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.

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