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Filmmaking

On Wednesday I came back to the US from a documentary shoot in Honduras. That is a post in and of itself (coming soon). Suffice it to say my friend Jesse (who I had been shooting with) and I were immersed in a fascinating place with genuine and passionate people engaged in the rehabilitation of people and country in the mountains of Tegucigalpa.

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Base camp for the first few days

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Tegucigalpa

There's a pile of cow skulls like this anywhere that people have to eat. They're just usually not under a bridge in the middle of the city.

There’s a pile of cow skulls like this anywhere that people have to eat. They’re just usually not under a bridge in the middle of the city.

Ironically enough, I had a local SIM card with minutes and data. I was more immediately connected to the rest of the world while in Honduras than I am in LA (because I had no data plan there). Being connected made me realize how easy things are to navigate with a smart phone.

Directly following the documentary in Central America I had been hired to shoot an event in the Northeast for a medical devices company. The plane leaving Houston (the layover destination) was late leaving the runway due to airplane traffic.
Upon landing in Newark we were notified by the captain that our gate was occupied and we had to wait.
I had, by this point, switched back to my T-Mobile SIM, which had a newly purchased data plan that my phone wasn’t accessing.
A car had been arranged to pick me up at Newark, however, because the plane was more than an hour late, I had to take Uber.

Remember the no-data plan problem? There was also no useable WiFi at Newark airport. After spending a while walking around the now-empty hallways of the terminal looking for WiFi, I had to ask my contact to send me a car.
I hate being a burden.

The shoot I’d been hired for included an event at the medical device company’s headquarters in New Jersey as well as an event in Boston. The next evening I was in a car headed to Penn Station in New York. Of course the shooting that day had gone late and the car service had showed up late and traffic in Manhattan was…traffic in Manhattan at 6:30pm.
Needless to say I missed two trains in a row and was close to missing the third when I came to the ticket counter and found that if you miss a train and don’t call to cancel within 20 minutes Amtrak deletes the credit you had from your original purchased ticket.

The only possible way to get that credit back, the ticket agent informed me (in that extremely polite east coast manner), was to use a greasy, black plastic in-house wall phone in the middle of the train station.
Have you ever tried to get an automated voice to understand a complex number-letter sequence in the silence of your own apartment?
Now imagine doing that in an echoing tile room packed with hundreds of people. Also there was Christmas music. Blaring.

After hearing for the 6th time, “I’m sorry, I still didn’t understand, let’s try another method,” I hung up and asked my contact to buy another train ticket.
Burden. Failure.

But at least I got on the train. And, five hours later, to the hotel, which was only a nippy half-mile walk from the Boston Back Bay station.
It was 2am. Luckily the event didn’t start til later in the day on Thursday. I had almost a full day to rest. I set my alarm for 11am.

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9am.
Swanky, climbing guitar riff, reminiscent of a Buckethead sequence.
Ringtone. Not alarm.
Ringtone!

It was my contact asking where I was, because I wasn’t downstairs at the event. But the event didn’t really start til Thursday night! Friday was the first morning session at 8am.

“Dude, It’s Friday.”
First time that phrase have ever been a bad thing. I had been so messed up from my travel that I didn’t know what day it was.

I grabbed my gear and rushed downstairs. Or at least to the elevator, where I waited for it to descend the 35 floors of the hotel.
Days smear together, locations blur, stories blend. It’s a weird sort of life on the move.

Some of the girls at Casa de Ester in Honduras braiding my hair.

Some of the girls at Casa de Ester in Honduras braiding my hair.

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It took 2 hours.

 

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So I’m leaving the country again. In fact, I’m leaving the continent. In 23 days.

Last July I was in Kenya as part of my grandmother’s entourage. It was her first trip to Africa, so my parents and I went. I brought my camera. She had been invited by a family in rural western Kenya to come and experience the healing work they were taking on in their part of the world. Their vision was (and continues to be) to build a rescue/education center to reach out to victims of sexual abuse in a part of the world where no formal structures of support exist for them.

During the final days of the trip I was introduced to a group of filmmakers hacking out a living in Nairobi (imagine the spontaneous craziness of Mos Eisley with a little more steel and glass and you’re not that far off).

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Nairobi, Kenya

Zindua Productions is a group of filmmakers that are not only creating quality content, but also passionate about training the next generation of Kenyan filmmakers. Although I had planned to come back to LA after Kenya, I felt a strong pull towards the work that Zindua is doing.Their non-profit arm, Filamujuani, trains high school and college-age kids from Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, in film production. Some of the graduates of their training program work for Zindua, others go on to freelance in the East African film industry. For the past year I’ve been trying to find a way to get back to Kenya and work with Zindua.

The opportunity finally opened up a couple weeks ago.

Zindua sold their first TV show to a South African cable network, Amnet. 52 episodes have been bought and are now in production. The entire crew is Kenyan. Except for one of their DPs. Me. I will be there for 3 months working on this tv show. But the opportunity to work with Zindua is open-ended. There could be opportunities to direct shows in the future.

It is amazing how much the trajectory of your life can change in a few weeks. At the beginning of this month I had no idea what I’d be doing a few months from then. And now I have no idea what I will think about living and working in East Africa in a few months from now.

It could be a short trip to a cool place, or it could be a whole new chapter.

More to follow at the date comes closer.

Moving back to the United States (until further notice) has been a strange transition. Of course this country is home in many ways, and yet I never quite seem settled in it. But the current period of life I am in means that where the wind blows, there I go.

At this point the wind is blowing west to Los Angeles again. After working on my first feature film as a cinematographer in Manila I have been picking up odd motion picture jobs and co-producing a film as I prepare for a move across the country (as I write this I am on a corporate video shoot for a medical instruments company).

Hopefully it is already known that the short film Hadeas is now in its funding stage on Kickstarter. (If not, please visit the page!) Coming back to LA to work on a creative project with fellow APU graduates Randy May, Megan Prescott, and Becky Train seemed like a great plan. Randy began writing the script last year and together we talked about the possibilities of what we could create. The project has ended up being more important than we could have first imagined, providing a creative outlet to try new ideas and challenge us as we grow in our knowledge and love for the craft of cinema. You can follow the production journal here.

Due to a random set of circumstances, my drive won’t be straight from Chicago to LA. I have a few stops to make along the way. Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas are among the destinations. So I might as well make an event out of it.

And now seems like a perfect time to embark on another journey. It is almost amusing how chapters of a life can be marked by movement from one place to the next. So this trip will be advantageous as I seek to redefine who I am as an artist, what I am pursuing, what I want.

In terms of business, I’m forming my brand.

It’s something global.

It’s something creative.

It’s something narrative.

It’s something collaborative.

I can’t quite put my finger on it yet.

After the final edit of the Kenyan documentary* (custom made one-man-show for Tamar’s Voice in Indiana) was shipped and premiered in late September, I could turn my attention to the next big fish to fry.

After the showing of an Australian short film in a festival in LA, I was contacted by a director in search of a willing and schedule-free crew for a low-budget feature set in the Philippines. I said yes. Then asked what it was about. Something about slums, orphans, action, car chase. Yep. I’m in.

Upon landing I regretted spending the whole flight watching back to back movies interrupted by push ups in the back of the plane. Jet lag is an unfortunate bunk mate. But hitting the ground running is a better remedy.

With shooting only a few weeks away the need to meet, approve and hire local crew is upon us. What I hadn’t expected was the amazing talent and experience of crews here in Manila. I obviously didn’t know much about the Philippines before coming but there is an overrepresented amount of film production happening. And it’s not all foreign film; Filipinos are creating feature length, dramatic and comedic content on a regular basis from microscopic budgets and schedules that would make an American indie crew violently choke to death.

Already, as I’ve hired crew members and asked about their particular style of running a set, I’ve learned just how far some are willing to go to see cinema happen in their own language. This story starts with math:

Imagine you’ve spent $5000 worth of gear for a day’s shoot. Most films would attempt to get the most for their dollar by working their crew a solid 17 hours in a day. Crews here in Manila came up with a better solution: Go big or go home. A crew will work for 24 straight hours to get the most usage out of their gear rental. Then the next day, after turning in equipment, they’ll rest and location scout. Day 3, back at it again for a solid revolution around the sun, followed by a day of rest and location scouting and so on. For how long? 12-18 days is a typical time to shoot a FEATURE FILM here. It’s actually hard for me to understand how this would work. But somehow it does.

Luckily our producer and director are used to a more drawn out pace.

After working with the local production coordinator and AD, I’m confident about where we’re at 2 weeks out.

More to follow.

*You can find the link for the documentary – “A Kenyan Sunrise” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVXCBo504vY

4 continents in 3 weeks. Finally, I’m living up to the title of this blog. Even as I write this I am on an Amtrak bus to Sacramento.

After bidding farewell to Australia I prepared for my next project and adventure in rural Kenya.

SONY DSCI had been asked in Christmas of last year to accompany my grandmother, mom and dad on a trip to meet a pastor (Paul), his family (wife Mary and their three kids plus adopted children) and his ministry in a place called Kitale (a bumpy 9 hour drive northwest of Nairobi). My grandmother’s grassroots ministry, Tamar’s Voice, which reaches out to heal the wounds of sexual abuse, had been contacted by the Kenyan pastor with a similar vision for healing in rural East Africa.

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Left to right: Jan Tuin, Mary Odari, Paul Odari

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“Mama Jan” speaking to women at Divine Love, Paul translates.

IMG_1687 My only other experience in Africa had been a trip to South Africa in 2004. I didn’t really know what to expect. Even more so considering the trip was happening with 3 generations of my family and with no structural support of a big organization or church.

In essence a family from the US was meeting a family from rural Kenya.

I had the intent of visually telling the story of this unique connection for other’s to learn as we did, but I didn’t realize how much I would become involved in it. The video will be used to raise money for the women’s rescue home the two ministries will build together in western Kenya.

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Children at the Amazing Love school, part of the Divine Love ministry in Sikhendu.

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Strapping on speakers and heading to church.

Poverty is something that has always been on my mind. And, like most upper-middle-class-Christian-white-folk, I considered myself an expert on it. Rockin’ my TOMS shoes and going on short term missions trips, I was actively engaging with what I saw as a major issue in the world.

SONY DSC SONY DSC R1-05328-0007If nothing else, taking a trip to Kenya expanded my view of poverty.

Feedback on this thought would be much appreciated; I want to know what you think. It is beginning to grow on me that to view poverty as merely a lack of resources is to severely misunderstand it.* What if poverty is ANY situation where human flourishing is compromised? So perhaps Australia, The United States of America, other industrialized counties are living in extreme poverty of a certain kind? Let me explain.

Imagine a dusty, rough landscape. Rich, red soil and deep green vegetation hung beneath a vast blue sky. A rutted red road cuts through the green and disappears into the horizon. Covering nearly every square meter of this place is the buzzing of activity: women carrying children in back slings sell roasted maize and potatoes along the road. Children haul bundles of sticks. Cows graze by the roadside (on grass!). Rows of tin shacks open up to reveal electronic appliance stores, cell phone top-up shops, car repair centers, agricultural veterinarians, even hair salons. Motorbikes zoom in and out of goats and sheep (that eat grass!) herded by young entrepreneurs. Chickens (that ate bugs and grubs and seeds) hang in butcher’s windows. Old men sip tea and watch the activity. Old women roll chappati and stir ugali (made from the corn that grew just meters away). Everywhere, everyone is doing something, and all the while interacting face-to-face with each other. Smiling faces, straight teeth, hardly a set of eyeglasses to be found.

SONY DSC R1-05328-0010 SONY DSCNow imagine a wide open road. Smooth concrete, big parking lots, rows of lit storefronts pass by. A pattern in the businesses emerge (mostly owned by a few people far away). Hardly a person to be found except within their glass and steel (or plastic) escape pods. Shelves stockpiled with products made from a few ingredients. Plastic and chemicals sterilize every surface. Everywhere there is space, air conditioning, and silence.

Poverty?

Of course financial poverty is very real, with some living not far from starvation, with little disposable income for malaria drugs. And corruption in Kenya can’t be ignored, it is a cause of suffering to its people. Of course the majority of Kenya lives on less than $1 per day. But maybe we miss the power of that statement. They LIVE on less than $1 per day. These are people of extreme resourcefulness and hard work.

So with this in mind, financial poverty isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. The highly toxic nature of our food and personal care products in the US isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. To treat a symptom is to miss the bigger picture of human flourishing. The good life. The Kingdom of Heaven.

The book When Helping Hurts (by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert) talks about aid in three different ways: relief, rehabilitation, and development. It suggests that to provide one where another is needed is to stunt the growth process.

In our experience with the pastor of the church, we were surprised and impressed by the leadership structures put in place, the room for growth in the visions he and his team had for a women’s shelter, an already existing primary school and youth ministry. It became clear very soon that this community was above needing relief. There was potential, is potential, for development. And the possibilities are nearly limitless when local people, who have an acute awareness of local needs, take initiative. Our time in Kenya began to take on the look of a partnership, not a mission’s trip. We were siblings in the family. The agenda wasn’t ours, as the outsiders. We allowed ourselves to experience Kenya (as much as possible in 11 days) along with our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

And it was sometimes awkward, sometimes without sure footing and sometimes we got it wrong. It was clear we hadn’t practiced partnership in cross-cultural interactions. It seems that no matter how well our meaning, we have another, more sinister default setting.

Now I don’t want to make the mistake of leveling all of poverty in every part of the world as equal. There is a major difference between the poverty of finance and the poverty of social capital and relationships: we, in the US, can go about our daily lives largely unaware of our lack. In the developing world, there is no choice. Waking up to need every day is the only way to wake up. I’m not proposing negligence as an alternative to colonialism. So maybe partnership is needed, but it has to be partnership. The dignity and empowerment of everyone involved must be a priority. As wealthy Americans, we are more than our dollars (do we really believe that?). And rural Kenyans are more than their lack of resources. There is a larger goal we can work towards than simply having more disposable income. Do we think that to make East Africa like the US will somehow allow them to experience more of the richness of being human? Will it allow them to experience relationship with God more clearly?

Perhaps in more ways than one we have much to learn.

Are you preparing for, leading up to, a missions trip or “serving trip”? What goal is implicit in the actions and schedule of your team? Are you narrowing the definition of the good life to financial resources? There is no shame in getting it wrong.

So why is this post appearing in a blog about a filmmaker? Now imagine a production company in the developing world that trains children from the slums in photo and video skills and then employs them, giving them vital skills for a creative and constructive future. Imagine this production company sustaining themselves financially on commercials and corporate productions while consistently emphasizing the creation and distribution of their OWN content. Stories about their world, told by them.

I would love to start such a production company.

But what if it already existed? Film production in East Africa? We’ll see. More to come on that.

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*Our team of 4 read excerpts from a book called When Helping Hurts, which helped prepare us for what we would soon experience.

Photo on 2013-06-12 at 02.04

The last known photo of Jesus Christ

Verily I say unto thee brethren; I have emerged.

As it says, there are times for everything: times for being around people and times for living a hermit-existence. The latter has been my reality for the past few weeks.

In would be a fair accusation to say that the title of this blog was ill-chosen. I have neither exhibited the constant flow of anecdotes that accompany a filmmaker (whatever that means) nor have I been geographically on the move.

However, I’ve emerged from the grave to prove I am worthy of the title.

To begin, the documentary on global experiential education that I’ve been developing/producing for the past several months has reached a respectable enough state to be allowed outside for a bit of social interaction, however, only in intimate settings.

It has ceased to resemble a formless blob and has begun to take the shape and feel of a real documentary. With a total runtime (at this point) of 01:02:56 it is the longest piece of motion picture I’ve ever directed/produced.

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This camel has little to do with the story. But it makes it seem really exotic.

Alyssa Directed byJen Smoke Sydney We just held a test screening compete with feedback forms and wine and cheese. There is something extremely rewarding about watching an audience interact with something you’ve created.

In other news, I had the amazing opportunity to be involved in a 168hr film festival team that is competing from Australia. Through a friend in Melbourne I was asked to DP a sub-10 minute project. After slogging through the hundreds of hours of interviews that accompanies a feature-length non-fiction project, it was a refreshing experience to be involved in fiction again. There is an electricity and buzz to a team that is creating a world an audience hasn’t experienced quite that way before.

Because the rest of the crew was Melbourne-based I knew only one other person to begin with. But I couldn’t understand why the set ran so smoothly. Limited budget, limited time, limited crew (some of which having never worked on a film before), limited location. These are the ingredients for a disastrous set. But I kept expecting for something to go horribly wrong, for us to be set back or stressed. I was expecting someone to yell at someone for something as usually happens.

But nothing of the sort happened. We shot a fantastic little narrative, 9 pages in 2 days. I got more sleep than I had before I came and I even had time to see a bit of Melbourne (which is an under-appreciated city with heaps of potential). And as a result I met a group of creative, hard-working filmmakers. It is these sorts of experiences that future projects come from.

Below is the trailer for our film: Lost in the Dark. Shot on 5D Mark III. Lit with a few lowel lights and a random assortment of LEDS. Oh, also the sun.

And of course my departure date of June 30th looms in the not-so-distant future. Along with that comes the reflection of realizing just how much I’ve learned from the past year and a half of living here in Sydney. The truth is, I will probably continue to find out just how much these experiences and practices have shaped me as I continue on.

Tune in next time for:

Kenya                        and                                               Indiana.                           Connection?

A few days ago I reread the subtitle of this blog.

“A filmmaker on the other side of the world,” I thought, who’s that? Oh right!

The whole point of the “unfolding story” was to maintain the episodic events of the development of a filmmaker who intentionally took a position in a far away place (though Australians assure me it’s not so far from them) in order to become better at the visual art of storytelling.

There should be a very quiet alarm sounding in the back of your mind, that is your bullshitmeter, it’s a very key piece of equipment, keep it close and properly maintained, it could save your life.

In truth I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even realize I was going to the LITERAL othersideoftheworld until I was on the plane, most likely over Fiji. There was this massive bump of turbulence that suddenly reminded me of the last time I had flown over the Pacific on my way back from Australia where I had studied for four months.

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Australia (when someone draws a map of Earth on a napkin, this is the piece of real estate that is most often missing, though if they’re drawing a globe on a napkin they’re probably involved in some sort of international espionage and they don’t have time for trivialities). So then it hit me, as the water molecules that had been swimming in the plastic cup in my hand competed in a race to my shorts. They won, all of them.

For a split second I wondered if I could persuade the captain to turn around, really quick. But then I remembered that documentary about how pilots don’t get paid very much and I figured I would just let them drive.

So. The story.

There may be some of you in this [small] blaudience who know a few details of the film I’ve been working on. Maybe you cringe as much as I do when you hear the words “yeah, so this film I’ve been working on.”

For some reason I can’t stop the words from coming out of my mouth in that exact order. I might as well say, “yeah so while I was sitting on my couch for 4,032 hours straight, I tried to make this pile of bottle caps into a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, with my mind. Dude, I like, have no idea why, but it didn’t work.”

More or less, that is the feeling of accomplishment that washes over me when I think of the work/pay-off ratio of this current project.

But, as we all know, artists can be unfairly critical of their own work. Van Gogh certainly comes to mind.

In truth, I’ve learned a heaping ton about filmmaking in the past year. The opportunity has been to develop, or pursue, a story based on the experience of study abroad students. While the film’s original idea centered on a collection of stories of Australians living “with global significance in a manner of local relevance,” there were drafts that looked oddly like Rob Bell’s Nooma videos, and at one point Darth Vader was considered for a cameo (he backed out after some development meetings with Mickey Mouse).

If there is one piece of wisdom I gleaned from my cinematic education at APU, it was certainly that “the finished movie is only one of the products created from a film.” This has been true of this experience (mainly because there is no finished movie yet). After trying again and again to put the same pieces together in different ways, I have come to understand that telling a story is somewhat like eating an ice cream cone: it’s messy but at some point you have to commit.

The good news is, the time crunch is on, and I’ve committed. Ready for distribution by June.