby’s own lyrics close the episode: “All alone in my misery.”
Steve Dorst earned credits as DP, Writer, and Editor on 10 episodes and Director on 4 episodes of the TV series, Bench to Bedside, which was acquired in 2013 by the commercial television arm of Australian Broadcast Corporation for global distribution. With a producer, Dorst captured inspirational stories and cutting-edge research on location across the country. Filmed documentary-style, the series is about true stories, real diseases, and high stakes.
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!
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.
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.
I’m in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. Today, I’m spending time with four boys that have benefited from being part of Catholic Relief Service’s programs here. At first, they are reticent, eyes quiet and downturned. “Bonding” is penciled into the shooting schedule, so the boys start to feel comfortable before I start shadowing them with a camera. So that means . . . soccer! My old skills come in handy as we play a spirited game and I earn a little street cred with these little guys.
Nkosilathi is the oldest, the weight of his responsibility heavily apparent on his face. He’s 19, but has been raising his three brothers by himself since both of his parents died and an older sibling fled to South Africa — stressed by the chore.
Handsome is 14. His smile belies his status: orphan, absolutely poor. John is 12. He is second in his class. Nqobizitha is 9. He is short and slight as a 6 year old. Even saying his name requires a unique tongue clucking like from that movie The Gods Must be Crazy.
Their house is a concrete shack measuring about 10 feet by 8 feet. Without a bed, they sleep on the floor covered in blankets. Without a table, they eat with their hands from bowls resting on the floor. Without electricity, they’ve pirated a neighbor’s line via a wildcat cable.
But they have each other, newfound support from a local group, and things are looking up. Their spirit strengthens my resolve to do better in everything I do.
My client, Catholic Relief Services, has a few expats but overwhelmingly local hires. These Zimbabweans work long hours and face huge obstacles. In a difficult political situation, the economy crashed during the past decade. Hyperinflation means that everybody with savings lost everything. Imagine working for a lifetime, saving for old age, and then waking up to find out that your bank account holds worthless paper. One enterprising guy sells me a 100 trillion dollar Zimbabwean note. To buy bread or a Lion beer, it’s worthless, but for this guy it’s worth $5 today.
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.
Been super busy, in a good way, in post-production for Shattered Sky. New feature indie doc from my co-director Dan Evans and me. Compares ozone issue to the current climate/energy crisis. Amazing similarities between the two: invisible compound was found to be wreaking devastating effects on the environment; all countries were at risk; changing course meant massive global economic implications; finding a solution was incredibly tough . . . except in the case of the ozone issue, the US took responsibility, owned up to the issue, led the world to a solution. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Can we do the same today on climate and energy?