Let me create the scene for you. I was in Jamaica for a shoot. Traveling with me to the next location was another Black American, a Jamaican and a West African/Brit. The other American and I were snapping photos, enraptured. The color! The ebony black skin! Black people everywhere! Nature! Our two other traveling companions were unfazed. They hopped in the car. It was in this moment that the idea for this article began to germinate. There was nothing wrong with our enthusiasm but … was it an American enthusiasm? I’ve spoken passionately about the potential detriment of seeing foreign countries through a white male gaze. But what about the American gaze?
If you have an American passport, you are more privileged than most. In the past year, I’ve been to Ethiopia, Turkey, Jamaica (twice) and Brazil. My being black and female didn’t make me immune to cliches or eroticizing “the other”. It is my job as a human being and artist to challenge my American programming.
Visit the Actual Country Not the One in Your Head: Even though I’ve watched recent Brazilian films (check out “Casa Grande”, “Hard Labor” “A Wolf at the Door” “The Way He Looks” ) and kept up on the country’s current events, I still had no clue what Brazil would be like. I admit I was half expecting dancing in the streets 24/7 and gun shots. “Black Orpheus” meets “City of God”.
In the future, I want to watch more documentaries by native filmmakers and read more literature before visiting a country. I’d also like to read up on public reception of popular art. Since I was little, I’ve always loved the song “Zombie” by Fela. However, I didn’t learn the political significance of the song until seeing the musical. Similarly, I’ve been aware of the popular Telenovelas in Brazil but had no idea of their subversive past until reading this NY Times article. Even with additional research (plus whatever prep I do for each shoot), I will remind myself that I don’t know a country or culture – at all – until I actually visit it.
Local Fixers vs Tourism Board – Tourism Boards are extremely helpful when filming abroad. Thanks to them, we’ve gotten through airports quickly, were able to secure locations & film permits before landing and connect with additional crew. We’ve been able to shoot a lot in a very very short period of time. However, they can steer you towards filming the same sanctioned people and locations covered by countless other filmmakers. You trade a diversity of images and voices for ease.
Local fixers can also help with crew, permits etc. But their real value is in giving you access to regular life. A home cooked meal. The after after (after) hours party. How to use public transportation. Student activist gatherings. My experience has been that local fixers, perhaps because they have lives beyond helping the Americans, take longer to show you special locations or introduce you to people. You trade time and patience for uniqueness and exclusivity.
Choosing our local contact (governmental agency, tourism board, local journalist etc) is not part of my jurisdiction. I am *only* the DP. I don’t have to juggle the politics, schedules and budgets of filming abroad. But the quality of my footage and depth of our experience is definitely enhanced when we work with a local fixer.
Have Difficult Conversations – This one is tricky. If I feel I’m in a safe environment and that expressing my opinion won’t harm production, I see immense value in arguing abroad. Not arguing exactly, more like a rigorous conversation. The goal being to share my perspective, have it challenged and learn something in the process. Foreigners often know a lot more about US politics than we do and are eager to debate. My nature is to avoid confrontation but I’m noticing from recent travels, that I learn more about a country and its people from debates than I could ever from a documentary or newspaper. I love the tv series “Homeland”. I relate to its cerebral, socially awkward, female protagonist. But by making myself open to other points of view, I’ve learned that people find it offensive; pointing to aspects of the the show I was blind to.
Be Willing to Throw Out Your Visual Plan – This is another really tough one for me. Anyone who knows me / has worked with me, knows how important pre-production and reference material is for me. If a director clearly states how they want a film to look, I promise to accomplish that. However, what dictates the look of our film? Choice of b-roll and cutaways? Background actors? Locations for interviews? Is it based on other films shot in that country? Cliches? Our agenda?
Everyone shoots men sipping tea or women at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, but what of the women I saw in tailored business suits and 3” heels easily making their way up a 45 degree inclined cobblestoned sidewalk, while I huffed and puffed in flip flops? Why didn’t I take a photograph of them?
Yes, travel with a visual plan but be open to throw it away and be inspired by a genuine experience. Regardless if shooting narrative/doc/tv/commercial, a difficult conversation or anecdote shared by your fixer, might inspire you to shoot at a different time of day, in a different location or even in black/white instead of color.
A Word About Security – Years ago, when I was prepping for a shoot in Johannesburg, a well meaning friend said “Don’t go. You’ll be raped”. The first time I went to Nigeria, I posted my excitement on Facebook. Friends, whom I forgot I was even connected to, materialized and begged me not to go. Most people were worried about my recent trip to Brazil. I believe each person was coming from a loving place. And I know there is validity to their concerns. A film producer friend was shot and killed in Nigeria. Two friends of a friend were killed during a carjacking in Brazil. However, on the day of the awful shootings in Orlando, I was nervously taking photos on a beach in Salvador de Bahia. I would think nowhere could be safer than Orlando. If that day taught me anything, it’s that nowhere is 100% safe.
I have a saying about accepting advice: “When someone gives you advice, consider the source”. Meaning, people’s advice is shaded by their history, experiences (or lack thereof) and beliefs. People who rarely travel internationally seem to share this bias: If a crime or terrorism attack occurs in a predominantly white city/country, they speak of it as an isolated event. But if a tragedy occurs in a predominantly brown city/country, it represents all of its people. All of the time.
Before letting your uncle, who considers a Sandals resort “roughing it” and listens to Fox News religiously (we all have that uncle) talk you out of backpacking through Central America, seek advice from someone who has actually done it. Prior to going to Brazil and to do everything in my power to travel safely, I spoke with friends who lived there, who had just returned, plus a friend who specializes in mosquitos and infectious diseases.
Become Multi-lingual -The first time I traveled to Ethiopia, I learned three words in Amharic per day. When I returned to Ethiopia, I learned three words of Tigrayan per day. A month prior to my trip to Brazil, I downloaded Duolingo and learned enough Portuguese to argue with a bus driver, convince a taxi to drive me for free and get keys for my apartment in Salvador. Even with a fixer and a producer who speak the language fluently, it helps production and eases my interactions when I know a few words. If you can learn slang, you can learn a few words of a new language. There will be frustration in not looking cool, saying it wrong and seeming childish. But that’s how we grow.
Besides, not knowing a language and not trying to is a lot like gentrification: I’ll visit your home and expect you to accommodate me.
If you want to see the impact of knowing a language on a film crew, watch the documentary “Living On Dollar”. See the whole documentary and look for their observations on Day #28 (around the 31:52 mark). It also shows the importance of the director communicating findings and updating the crew. My director’s research and daily observations affect my cinematography choices and inform me on how to interact more respectively with the local people.
Traveling as an American But… Who else has travel needs, perspectives and joys that are being ignored?
– At the beginning of this year, I had the incredible task of filming on the Soul Train Cruise. It was surreal to hold production meetings surrounded by water while Chaka Khan blasted on the loud speakers. My crew was amazing. I loved traveling, filming and problem solving in the Caribbean. But I’ve never been a fan of cruises. That is until I saw what a great, efficient and inclusive way it was for the young and old, out of shape and fit and most importantly, the able bodied and wheelchair/scooter bound to travel together. Seeing Jason DaSilva’s beautiful documentary, “When I Walk”, was the first time I really considered wheelchair access in NYC. Since I began working on Liz Ortiz Mackes’ doc “And… Scene, a Woman’s Journey to Walk Again”, I’ve become even more sensitive. However, it wasn’t until being on a cruise that I saw that this was a way to travel internationally, and still accommodate and honor the needs of everyone in your family. Why is this never addressed in travel shows?
– Another “privilege” I have is my sexual orientation and identity. They are accepted. Sure, I’ve been told I’m a second class citizen (by our local fixer), have been denied access to apparently the greatest chapel of the Lalibela Rock Churches and disappointed numerous people with my lack of husband or children. But I feel at ease sharing stories about myself. I also have plenty of gay/lesbian friends who constantly travel abroad. But I’ve never traveled with them nor seen, first hand, how they might have to alter their body language or conceal their relationships to travel safely. So I’m thankful for the few episodes I’ve seen of Viceland’s “Gaycation” with Ellen Page and Ian Daniel. I hope for more fiction and non-fiction content that celebrates the joy and exposes the terrors for those “traveling while LGBTQ” and the locals they meet.
Keeping It Domestic – What if international travel is not in your future? The above still holds true when filming in communities different from your own. 9 out of 10 New York filmmakers will shoot Montana like a Terrence Malick film. Watch more documentaries from filmmakers within a community. I’ve taken on the humbling of task of speaking Mandarin (I know about five sayings) when I’m in Chinatown.
We can all do better.