The Kingdom of Swaziland

After our few days of shooting in South Africa, it was time for us to dive into the most critical work for which I was brought overseas.

We drove five hours from Johannesburg to the Kingdom of Swaziland. Swaziland is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world. It’s about the size of New Jersey, landlocked, and only has 1.3 million people – the population of San Diego.  It also has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest percentage of HIV – roughly 26% of the Swazi population. One of those people is Mr. Musa Mkoko, the only miner featured in They Go To Die who is still alive. Jonathan has been meeting Mr. Mkoko over the last few years and has seen his (multi-drug resistant) tuberculosis and HIV held at bay due to available access to the proper drugs and medication.

Jonathan and I spent the next few days with him and his wife as they prepared to come to the US for the first time and speak at the major AIDS 2012 Conference.

My job was to give Jonathan a break and let him focus on talking with the Mkokos and with the various people we would interact with along the way. I was given his Canon 5D Mark II to use on my own for the first time. I was excited to use it because I’m thinking about getting the camera for my use to go alongside our Panasonic HVX200.

Rigged up with a DSLR mixer, a really great Rode shotgun mic, and my Manfroto monopod brought from the States, I was the man running and gunning alongside Jonathan as we spent the next few days with the Mkokos. Boy was it stressful – especially because there is no way to monitor the audio levels to make sure the mic is actually picking up and recording sound! I already knew this is a problem with the 5D Mark II – that there are no visible audio levels and – but I also had no audio coming through into the headphones. Our HVX does not have these issues.

So we do a test recording of a few seconds, snap our fingers to make sure something was being recorded, play it back, and if we heard the snapping we new it was working right. The problem was I didn’t always have time to do this – and I had to make sure the audio switch was on and that it hadn’t drained the 9V battery. It was crazy!

And wow did I screw up some, big time. First, we were with Mrs. Mkoko’s sister who was stitching on a sewing machine homemade American-style skirt suits for Mrs. Mkoko to wear to the US! It was great … and I didn’t have the audio turned on so there’s no sound. The reason is simple – during the car ride, I turned off the mixer because it would drain the battery so fast. And we didn’t have a ton of them to go around. But you have to turn it back on, son!

Okay, so one time, one mistake – that’s not terrible. BUT … then we went to Mrs. Mkoko’s mother’s homestead, who lives nearby in the remote forest lands as well. It was picturesque – beautiful little huts made out of clay on a dusty field surrounded by vegetation and chickens, with mountains in the distance. Her mother was giving her ceremonial clothes to bring to the US to wear at the conference. AND, again, I didn’t have the audio on. I couldn’t believe it. Twice. I was so ashamed of myself.

After that, I was pretty good about double checking it every few seconds and things went pretty smoothly the next few days. We did a lot of filming in the car with Mr. Mkoko who is very lanky, smiles, and talks with a lot of emotion and movement. He’s wonderful to film. We actually had a impromptu photo shoot at their home with their kids which provided some of the best footage we got the entire trip. The sunlight there at sunset is incredible – I can’t explain it, but the color seems richer than in many parts of the world.

We brought the Mkokos with us to Johannesburg, where in a hotel room I set up the HVX on a tripod shooting the video screen they were watching a clip of them we were showing and hand held the camera on the other side, getting their faces and reactions. Two camera shoot, one operator!

The next morning we put them on a flight and filmed them along the way. They had never been on a plane before and very seldom ventured outside of southern Africa, if ever. So it was going to be quite an experience regardless what happened. Jonathan trained them to use a Sony handicam with a small shotgun mic on top to document their travels. I can’t wait to see their footage.

I’m not yet sure if I’ll get the 5D Mark II or not. The photography is incredible and the image quality is something else. But that sound recording issue is serious. I’ll probably just keep our HVX for sit down interviews and use the 5D as my primary stills camera and for certain types of shooting.

Anyway, we headed back to the US. I couldn’t join Jonathan in DC for the conference and more filming because I had to get back to New Haven and finish The Worst of the Worst. But I’m thankful that (a) Jonathan was extremely happy with the footage that was shot and (b) he didn’t kill me for screwing up too much. I’m so grateful to be a part of his incredible film in some small way.



So I thought I would update this before I left South Africa for Swaziland. That didn’t happen.

But a lot of filming for Jonathan Smith‘s incredible documentary, They Go To Die,  has happened. I’ll update the remainder of our South Africa production now, and the Swaziland part in the next update.

After shooting b-roll and having a “vacation” of sorts (I was brought to an incredible animal park just outside of Johannesburg that included playing with lion cubs), we got to earnest filming starting on Monday.

On Monday, Jonathan and I drove to Carletonville, about 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg, where all the “gold fields” lie. That’s all gold country out there – mines everywhere.We were invited to interview the director of health initiatives at one of the major mining companies, AngloGold Ashanti.We didn’t know what to expect; Jonathan told them, hey, if you don’t tell your story then others will – especially those who don’t like you. So they agreed to have us come into the mine and talk to them. We didn’t know what to expect.

I used my HVX200 and Jonathan used his Canon 5D Mark II as we were given a tour of their health facilities and their “sales pitch” of what they’re doing at their mine to combat tuberculosis and HIV transmission amongst miners. (TB in mining is the subject of Jonathan’s film.)

We did a lot of good walking and talking interviews and general shooting of their treatment facilities. Then we did a sit down interview with the health director. I had Jonathan’s 5D on a slider – using both for the first time. (He’s put a lot of misguided trust in me, you see…) First, we had to move to a room that had adequate light. But since it’s a really ugly building on the mine grounds, it didn’t have great light or a great visual backdrop for shooting.

We settled on a clinic room, which worked fine because this is a doctor who runs the health initiative for the corporation. Then, we started the interview. Turns out the slider didn’t slide smoothly and I found out that it gets stuck in the middle. Fortunately, Jonathan is forgiving and thankful that I’m even there so he’s let … slide… my terrible operating. The interview, otherwise, was good, though we got the best stuff during the walk and talks.

The strange thing is that the health director was very antsy any time I wandered off. The facility is a working hospital, and they agreed to let us film as long as we didn’t violate the privacy of their patients. Of course, we had no intention of doing that, so that was fine. But they were very nervous when I had to run back for a battery or to shoot some b-roll around the corner.

Not saying they have something to hide, but it was very … curious.

We left, and we continued our shooting-from-the-car-with-monopod as we drove off the mining grounds. We didn’t get a chance to actually go into the mine, but we did get an interview from a face of the corporate side of the equation.

Okay, next update about our work in Swaziland. It was an incredible couple of days following up this trip to AngloGold.

South Africa

I am in Africa for the first time.

South Africa to be exact. And Johannesburg to be even more exact. It’s pretty cool.

I’m here helping out my friend Jonathan Smith on his incredible documentary, They Go To Die – about gold mine workers who come to South Africa, get sick with tuberculosis (and often HIV), and are sent back to their home countries without proper health care.

It’s already a beautiful work-in-progress, but we’re filming a significant portion of the story while I’m here. One of the miners suffering from TB who lives in Swaziland is coming to the US to the AIDS conference in Washington, DC to speak about conditions in the mine and talk to lawmakers and other officials.

We’ve been helping provide guidance to Jonathan throughout, but I’m really fortunate that he’s using some of his grant money to bring me out here. I hope I don’t let the man down – he’s been doing so much great work already. But my arrival has doubled his crew, so hopefully I’ll be able to take some of the work off his shoulders. I brought our trusty (sometimes trusty) HVX200 and a couple of monopods to join the effort.

Today we shot some skyline b-roll as well as a great billboard/advertisement on the side of one of the gold mining company’s building. Tomorrow, some exterior shots of mine shaft rigs (not sure what they’re actually called…) before we go in an actual mine on a tour after the weekend.

More after the weekend, and before we make the four-hour drive across the border to Swaziland. Meanwhile back in the States, the Visual Law Project team is taking up the editing reigns in my stead. Will rejoin in a week.

Moving In

Back now from California, and back returning to edit The Worst of The Worst. I decided that if Yale isn’t going to fix the air conditioning in our office, I’m not going to edit in the office any more.

So – I’m here in my home office with the Visual Law Project‘s computer and 4TB hard drive. This is probably the best of all scenarios – now I can wait for FCP X to stop its pinwheel of doom from spinning while in the comfort of my own home. (For the record – the pinwheel is spinning while I’m writing this.) It should limit the chances for my dog to chew up various household items and increase the amount of time I actually edit, by reducing the number of trips out for lunch as well as the travel to and from the office. Though, it is only a 10-minute walk or so.

I’m not totally sure the law school would be thrilled by my temporary relocation. But it was become unbearable in the 90-degree heat, and potentially damaging to the equipment.

I have about four more days of available time to work before I leave to South Africa to help friend and overall excellent human Jonathan Smith with his incredible documentary. So it’s back to the grindstone until then.