Coming up for air after a year and a half in production for the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project documentary Cornerstone is nothing short of amazing. To think that it was only two years ago, that I met a very humble, but unassuming man by the name of Jackson who came to the US from Uganda to live the American dream, only to be pulled back to his village in order to save it. You all know by now, I am not easy to impress. As a journalist, I am jaded and suspicious by nature. I read Jackson's book "A School For My Village" and learned all about his non-profit organization Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. I was intrigued, but my experience made him pay for those who embellished their stories before him. I decided to go take a look for myself with a young team of budding filmmakers. With Jackson's blessing, off we went in the summer of 2015 to check out the inner workings of Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project and to meet the people they serve.
Assembling the crew earlier this year, I was prepared to do just about anything to get Emily Jones on my team. When I proposed the project to her she was in, but there was a condition. She wanted her cousin, university student Anna Ashford to join us. Heavy sigh. I have bad luck on past projects inviting others I have never met so this was not something I initially would agree to. What if she is high maintenance? What if she just doesn't get what we do? What if she is lazy? And heaven forbid.... what if she doesn't have good chemistry to work with the crew or the people of Nyaka? But wait! Emily and I were on the Nepal trip together. I remembered someone named Anna being discussed in conversations with the physicians I met while filming Hearts In The Himalayas. The doctors raved about her and what a great person she is. They said I absolutely had to meet her. Could she be the same Anna?
Late in pre-production I received inquiries about adding additional crew members. I was getting a bit leery of adding more people since I prefer to travel light in order to keep a small footprint on assignments. My response was no, but that changed when one university student worked his magic to persuade me to at least hear him out. After some back and forth Facebook messaging (I guess that is what kids do these days in lieu of phone calls) I agreed to let him give me his pitch. Dylan is studying audio engineering and media production at Belmont University in Nashville. I met him when he was a young teenager and he always dabbled in music and anything techie. He proudly calls himself a geek but don't underestimate him. Dylan is also an experienced mountaineer, an accomplished snowboarder and skateboarder. He was a natural choice to shoot rider Nick Jone's latest video.
After he submitted a convincing essay on why I should have him on my crew, I thought it might not hurt to have an adventuresome techie (besides myself) along on the shoot so I invited him to join us. Dylan spent weeks assisting me with taking inventory, making sure all of the equipment was in good working condition then prepping and packing the gear for the long journey to Uganda.
Last week I wrote about my Director of Photography, Jan Kohler. This week, Brown University student Emily Jones is on tap. Emily… what can I say about this young woman? What can't I say about her?
For the Nyaka project, I knew I would need a good boom operator and all around production assistant. It would require someone who has a great work ethic, good temperament and positive energy. Emily was perfect for this role. She is one of those people you need to have on set when things go south or an interview gets a bit emotional. I am sure she does not realize this, but Em has a way of of looking at you and you know all things in the world will be good. I had no doubt she would be the perfect crew mate.
I am often asked if I take along a production crew on my projects. The answer is no. I usually take medical professionals in order to provide the profile organization assets for the particular trip I join. Once on location, I hire and train locals to assist me on the shoot.
On this trip, I changed my approach a bit. I was unable to recruit medical professionals for this trip due to the timing. I always knew I wanted to take a film student with me at some point and I suppose the universe was telling me this was the trip to explore this option. My first choice was Jan Kohler. I met Jan when he was 14 or so on the Cape CARES documentary project a number of years ago. He was a young teen who enjoyed photography. I mentored him over the years (from afar) and now he is a college student ready to begin his studies this fall in a media production program at The Hague in the Netherlands.
What an assignment to document Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project (NAOP)! My first trip to Africa for Caring For The World Films was outstanding. When Winston Churchill labeled Uganda the Pearl of Africa, he was right on the mark. Although exhaustive research was conducted, there was no way to prepare for the astounding beauty of this country. This place is a cinematographer’s dream, not only for the beauty of the countryside, with its beautiful tropical forests, arid savannas, extraordinary animals, birds and flora, but the Ugandan people. Their friendliness and warmth cannot be overstated. When I asked our always-smiling travel coordinator Sam Mugisha what is it about the Ugandan culture that perpetuates the inclusiveness to all, he simply said, “We are a country of many tribes. It is in our best interest to get along and be inclusive, even to those who don’t look like us.” Fair enough. He added that there are over 150 different clans with numerous religions with varying cultural nuances.
In a groovy little theater in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque, filmmakers, friends and strangers gathered to screen Hearts In The Himalayas. Everyone asks if I am nervous. I respond with a soft but confident "No." My only concern is that there are no technical issues that flare up. It is out of my control now and all I can do is absorb the experience.
The theater goes to black and the film begins with that first note of music and that awesome first shot of the Lapa Valley. Wait for it. I hear the first "Oohs!" from the audience. As Himalayan HealthCare founder Anil Parajuli begins to
Wow! The Albuquerque Film and Media Experience festival organizers pulled off and incredible family friendly event, which made all of us filmmakers feel like VIPS. Sometimes film festivals are over run with ...well, jerks. I can say hands down, this was the most inclusive and supportive festival experience I have ever a had. Their mission is simply "to create oneness through the power of film, media and arts." They accomplish this by merging media, technology, movies, food and art into one festival wrapped up with down home hospitality.
It does not matter if you are a small independent like me or a big time producer like Emma Thompson, all of us joined together to share ideas, experiences and support to each other's films. The founders, Lainie S. Quirk and Ivan Wiener were hand picked by Robert Redford (Yep, THAT guy)
Tonight is the screening of Hearts In The Himalayas here at the Albuquerque Media and Film Experience Film Festival. This festival has been nothing but top notch laid back and first class everything. Great movie selections, great speakers, great parties! Best of all, I have met so many talented film makers here who are willing to share their experiences and expertise. I am not easily impressed (most of you know that), but the films screening here are wicked crazy good. If you get a chance to see SOLD, do it and expect to be moved. SOLD is a full-length feature film adapted from the National Book Award Nominated and Quill Award-Winning novel by Patricia McCormick. Based on true stories, SOLD is the story of Lakshmi's journey from a peaceful, rural village in Nepal to the gritty brothels of Kolkata, India. A few more films I highly recommend include Timeless and Grace.
As many of you know, our documentary Hearts In The Himalayas was selected to be part of the Albuquerque Film and Media Experience this week. Who knew our film about Himalayan HealthCare would receive so much attention? To date, Hearts has received 15 awards and or film festival invitations. To know that the film has touched so many people and brought awareness to the incredible work Anil Parajuli and his team are doing in the Dhading region of Nepal makes all of the ups and downs of the three year project worth it.
AFME has a strong lineup of socially conscious films made in Asia and Ireland for festival goers to experience. Additionally they have seminars and speakers available to discuss their projects and methods. I am excited to hear Lisa Kristine speak. She is an acclaimed humanitarian photographer who has gained worldwide recognition for her collaboration with the NGO Free The Slaves. Her work on Slavery will be featured in two films to be released this year. Sold was produced by Oscar winning team, Emma Thompson and Jeffery Brown. One of the characters is inspired by Lisa and played by Gillian Anderson.
Debi Lang is a humanitarian and adventure traveler who never leaves home without her camera, well worn hiking boots and groovy headbands. .