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 Conversation with Kuol (an explanation for starting a documentary)

Two weeks ago on my way to the gas station, I got a phone call from South Sudan. It was Kuol. He was wondering if I was coming back to Juba. 

Kuol was winding down after a day of sweeping mines and wanted to catch up and say hi. He’s halfway through a three month contract as a minesweeper in a rural village with an American de-mining company. He’ll be back in Juba in May unless he picks up another three months. It’s exhausting work from what I gather. The infected area is hot and at the edge of an abandoned field enclosed with plastic ribbon tied to stakes, similar to what you see in archeological excavations. Everything inside that plot is potentially marred with mines. Everything outside should be safe. Untie the tape in one section and slowly move the equipment one step inside the perimeter. Then scan and analyze. Take another step. Scan. Analyze... A good day might cover forty feet in one direction. Also, it’s hot.

He told me all this as I pumped gas into my car after working all day in an air conditioned Starbucks. I didn’t feel bad about the juxtaposition, but at that moment we were in different worlds. I couldn’t relate to his concept of “just another day of work.”

“How is your family?” he asked through digital compression and his rolling South Sudanese accent.

“They are doing well! My daughter is almost six months old now,” I said.

“That is very good to hear. When are you coming back to South Sudan?” he responded.

There wasn’t urgency in his voice, but even through the difficult connection I could tell the question was important to him.

Slowly but purposefully, both Sudan and South Sudan have been positioning their armies at the shared border. There have been no open threats of war; just some saber-rattling about protecting civilians and the democratic process, but no real threats and no breakdown in communication. In a different time in history, the newest nation on earth positioning itself for a possible attack from its former host would make the front page and the evening news. But this is not that time.

When I was in Juba last January, there seemed to be as many foreign journalists like myself wandering the city as there were South Sudanese; young men and women with expensive, hastily slung cameras around their necks. Or with an audio recorder and tethered microphone. Or just a notepad tucked under one arm and a cellphone up against their face, their aviator sunglasses glinting as they tried to file back to their editors. 

But all that’s over now. The road warriors left for Tunisia before the week of voting ended in South Sudan and the rest of us spent a few more days trying to find different ways to tell the same story before flying home. If a newly born democracy gets trampled on and no one is there to see it happen, who gets to tell that story?

“I’m hoping to be back in mid July,” I said.

“That is good to hear.” Kuol’s Bantu lilt was thick, “Will you still be making the movie?”

“That’s the plan. Are you still interested in being a part of it?”

I don’t know if the concern in my voice transferred over the digital fog to the other side. I had never been sure if my intentions were clear to Kuol and the others after I left Juba. I want to follow you around and understand your life, I want to videotape you and tell your story. I want to share what I see in your life with everyone else. It sounds clear, but little assumptions are made, and all that before culture and language enter in and make things more difficult.

“Yes, I am very interested in being a part of your documentary. I think this is an important time in our country. I hope you will tell our story. When you come, we will do this.”

I chuckled as a weight lifted off my chest. Kuol and I were on the same planet. He was clearing mines out of some guy’s field in North East Africa. I was pumping gas in Orlando, Florida. Both truths existed. Life was not binary but a beautiful analog gradation of tone.

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “I just need to raise the funds and, God willing, I’ll be out there in late July.”

Just Waiting...

There’s an entire generation of men my age in Southern Sudan who are waiting.  Waiting for the economy to spring to life so they can find a job. Waiting for the economy to be locally driven so they can find professional work. Waiting for leadership to be composed of people who are qualified, instead of people who are favored by the SPLM/A for their veteran-ship in the bush.  Waiting for an entire childhood and adolescence of violence and hardship to have counted for something.
Tomorrow is the last day of polling here in Southern Sudan. The end of the beginning of the end of an era. The country has already seen 60% turnout so whatever comes of the vote will be official.  But there are still three states that will hold separate elections in a few weeks. Then it all has to be counted.  It’s still another month before there can be an official new country in Africa.
“So we wait, and we wait, and we wait, and wait, and we wait...”