Original Australian Cinematographer Article

This is the article that appears in Australian Cinematographer Issue # 42I’ve posted the original article because it’s a bit easier to read then in the posted pdf pages. There are some small editing differences between this version and the published version.

For many of us the images of life in an African slum are of abject poverty and desperate living conditions. My crew, Diego Pascoalino and Christian Mario Lohr, and I recently shot the documentary film Kenya’s Path in the Lenana slum in Nairobi. While we encountered the harsh realities of these images we also discovered that despite the challenges that face them joy and hope persist among those living in the slum. Our experiences in planning and shooting the documentary challenged all of our abilities as filmmakers to tell the inspiring stories from the Lenana slum.

I graduated film school in Sydney a few years ago and since then I’ve sought out projects that could both entertain and enlighten. An email from a friend in 2007 was the start for Kenya’s Path. His mother had recently left her life in Canada and started the Hanne Howard Fund (HHF) in Nairobi. Her project consists of an early childhood education centre and an orphanage in the Lenana Slum.  It also provides food, education and healthcare for one hundred children, including those with HIV. I was intrigued by the notion of an older middle class woman abandoning her comfortable existence to take on this difficult challenge. In 2008, I decided to conduct a reccie of Lenana.

I’ve never visited a slum before and the experience left me stunned and shocked. Hundreds of tiny corrugated iron shacks housed thousands of people. Rubbish was strewn about and heaped in massive piles. Stagnant pools of rancid water collected everywhere and the accompanying foul smells were overpowering. At the HHF centre though I could sense a tangible difference. It was plain to see how the children flourished under the structure, discipline and love of the project. I met some remarkable people while in the slum and I left determined to tell their stories.

I knew that to bring the film together and tell this story would be a difficult proposition. This film was always going to be made on the sheer determination of the crew. To shoot this film I not only needed skilled filmmakers to collaborate with but people who could produce, fundraise and do whatever was necessary to make this film a reality.

My first choice as Director of Photography was fellow ACS member Diego Pascoalino. We attended film school together and his work ethic and talent always impressed me. A couple of student cinematography awards from the ACS solidified my assessment of him. Also he had produced and shot a film on kite surfing on the East coast of Australia so he had the experience in documentary filmmaking that I was seeking.

The next crewmember to join was another ACS member, Christian Mario Lohr. Christian attended the same film school and while he now works in Berlin as a DOP he lived most of his life in East Africa with thirteen years in Nairobi. Christian is experienced in many different crew roles, including as a camera operator, sound recordist and a colour grader. The added bonus was that he could effectively act as our “fixer” in Nairobi.

Our earliest conversations centered on what story to tell and how we would convey that story visually. There is a saying in the Lenana Slum, “Do not focus on our problems, focus on our potential” and it served as inspiration for the film. We planned to capture the lives of a few individuals connected to the HHF and how it represented a potential pathway out of the slum. We did not want to shoot a “dark continent” documentary because we believe that guilt does not inspire people. Our ultimate goal was to engage our audience through positive and powerful storytelling.

We knew that to tell a powerful story one of the keys was to shoot a documentary that looked “filmic”. Through our combined efforts we raised a very modest budget but we were determined to not let this compromise the look of the film. While we believed in the ultimate message of our documentary we are first and foremost filmmakers. We always asked the questions, “how can we improve the story and how, without spending a lot of money, can we increase the production value to help us tell that story?”

Selection of the right equipment was a crucial element to convey the story. For our camera we seriously considered the Panasonic HVX 200. But as Diego pointed out, “we didn’t want to be playing around with memory cards, external hard drives and cables.” In Africa where equipment can be difficult or expensive to replace there were too many variables that could go wrong. After much debate we finally settled on a camera we were all familiar with, the Sony HDV HVR-Z1. It’s a camera I’ve used to DOP a couple of music videos and it produced images I was very satisfied with. It is a small & robust camera and is easy to attach lenses and filters to so it was well suited to our needs. While HDV isn’t the highest resolution in the market, Diego’s approach was that, “camera choice is not about the newest technology and there is no such thing as a bad camera; it’s about using the right tool for the right occasion.”

During pre-production, I was living between Canada and the UK. Diego now lives in Brazil and Christian in Germany so organising this project without Skype would have been nearly impossible. The months leading up to the shoot the three of us spoke a few times a day. We actually used our multiple locations to our advantage as we shopped around for the best prices in different countries. We sourced the camera and sound equipment out of Sao Paulo at very competitive rates. Along with the camera we also had a 0.7x wide-angle converter lens, a 1.6x telephoto converter lens, a Miller tripod system and polarizer, soft f/x and ND filters. Diego recently purchased a small glide camera rig, which would add the much sought after production value to the film. We also brought two of our own 1 TB external hard drives to back up the footage and Christian’s Macbook Pro with Final Cut Pro & Colour installed.

There is no electricity in the slum so lighting was going to be a challenge. Lights were too bulky to bring from Brazil and to rent lights in Kenya wasn’t an option on our limited budget. Diego is a bit of MacGyver so he built two small portable fluorescent lights that ran off 12v camera batteries. They resembled the lights you see hanging in mechanics garages and they were small enough to fit in our bags. Each light had 15w of power, 1.3 amps, lasted 45 minutes on a battery and we used them when we needed extra fill for interior interviews.

The first few days of the shoot started slowly and it took us a few days to develop a rhythm. We were completely welcomed and given full access to the HHF project but it was my first time shooting a documentary and it really is a different discipline. Fortunately, because of our many discussions Diego was able to anticipate what I wanted to shoot. Diego commented, “shooting documentaries is a different world than conventional drama or commercial shooting. Whether we were operating the camera, recording sound or watching the monitor we had to be aware of everything around us. Riyad trusted Christian and I and gave us the freedom to move the camera. If we saw something compelling we stopped whatever we where doing and ran there.”

The majority of the shoot took place at the HHF centre in Lenana, which consists of a fenced off yard with a few classrooms made out of corrugated iron. The centre receives direct sunlight throughout the day so we relied heavily on this. This was a challenge and Diego commented that, “working with just natural light made me search for every bit of light. In every camera position we worked hard to compose the best picture while looking at the highlights and the shadows. The most unexpected thing was the clothes worn by everyone in the slum. Their outfits were bright and colourful and it made for an amazing combination with their dark skin.”

The difference of the sunlight compared to a place like Sydney was plainly evident and Diego remarked, “when we first arrived I really had to study the way the light behaved at 1800m altitude and just under the equator. The beauty of this light is that even though it can be very harsh, it contrasted well with the beautiful black skin tones.” One thing that surprised us was the quality of the light when shooting in the classrooms. Diego was particularly impressed, “the natural light bouncing off the ground and travelling through the small windows into the classrooms was amazing. It is something that I only have ever seen using big lights thought big diffusion boards. It made me stop a few times and appreciate the beauty of the Mother Nature’s light.”

The shooting conditions were harsh but as Christian knows from a lifetime in East Africa,  “in terms of slums, Lenana is not by any means one of the worst ones in Nairobi.” Still the poverty was something we found difficult to deal with. At the centre the daily struggles were immense and throughout the shoot we captured many powerfully inspiring and equally heartbreaking stories. Without exaggeration the HHF project can be the difference between life and death in some situations and we documented many examples of this.

The camera gave us unbelievable access to peoples’ lives and in every interview, while there is much happiness and joy, we found sorrow just under the surface. Diego recently said, “Riyad is a calm and transparent director. He gained access to places, situations and moments where I have never been with the camera. We saw the beauty as well as the tragedy of human beings.” HIV is rampant in the slum as well as malnutrition, alcohol, drug and sexual abuse. There was grief in almost everyone’s lives but there is no time to feel sorry, sad or mourn the loss of loved ones. It’s the sheer resilience you need to survive in the slum. We felt connected to many of the people we had been filming and this reality was something we as a crew had to come to terms with.

The glidecam proved to be an invaluable tool in capturing the immediacy of existence in the slum. One day the local pastor gave of us a tour of the slum after a rare night of rain. With the piles of rubbish and lack of proper toilet facilities the slum is not a pleasant place to shoot after it has rained. As we walked through the slum the flexibility and smoothness of the glidecam captured the stark and emotional contrast of freshly washed pristine clothes hanging just inches from dirty, festering mud puddles.

One of the remarkable things about Kenya is the fascinating people that live there. We were fortunate enough to be introduced to Alexis Peltier, a pilot for the exceptional documentary “The Travelling Birds”. He arranged a flight in a small six-seater 206 Cessna to shoot some aerial footage of Nairobi and Lenana. This was something that would definitely add the desired production value to the film. We removed the back door of the plane and Diego and the camera were harnessed into the backseat. Christian and I sat in the middle seats, with just normal seat belts, snapping away with our digital cameras. To fly over Nairobi just before sunset was a once in lifetime experience and the light easily lived up to the “magic hour” moniker. We made five passes of the Lenana slum, where the children had gathered in the yard and jumped for joy as we flew over them. The next day some of the children shyly told us that we had made them feel like kings.

While there we undertook some grading tests to see what all this amazing footage would eventually look like. Diego admires “Ashes and Snow” by Gregory Colbert and this was our first reference for grading. The look we wanted was a rich, warm skin tone with a slight sepia tint to it.  But we didn’t want to lose the contrast between the dark skin tones and the brightly colored clothes. Christian explained that, “to achieve this with the colour correction we partially bleach bypassed and re-saturated the image. Then we warmed the image up to give it that subtle sepia look to enrich the skin tones. I then pulled the highlights down slightly to reduce the harshness of the bleach bypass.”

At the end of the shoot we wanted to somehow say thank you to everyone at the HHF for opening their lives to us. So we edited together a short, funny and sentimental promo-type video. We arranged a projector and organised a screening at the local church. Most of the children had probably never watched TV much less seen anything on a big screen. The kids were mesmerised and we filmed their reactions as they watched. It brought such laughter and happiness to everyone so it was a fitting end to our shoot.

We left Nairobi changed by the experience. Throughout the shoot we experienced technical, physical and, unexpectedly, emotional challenges and as filmmakers our skills, abilities and understanding of the world have grown. We are now in post-production and there are still many challenges ahead of us but after this experience we are determined to tell this story.

More information on the film can be found at http://www.kenyaspath.com

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