Sunday, 21 February 2010

Mother of the Family


Still no sign of my bag. I was hoping it would have appeared at night, while I was sleeping. Or early in the morning. It's not clear if my bag even made it out of Algiers. I have no way of knowing...There are mixed messages from everyone - no one seems to have a clear answer. We're going to run out of batteries soon, the charger is in my bag. We've been running up to every other camera crew we see, asking if they have a charger. But "industry standard" seems to mean nothing here. No one else has the same camera.

We are interviewed by Mohammad Salah from SADR TV. He asks what my goal is here, and I say that I don't have a role in finding justice for the Sahrawi people. I'm only a filmmaker. But maybe I can have a role in bringing the message to the UK, where it's virtually unknown. Tell a story, that's what I can do. This is the last colony in Africa, and yet even politicians and parliamentarians don't know about it. Even NGO workers don't know about it. Even human rights defenders don't know about it. Sorry, Sahrawis. Your history is unknown, your cause is a mystery to most people. The name "Western Sahara" means nothing to them except a compass point. This is one of the greatest crimes against you. I wish it wasn't that way. But I'm only a filmmaker. So I tell this story, that can be my role.

Mohammad asks the others (in English) what they think of the future - the future for the Sahrawis. I can't remember what they answered.

Why is it important to win?
Ask Salah: "why is it important to win?"

At one point, Salah says something to his Algerian friends, other runners, about the camera. I can't hear his exact words. That he can't focus when the camera is around? He apologises a few times to his friends. Apologises for the camera? It has influence, the camera. Whoever says they are a fly on the wall, they are invisible, they are merely observing, is deluded. The film is a record of the relationship between you, the subject, and the camera.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Aida Hmaida's House

(We're staying in Aida Hmaida's house. Ahmed is her son. He sits quietly in the corner of the room where we sleep and eat)

As we try to follow Salah in a car - he's running along the main road that runs out of Samara camp - the Polisario military police stop us at the end of the road. You need permission to drive out of the camps with foreigners (for our protection, we're told). I remember the Amnesty reports, saying the Sahrawi don't have full freedom of movement, the camps surrounded by Sahrawi and Algerian military.

I shoot a few scenes with a 7D that Jo rented for this trip. I fall in love with the camera, beautiful image, organic movement, the separation and depth of field. And the crazy skewing of the image from the rolling shutter. This is the future of filmmaking, we are told, a "game-changer", as Phillip Bloom calls it.




Saleh is sitting with his friend, Sahel. He tells me he's Moroccan, as a joke, but he says it with such a straight face I believe him. "He's Moroccan but he works with us," he keeps saying. But it's a joke, and they laugh together at the fact that I believed him, and I was surprised and took him seriously. Sahel shows me his leg. He was kidnapped from his house in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, after a demonstration in the early days of the Sahrawi Intifada. His leg was broken so badly - blood everywhere - from the beating, the Moroccans thought he was dead and dumped him in the streets outside the city of Layounne where he lived. A family found him and brought him to hospital. He had pins in his legs for three months, then he got a travel visa to Mauritania, and from there he escaped to the Algerian camps.

(10:30, meet Mohammad Saleh at the centre for an interview)

Mohammad and Saleh talking to me about war: another war is the only solution, they say.
"But the Moroccans will kill you."
We fought them for 15 years already. Then, Morocco was stronger and we were only 4000 men. Now every Sahrawi is a soldier.
I've heard this before, many times before, and still it makes me sad. I hear it all the time in Palestine. Which of us is being unrealistic?

"What's happened with negotiations so far? Nothing. Only war can change the situation."
"I understand what you're saying, but I still don't support the idea of war."
"All the young people in the camps today will tell you the same thing."
And I heard that even back in 2006 on my first visit.

I'm still struggling over this question: should interviews be done in the field, as casual interactions between subject and camera, or in a controlled and formalised environment? There is a separation in the formal interview, a disembodiment from the rest of the film, a detached talking head. But here is also more technical control and an isolation in the formal interview that can be advantageous. I still have no answer for this, and though the question is exciting, offering a lot of possible answers, this lack of decision is tying my hands. I'm frustrated between the two choices, two very different approaches . I still haven't done any "interviews" as such, but instead I've asked questions casually from behind the camera. Where to go with this..?

One Hour of Sleep

Our team arrives in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwest Algeria. My bag is missing. I knew something would happen, when I spent almost an hour checking in. They charged me for excess baggage, and I went to another counter to pay. Then they realised I was still within the limit - they shouldn't have charged me - so I had to go back to the same counter again to get my refund. I then regretted bringing the second tripod, far too heavy and useless for this trip, so we had to unpack and send the tripod downstairs to Left Luggage. Abandoning it, I felt much more efficient, lighter. I should have trusted my instincts, my first thought: not to bring it.

By the time I checked in and put my bag into the oversized belt, I had a feeling something would go wrong. It never made it to Algiers. It never got on the flight from London. The battery charger is our biggest concern, so we plan to be very selective about what we shoot. Never mind a change of clothes...I remember Ken Loach's advice "know exactly what you're going to shoot. Don't shoot too much." and I see the lack of battery charger as an exercise in control and limitations. Like The Five Obstructions.

In the airport, Salah tells me he almost didn't come to Algeria. He wasn't feeling in the right frame of mind to race, and his brother - who just moved to France - is having trouble settling in. But then, he thought, "for the sake of the film I have to come." I like this sentiment, and I know I need to include it in the documentary later.

Salah tells me what it was like in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. The authorities tried to bribe him to be loyal to Morocco, he says. They sent women, honey traps, to convince him. I know this, too, will have to be brought up again, on camera. I start thinking about how much I can ask him at this point in our film, at this point in our understanding of each other (can I call it a "friendship?"). I know there are some questions that will have to wait until we meet again in France, with more time to relax and sit down casually to talk. I enjoy this, getting to know him through the process of making the film. I don't want to know everything at once. Drawing it out. If the film can span the length of time it takes to get to know him, it will be perfectly parallel to the revelation of information, the exposition of story. The two can develop in together.

The crew often asks me "how does he feel about running for Morocco?"
"I don't know"
"Haven't you asked him?"
"No."
"Don't you want to know?"
"Yes."

This becomes the mantra of the trip. "I don't know." It become an automatic reflex. "I don't know." I don't want to know. If I knew everything now, what sort of journey would this be with Salah? Where is the investigation? Where is the unfolding of facts and realisations?

Later thought: I keep saying I don't want it to be a political film, but people keep talking politics. Is this part of the story? Am I forcing something that isn't accurate? (This will come back to bite me in the ass on the last day of the trip...)

Next morning in the camps. Salah is tired. He slept less than an hour last night. "When I'm really tired, I can't sleep," he says, by way of an explanation, but I don't understand. He walks through the camps and runs into friends along the way. He seems heavy, a lot on his mind. He's still not sure what distance he's going to run on the 22nd, asks me "I'd rather run the 5k, but maybe the 10km is better for the film?"

I'm still waiting for my bags, and my energy and enthusiasm, to arrive. Levels are fluctuating wildly: at times I feel I could collapse spontaneously. Other times, walking under the sun with Salah, I forget I'm exhausted and feel I could keep walking beside him forever. I quickly get the feeling that I don't know what I've gotten myself into.

The weather is strange. Very cold in the shade and very hot in the sun. Feels like high-altitude, but Brendan's watch says we're only several metres above sea level. The air seems thin. The sun is hot, but the air reminds you that it's only temporary. Reminds me of how they used to describe Morocco "A cold country with a warm sun." Don't mention Morocco here, I've already been criticised for using Moroccan slang.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Things I remember...

I dread the question "what was your favourite talk?" Not because I can't decide. Because I can't remember. Something happens to me at conferences like this, I phase in and out, and I can rarely remember the specific content of the talks. (maybe this is what I meant, Emily, by "style is more influential than content.") There are a few things that stick in my mind, a few moments, but to try to remember the talk, or the exact message, impossible. The moments:

A green laser equipped to kill mosquitoes (was this real or a joke? I still don't know)

Augmented reality mapping from Microsoft (from backstage. Tom made a joke about crabs...)

The superheroes of LXD (I'm not a dancer. Anyone who has seen me dance will know how much of a dancer I am not. And yet this brought tears to my eyes. Why?)

The best coffee I've ever had.

Long Beach - I dared to venture into town for 30 minutes and suddenly realised why the conference was held here. To make sure you never left.

A free Nexus One from Google (sorry, I sold it. I need the money)

Daniel Kahneman: sometimes we experience something for no reason other than to retain the memory (is this what he was saying? This is what it made me think of). Our remembering selves vs. our experiencing selves. I often have this problem, it troubles me. I experience something and - simultaneously - think to myself "Soon, the only thing left will be my memory of it. And even that is distorted". His description of a concert reminds me of experiencing films. One false move at the end and it can ruin the entire film for me. I want to experience it purely.

Dan Barber and his love affair with a fish. (just started watching The End of The Line on tv...)

Sheryl Crow, phoning it in.


More than any of this, I remember the people. The generosity of the team behind the fellows programme. Tom, Logan, Ekeme, Simone, Sheldon. ("What do you all do for the other 51 weeks of the year?") The fellows who inspired me with their own modesty and creativity, bravery, imagination.

High school anxieties all over again. First days of school, making friends, it came flooding back to me. I thought we were supposed to grow out of this. That was the hard part. Who are you eating lunch with? We are all still young children looking for friends (or is it just me?).

Late night metal cover band in the only bar still open. I finally have a digital point-and-shoot camera (thanks you TED gift pack, wherever you are) and have dozens of blurred faces and feet hitting the pavement photos. I miss pointing and shooting. Thank you Canon.

Averaging four to five hours of sleep a night (this is my fault...)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The wisdom of the micro

TED University, day 2. Jonathan Klein from Getty, "What makes a photograph? The viewer, not the photographer," interesting premise (like my favourite, the "Observer Principle" - your camera affects the situation in front of you, no way around it. This should be the basis of representation in documentary film and photography) but not enough new to make a huge impact. Klein misses the point. It's not about what image you choose to hang on your office wall, but how that picture was taken. He was speaking too much as a collector, not a photographer.

Cindy Gallop unveils a website that tracks micro-actions, define yourself by your actions rather than your words (no matter how small). A lot of talk about accountability in many talks here, micro-actions reminds me of Blippy (what are your friends buying?) that tracks every credit card purchase you make. A culture of full transparency and traceability. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee...

And thank you, Rob Cook, for arguing against the "singularity delusion". There will not come a time when computers overtake humans in intelligence. Why? Because we underestimate how much we don't know. As knowledge increases, so does volume of the unknown, so does uncertainty.

The incredibly talented and generous Robert Gupta brings us to tears with his story of teaching Nathaniel Ayers how to play the violin. "Music is medicine" he says, and I understand what he means. The guitar is my second therapist. Sing for my sanity.

I start drawing people on stage at the urging of Ann Willoughby - she explains switching between drawing and writing activates a left brain/right brain dialogue. It encourages creativity. I could do with more creativity lately.

Somewhere between day two and three, wondering why I'm beginning to feel increasingly alienated. Is it all this talk of success? It's a difficult word for me to hear lately. Is it the very American-nes of TED, the optimism, the support, the enthusiasm that London has somehow driven out of? What a state of affairs when optimism become alienating, but London you have done your job well, suppressing creativity and replacing optimism with fear. Anxieties. I start to consider how I might leave here and go back to London if I had to. Start to consider that I don't belong here. (Yes, this was in an email from Logan - "warning: you will likely feel like a fraud, like you don't belong. Don't listen to this voice in your head.")

I don't, in the end, look for a way to escape back to London. I stay with it after several hours. I force myself to get over the anxiety and fear. It's a powerful thing. I often try to dismiss it as an affectation, but it has more control over me than I have over it, a fact that I hate to admit but must, at times like these. Still, my challenge is to stay, to force myself to talk to people and learn from them because I know - despite how difficult it can be - that it's good for me. This isn't the place to slip into depression again. Not with so much optimism around. Not with Robert's violin and Cesar's smile and Kate's impish laugh and Tom's hand pulling me through a crowd to say hello to someone I simply must meet.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

From Above Their Heads And From Beneath Their Feet

Following my work with Angle Theatre on my first script, I was invited in February 2010 to hold a reading of a new script at the Start Night at Hampstead Theatre. Start nights offer writers a way to get some audience responses to very early drafts of new work. I like to get external reactions to my writing and films as early as possible, to see the material actuated and not just conceptual. Seeing the script on stage is completely different to reading it yourself, on a glowing computer screen, on your desk at home. It suddenly seems flawed and vulnerable.

From Above Their Heads And From Beneath Their Feet is about a father's obsessive search for contact with his son, missing for 14 years. He seeks the help of a psychic, a medium. The question remains: are his skills genuine, or just a mastery of manipulation? How far are we willing to go based simply on belief?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

You will not see LA

TED begins - we practice our talks today. It's amazing to see the range of people here, the range of ideas and disciplines. All I want to do is make films, but beside me are people like Manu - designing computers that use picolitre droplets of water as relay switches: "information is physical", and Mitch - the city of the future is "soft", and Hugo - power generation from dirt. I never intended to invent something to change the world. (Maybe, now, I should get started...)

What's my big idea? Doug wants to know. What's the core of my work? To convey it in four minutes? Everyone is struggling with the same thing. I wish I could simplify, wish I could reduce my ideas to a sentence. Others seem good at it, maybe it's the nature of your business that dictates how good you are at talking about it...

At night, welcome party. Talking to Sarah Jane about the human body in fluid motion, living under water, how we could survive (or just visit...). I didn't know there were aquanauts. There is Frederick, carrying his lab in his pocket. A microchip that offers a portable wet lab for disease diagnostics. I want to be able to carry my life's work in my pocket, pull it out and say "this is what I made."

Everyone turns in early again, 9:30pm the party clears out. The fellows in their rooms, practicing and revising their talks. I'm thinking about the next four days, I don't want to miss anything. I'm told I won't have a chance to see LA, and I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Arrival in LAX

Finally arrived in LA for the TED conference. I had to be re-routed through San Francisco after my original (direct) flight was cancelled. Now...trying hard to stay awake...ngggggg. I don't know how I'm going to cope with this week of talks, meetings, pitches, lunches, dinners, along with this jetlag.