Walking on flat ground, slowly, everything seems normal. As it should be. But start to run, or walk uphill, or exert yourself in any way (climbing the stairs, carrying heavy equipment...) and you start to feel the thinness of the air up here. Suddenly ordinary breaths are not enough. You try to breathe deeply, but the oxygen doesn't reach you. You need two breaths for every lung of oxygen. You suddenly feel incapacitated by an elevation of only 1700m, the change is instantaneous. From ordinary breathing to gasping for air in a matter of seconds. Wearing the steadicam, I can only run around 200m next to Salah and his team before I'm about to collapse, desperate for more oxygen, starting to feel ill and off balance. Even one lap of the track, jogging casually, carrying nothing, is a challenge.
I can't conceive of how these runners can sprint uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. And finish it all with a smile on their faces. The mountains are glorious, beautiful, but they are designed to make life difficult for you.
Salah looks over at the view from the sixth floor of a hotel in the centre of Font Romeu.
"God gave the French heaven on earth. But all he gave us was the desert," he chuckles to himself.
"I think the desert is also heaven on earth," I want to say...
These are critical days for Western Sahara. On April 27 the UN voted to extend its MINURSO mission there for another year. As it does every year. But this year, several countries petitioned for the mandate to include human rights monitoring, something particularly important following the violence in the Gdeim Izik protest camp in November 2010. But that petition came to nothing. The mandate was renewed for another year with no human rights clause...
And so it goes...
Salah doesn't talk much about the UN or the mandate. This isn't where his interests lie. He wakes every morning around 9am, runs to his first training session at the track, trains for about an hour, runs back home, eats lunch, rests, runs back to the track for the afternoon training session, back home for dinner. At night, he laughs with his friends over a poker game, or watches a football match on a giant television at the local bowling alley.
We shoot two ambitious sequences. First, the team is training in the forest around 25km from Font Romeu. We rent a bicycle in town and attach a trailer to it. I'm sitting in the trailer with the camera mounted on a steadicam. Everything is set up as it should be, we only realise once we're moving that pulling the heavy trailer and steadicam is even harder than running uphill at this altitude. We manage only two long shots, switching riders in between shots. But the timing is perfect and we get what we were looking for.
Next, a long take of Salah and Mohammad running through the streets of Font Romeu. I'm sitting in the back of the Renault Clio, the hatchback open and my legs dangling over the back, dragging close to the surface of the street. The steadicam is mounted, weighing me down. Brendan sits in the back seat gripping the steadicam vest as tightly as he can. Mar is driving extremely slowly, paced perfectly in time with the runner, as we come around bends and carve a smooth arc with the camera, floating over the road that the runner's feet are pounding. The camera's motion is light and elegant, all the movements of the car, the runners, and the steadicam are synchronised in fluid curves that belie the immense strain Brendan and I are under. At the end of the shot, I can't make a fist with my right hand anymore and my legs are numb. Brendan's arms are aching after twenty minutes of holding my life in his hands - making sure I (and the camera) don't fall out every time the car accelerates.
I'm constantly thinking of the fiction versus the documentary film. The fiction film acts as though no one is present behind the camera. Does the documentary want the same thing? I don't think so. I want it to be known that we are there, that we are interfering and enquiring with our equipment. This is how we tell the story. The camera needs to be the witness. The documentary doesn't want aesthetic perfection, but perfection in the storytelling process. The filmmakers should be able to watch the film and sense a presence, yet not recognise that it is their presence. The film should look familiar, but they should not recognise that it was made by them. It should be reminiscent and unfamiliar at the same time. It should be intimate and dislocated at the same time. It should still have the power to entertain, surprise and enthral.