That Film In Mali – (part I)



I never know up front what sort of journey might be in store for me at the beginning stages of any of these films. It’s one of the great aspects of doing them: being part of the discovery of something totally unexpected with each new adventure.

It’s a little like jumping off a diving board at night knowing that there’s water down there somewhere; in theory anyway. These projects are a gamble.  They’re an investment of my time and energy and I want each one of them to be as successful as they can possibly be for everyone involved.  Usually they are.  But not always.

Every film — regardless of its inherent challenges, becomes an opportunity to push myself and to grow. 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 was another 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 man being crucified that some believe to be Jesus. This film meant knowing about chemistry and biology and medical forensics and optical image analysis.
  • Like learning about how the last master carpenter of the gondola in Venice goes about creating this work of art that precious few can duplicate?
  • Like watching one of the world’s greatest experts in the prehistoric animal called T.rex apply a patience and original thinking to helping solve the unknown worlds in which that dinosaur lived.
  • 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 work her way into the all-male world of bull fighting.

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.” 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 have 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 was to focus on secret Islamic manuscripts written  800 years ago.  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 long before the discovery of America and when 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.  Disrepair to a point of 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 significance and the teachings of these 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 idea in general was that these writings might inspire both Islamic studies and western thinkers and speak to issues of increasing division between both sides.

                                                                                   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 months beginning in January. ­­­

What A Cinematographer Does In Part

As I saw it, my skills as cinematographer on any project like this is to estimate potential weaknesses in the overall plan and to try to provide support wherever and whennever possible.  It wasn’t part of the job description per se but rather something that came with the territory.  For me it was unspoken or maybe written there in the small print.  Maybe that’s was one of the reasons that I got hired: to shore up in areas not typically that of the camera guy.

                                                                                       Kids playing on a street in Timbucktu

To Be Continued……