Ups and Downs:The Art of Making, Hacking, and Hunting to create a documentary in South Sudan

I don't like waiting; for anything. 

My wife can attest to this. I can't leave sweets in the house to be enjoyed slowly over the coming weeks. Instead I rush on them, like a boat load of Viking raiders inches from the shoreline of a new village, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  It pains me when new technology that I can clearly use in my work, arrives in the marketplace and I have to wait before I can buy it.  I pined for an iphone, I longed for a 5Dm2, I couldn't resist the draw of FCPX even though it was getting mostly frustrated reviews by other professionals.  I couldn't help it, I had to get it.

This was the case in June.  I was thinking about the largest stumbling block for backpack/So.Jo/Visual Journalists: managing all that equipment by yourself.  The tool I needed for my work wasn't really available in the market and I realized that I could figure it out on my own if I learned a little bit of computer and electrical engineering. 

I became a man possessed overnight,.  Again, you will have to ask Erica to really get a full picture of my obsession with solving the problem set before me.  I poured hours and days into building the device I have affectionately called "The Brick".  I'm guessing it represents about a full month of work (about 160 hours or so) between coding, design, and building.  Maybe more.

The Brick is the keystone component of a multimedia management system that I figured out on a sleepless night, worrying about the film by myself.   I built The Brick because I was tired of trying to respond to a situation quickly but being saddled down by the extra steps of recording sound separately from my video because of quality issues in H264 and the preamps in the 5D.  Normally, the process of shooting video with good audio on a 5d rig looks like this:  Hit record on the Audio Recorder to put it in stand by, hit it again to actually start recording, hit record on the 5D.

It's not only inelegant, it's time consuming, and most importantly: it's distracting when you are trying to focus on telling the story.  I wanted one button for everything.  So I built The Brick, sent off a couple of patent applications and now I'm here in South Sudan, where I expected to never use my newly found skills. 

But when I unpacked my bags after landing in Juba on Saturday, I realized I had left my charger for my Sony VG10 back in the states.  I did some research, figured out which charger I had was close enough to the needs of the V-Series battery the camera uses and went to work with the few things I happened to have around: a stray jumper wire left in my bag from my building frenzy days, a female plug that happened to fit the charger for my Brick–which happens to be the voltage and charge controller type for the Battery, and a Leather Man.

A coffee induced moment of clarity:

It looks like it's working, though the charger is a little hot.... I may have to keep an eye on the rig when I do go to charge the battery in the future. :)  But it's working, and right now that's a good step.

Waiting is the hardest part of working here in Juba for me.  I don't mind the power outages, I know how to prepare and work with them.  I don't mind having spotty internet or unreliable connectivity.  I wish I had less gear to haul around, but that's more about choices I've made than the environment.  What's been hard is waiting to start.

It took half a day to get all my journalism paperwork squared away so I could shoot in public legally.  It wasn't until yesterday that I was able to get my first interview with Kuol.  I have exchanged a total of two text messages with KongKong, both short, both mildly hopeful.  He's working out of town but might be back for a few days before I leave.  That's all I know right now

The weather is hot, the light is difficult, and contacts take time to establish.  communication is slow.

But if you are patient, if you have planned and shored up your loose ends.  You can pounce when the opportunity strikes.

Oh God, that I can be a patient man.

I hate waiting.

Another reason to trust your project to people beyond yourself. (Some people any way...)

About three hours ago the world proved, yet again, that I can't control it.

My visa fixer informed me that I wont be able to get my paperwork for South Sudan hammered out until about 4pm on Friday.  The plan was for me to get it today and then fly out tomorrow. So instead of getting into Juba tomorrow afternoon (Thursday), I'll be getting in on Saturday.  This cuts my time in South Sudan to exactly two weeks.

On paper it shouldn't really effect anything (I was already expecting that my work over the day and half that I've lost would mostly be about getting adjusted to the timezone and culture and less about shooting) but if I'm being honest, it shook me for a few minutes and tossed me off the noble steed of self confidence that I had been riding all morning. I couldn't think past it, I couldn't see what I should do next.

I expect it had a lot to do with the jetlag.  Yeah, it was the jetlag….

I mostly spent the next hour or so sitting out on the balcony of the iHub with an amazing americano, trying to relax for a second while my Assistant Producer tamped the situation back under control.[/column]

[column]My AP is Martin Kariuki and he's exactly the right guy to have on my left flank right now.  Martin is a Nairobian who grew up in a situation that left him incredibly street smart, savvy, and realistic; while at the same time remaining kind, funny, and optimistic.  It's a powerful concoction and I suspect it's the reason Erik put him as my point man the last time I was here.  Erik Hersman brought him on as my go-to while I was in Kenya last year working on projects surrounding the Kenya Referendum for Ushahid. We immediately clicked. 

Martin got off the phone with the fixer, called the hotel, my driver here in Nairobi, and the local airline I'm using and got everything adjusted.  All I had to do was focus on maintaining perspective.  That might sound decadent, but when you only have a couple of weeks to shoot a documentary, it's really valuable to be able to remain at 10,000 feet, or at least 5,000 feet, when you can. 

Martin has been the difference between juggling 10 things in my head and juggling 5.  That difference results in perspective and maintaining perspective is how you make a documentary. 

With out that perspective you follow events like a cow being lead around by the nose, you are the captive of your environment and you tire easily.  Martin, my AP, is a liberator.

A Brief update from Juba, Sudan

For starters, I'm doing fine (Mom and Dad).

While it's not Los Angeles, Juba is a very nice town as far as the developing world is concerned. I compare it to L.A. because the greater Southern California Metropolitan Area is about 1,000 square miles of pavement and Juba just got four or five roads paved in the last couple of years. These few streets are beautifully done and traffic seems to be respectful of their importance. Traffic is rather polite actually.

I get around Juba mostly by Boda, this is, on the back of a hired motorcycle. Every part of the world has a different word for them: piki-piki, ping-ping, Taka.... I've mentioned in other posts my affinity for getting around the developing world on the back of a bike, and Juba is the perfect example of a Boda's utility. In a congested city like Kampala or Dhaka, a motorbike cab would be a death wish: if an accident didn't kill you, then you would surely die when your lungs lept out of your throat in protest of all the smog you'd been inhaling. But in a smaller city like Juba, a bike is the most elegant way to travel. It can take smaller, unpaved, roads with ease; meaning you usually beat your high budget comrades to the press conference. The cost is fractions of a car. You never get hot when you are moving and yet there's no shock to the system when you step out of the air conditioned SUV into the warm dry air of Souther Sudan.

My Boda driver's name is Abdul and he's been great so far. I find that I kind of believe in Boda Monogamy: I like to find a guy I like and stick with him until he lets me down in a big way and then I go looking for someone new. I had another driver earlier in the project, but he didn't show up at 7am on the day of the vote when I needed to be somewhere and when I walked out to the main road, there was Abdul with his cap and sunglasses. He had me at "ok." Abdule's a quite young dude (most boda drivers are talkers) but he knows the town really well–with a few exceptions–and he's fair on price, which really, is kind of priority #1 when you're freelance.

OK, that's it for tonight, I need to go to bed. Lots to do in the morning. The Documentary is looking good!

Everything I know about being freelance I learned form MMORPGs, sort of.

Yeah, that's right, I'm a secret gammer-nerd. I’m not awesome at it. I don’t burn hours and hours in the thing, but I do enjoy it and I have noticed some interesting similarities between going freelance and trying to survive on a PvP server. In fact I would go so far as to say that I’ve learned things playing MMOs that have helped me in the real world. The first being the most obvious.

[col-sect][column]You need money.
From day one. For EVERYTHING. Unless you have high level friends with lots of stuff they don't need, or you know how to make/get stuff on your own, you are going to buy a lot of gear. Money seems to come and go easily in the beginning, but if you don't make a plan, sooner or later, you're going to find yourself stuck in a complicated situation with the wrong tools for the job and not enough cash to rectify the situation.

Some professions require more gear than others, but they all require some equipment to get started and usually that gear will need to be upgraded on a continual basis-meaning you need cash all the time. Sell crap you don't need, only buy stuff when you need it. Some day soon, your going to need that three grand that's burning a whole in your pocket. Hold onto it and wait.

If you have a day job and are planning to jump ship, start saving the money now. Go to a fiscally conservative personal finance class like a Financial Peace University or a Crown Ministries Class and get really honest about where your finances are at. Chances are you are spending money you don't need to. You could be saving it for your eventual departure from Dayjob Inc. If you have a significant other–especially if you are living together–take them with you to the class. Start having honest, open conversations about your money and what you want to do with it. You will never regret having more cash on hand.

Be willing to put in the grind
When you start a new game, your character builds up new skills quickly and you advance in levels often. Eventually, it takes more work to see improvments. In freelance, the the first month was so fun. I was setting up my accounting system, rebuilding my portfolio and my website, people were starting to notice me, it was great. Almost five months in and already I feel the shiny objects spreading out. If I am only waiting for the next big challenge to show up in my inbox I'll go crazy. Instead I need to focus on the routine work that will make me ready for the next big project. Get up, balance the books, keep in touch with clients, edit, produce, plan. There's nothing sexy about the grind, nothing fun about it really. So make the most of a day killing orcs for loot and experience by learning some new skills and find some comrades to go through it with.
[column]Learn some secondary skills
Chances are, there are things that would save you time and money in your company if you spent the time to learn them. In an MMO you usually have your main ability (warrior, mage, scout...) but there are secondary skills you can learn like blacksmithing or herbology. These skills give you the ability to make things instead of having to buying them. Usually you can make things that you can’t buy from most stores. You can spend money and buy your way through the game or you can spend time and craft stuff that is unique to you.

It’s basic economics. Guns and Butter. Money and Time. When you’re strapped for cash and your time is plentiful, learn how to balance your own books, write PHP, or change the O2 sensors in your delivery van. Why give away the commodity you have the least of in exchange for something you have plenty of?

Don't buy gear you're not Ready for.
In most games, the best equipment is only accessible to players at the highest skill levels–the people who actually know how to use those items to there fullest potential. But in real life there is no such restriction.

Much to the delight of Apple, Sony, and Canon shareholders, there is nothing stoping a newb video producer from dropping $15K on a editing system when she only needs to spend $3,000 to do everything she’ll need for her first couple of years of work. Nothing keeps a recently-bared attorney from buying a Burberry suit when a Hart Schaffner Marx suit will do just as well for him and wont look dated quite as fast.

That's ok. Style is important to an extent, it’s a visual world and I believe in visual indicators. Just remember, in the game you get resurrected after looking really good while getting mauled to death by a 4 foot tall spider. In the real world, no one bails you out when your sexy new portrait studio in down town is three months behind on rent, the checking account is wiped, and your credit cards are maxed. There is no release point for being broke.

Which brings me back to the beginning I suppose. At the end of the day you need to make money to keep playing the game, especially in this crazy post-paper-digital-journalist world. It’s time to get scrappy kids. Got a way to make some side cash with your skills, you should probably do it. You don’t need the best gear if you know how you to use yours better than the punk with the high end equipment who just showed up and bought his way into the scene. Keep your nose down and go kill some bad guys. Let time catch up with the twink. [/column][/col-sect]

Kampala with Jon Gosier


[column]It's funny to think that I had almost gone an entire trip in Africa without loosing power. Being based in Nairobi this time around meant having electricity and broadband accessible everyday. In this day and age, one can almost forget how far away from home you really are. I had taken a day trip to Kampala to interview Jon Gosier about SwiftRiver when I finally was reminded how 99% of Africa produces product: with unreliable power. In Kenya, I've been able to push up to my blog, get email, charge batteries, and call my wife every night, but around 9pm last night in Kampala the lights in Jon’s house started flickering as we tried to push email through a shared “3G” connection.

The Developing World as a whole is full of seeming contradictions and it's hard to paint that whole picture, but editing HD video while downloading email, and SMS-ing with my wife in the States all while in a house without power and unsafe water coming out the tap touches on parts of that overall picture.