That Film In Mali – (part I)

I never know upfront what sort of journey might be in store for me at the beginning stages of any of film project. It’s one of the great aspects of doing them and watching them unfold: being part of the discovery of something totally unexpected with each new adventure.

See that photo of the boy in blue just above?  That actually just happened.  It wasn’t planned or set up.  Luckily, I have my camera by my side.

Getting involved in a new project is a little like jumping off a diving board at night knowing that there’s the promise of water down there somewhere; in theory anyway, so it’s relatively safe to leap. It’s all a gamble, it’s an investment of my time and energy and I want each one to be as successful as they can possibly be for everyone involved.  Usually they are. 

Unfortunately, not always.

Every film — regardless of its inherent challenges, becomes an opportunity to push myself to learn and to grow. It seems natural to me.  I’ve often wondered that built-in inquisitiveness came from.  It’s what keeps me going.

Going from one project to another has continued through the years to be the equivalent of a wonderfully varied kind of graduate study program in which each film provides another complete course of study. 

  • Like learning all about the science of an ancient fourteen-foot long piece of linen called The Shroud of Turin that bears the image of a crucified man that some believe to be Jesus. Making this film meant learning about chemistry and biology and medical forensics and optical image analysis.  The Shroud remains for me of the most amazing artifacts – religious or not – on the planet today and certainly one of the greatest unexplained mysteries.
  • Like learning about how the last greater master carpenter of the gondola in Venice goes about creating this work of art that it seems no one can duplicate without a lifetime of dedication to the craft.
  • Like watching one of the world’s greatest experts at work as he studied the fossils of mythical T.rex, the prehistoric beast and star of modern motion pictures. I was such an honor to document him in action, watching him bring patience beyond imagination and equal amounts of original thinking to help pick up the pieces and put together the puzzle that is the unknown world in which that dinosaur lived and died 65 million years ago.
  • Like journeying with a couple of world-class journalists deep into the Amazon rainforest to discover how greed is driving people to exploit the land in the search for gold and how they are destroying the rainforest in the process.
  •  Like following an heroic woman in Spain working her way up the ranks and into the all-male world of bullfighting. 
  • As they say, the list goes on…

It’s an amorphous process this filmmaking thing; seemingly more of an art than a science with a whole lot of heavy lifting thrown in.

Five Percent Inspiration

The photographer Arnold Newman is quoted as saying, “Photography is five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent moving furniture.” I would amend to say that’s correct only you gotta know which pieces of furniture to move. The same is true about non-fiction filmmaking. You’ve just plain gotta roll your sleeves up and make things happen. And it takes a bunch of people to do that: you just can’t move the piano to another room without some help.

                                                              On long shoots, we usually bring a few of these carts

This particular post is about a shoot in the country of Mali.

                                                                  Mali: one part desert and the other part…desert

The film’s plan was to focus on secret Islamic manuscripts written  800 years ago then hidden in a vast desert world in order to keep them safe.  The scholarship in these manuscripts contained great wisdom — or so I was told.  During the 1300’s, thousands of students attended the University of Timbuku at a time before the discovery of America and while Europe was still groveling around in The Dark Ages.  In the 1600’s, Moroccan invaders began to scare off the scholars and destroy the manuscripts.  Since that time, they’ve been hidden to keep them safe but they have fallen into disrepair due to the gradual ravages of the very desert where they were poorly stored.  Disrepair to a point of ragged fragility.  A recent story that over 700 of them were completely ruined due to a flood in a home in Timbuktu where they were being stored spoke to the urgency of a film that might help protect the remaining manuscripts scattered throughout Mali.

Hence the idea for a feature-length documentary film seeking out the whereabouts and the teachings of these sacred manuscripts.

While many people discussed the fact that the manuscripts – as many as 700,000 of them by some accounts – dealt with subjects including science, philosophy, cultural diversity, and even women’s rights, I found it difficult to read much in advance about the actual contents of those writings.  The notion behind the film was to find these manuscripts and explore their content, learn from their wisdom and help to promote better preservation.  The increased division between radical Islam and the West gave the film special importance.

                                                                      One of the manuscripts opened at random

It was hard to find much information about the contents of the manuscripts before we left but I did a little research about Mali  and I discovered that the country supports just two seasons: Season One: Really Hot followed immediately by Season Two: Even Hotter.  Hotness seemed to be an important part of the country’s DNA. If it could walk, it would be their national bird. The short window during which filming there would be tolerable ran for a few short months beginning in January. ­­­

What A Cinematographer Does In Part

As I saw it, the challenge as a cinematographer on any project is to evaluate potential weaknesses in the overall plan far in advance and to try to shore-up those shortcomings and provide support wherever and whenever possible. Being a kind of lifeguard watching over the effort wasn’t part of the job description per se but, as far as I was concerned, something that came with the job.  For me it was unspoken or maybe written somewhere in the small print.  Maybe that’s was one of the reasons that I got hired: to provide a set of eyes not typically expected from the camera guy. 

But who would ever have guessed that the usual problem-solving efforts made before leaving for Mali would fall far short of the realities that we found once we landed in the country.

                                                                          Kids playing on a street in Timbucktu

To Be Continued……