How to Film Abroad: An Interview with David E. Simpson

The modern filmmaker has no fear of flying. From the blue whales of the Galapagos to the Bhangra dancers of Punjab, it seems there’s nowhere a camera can’t go. But what do you need to know to film overseas, and how is it different? The Independent caught up with producer, director, and editor David E. Simpson, whose film Milking the Rhino, shot entirely in Africa, recently screened at the Boston International Film Festival.

How long did Milking the Rhino take to film?

We spent a total of about 14 weeks in Africa, spread over the course of three trips. This was over a period of two and half years. We did quite a bit of editing between the second and third trips, and it took about three years to produce and post-produce.

Is the whole process longer when you’re filming abroad?

Not necessarily, no. I’m independent, but I do a lot of my work with Kartemquin Films here in Chicago. Kartemquin is best known for Hoop Dreams, directed by Steve James, which they shot over the course of five years, and edited for a few years after that. So I don’t think it necessarily takes longer to do something internationally — you might even say the reverse — when you have to fly overseas to shoot, you have to focus your production schedule a lot more.

The kind of documentaries I’m interested in are the ones where a story takes place over time. The logistics of travel are certainly complex, and it takes a little longer to get from point A to point B – and in our case, a lot longer. In Namibia, the main location that we were focusing on was a good three-day drive from the capital city. The roads were insanely rocky, so we had to go really slow, and it took a long time to get there.

What are some of the differences (other than bumpy roads) between filming in the U.S. and Africa?

The locations we spent most of our time in didn’t have much access to electricity. We were charging our [camera] batteries from our Land Rover. Another problem was the extreme heat – a dry heat at about 105 degrees. We also were in some very sandy climates in Namibia, and there was one day when a grain of sand got lodged in the camera transport. We had a very tense few hours, trying to figure out if we would get the Panasonic Vericam [a high-end HD camera that costs about $70,000] running again, and we would have been hard pressed to find another in Africa – maybe in Kenya, but that was no where close to where we were. My cameraman was able to get it running again, but it puts you a little more on edge when you’re that remote. You know that if you have an equipment failure, you’re pretty much sunk.

You’ve spoken about the struggles of filming in Africa, but what were the perks?

Milking the Rhino is, I’m pretty sure, the most beautiful film I’ll ever make. It’s so gorgeous because of the color and the beauty of the landscape and the people. Visually, it was a joy.

When you’re going to a small village in Africa, how do you prepare the village beforehand? Or do you just kind of show up?

Absolutely not, and I don’t recommend that! If we had just shown up in the places we were focusing on, we would’ve just been thrown out. We’re filming in small communities with indigenous people, really remote. In particular, in Namibia, with the Himba people, they don’t see too many white folks, except for tourists. The key to our access was that we got our introductions from the right people.

And who are the right people?

Field officers from some very small grassroots NGOs who had deep roots in these communities. They really knew the people, and these people really trusted them. The fact that we got our introduction from these guys won us a lot of acceptance and a lot of trust on the part of the villagers. The other thing is that we spent a sufficient amount of time with them; they could really see that we were genuinely interested in portraying their experiences.

Milking the Rhino looks at wildlife conservation in Africa, and gives a completely different perspective than any conservation film you’ve ever seen: we film it from the perspective of rural Africans that live alongside these dangerous animals. We were able to convey to people that we were telling a story that nobody had ever really asked them to tell before, which is: What are the hardships, the costs, and the pleasures of living with wild animals?

Where else have you filmed internationally?

I’ve worked on one other film in South Africa about 14 years ago, as an associate producer and editor. I’ve filmed several times in Canada, and I’ve certainly edited quite a few films in Europe.

Looking at the subject matter of your films – disability culture, Auschwitz survivors, indigenous peoples – it seems you focus on minority populations. Do the subjects of your documentaries have personal meaning to you?

I follow my own system of attraction in determining what I’m going to do a film about. It would probably behoove me to settle into certain subject areas, but I tend to jump around. The one common thread is people who are undergoing some kind of transformation in their lives. In the case of this film, it’s about these really ancient cultures that, all of a sudden, are undergoing really radical transformation. And in some ways it’s very exciting, but in other ways, it’s wreaking havoc with their cultures and their traditions – and they’re just trying to navigate that difficult passage. I’m interested in people dealing with severe stress and change. I think it brings out the best in people.

How hard is it, as a documentarian, to capture the struggles of these people who are not actors, and may have never seen a camera before? How receptive are they to being filmed?

We often get asked after people see the film: how do we get people to behave so naturally? Part of that, in terms of my directing strategy, is spending sufficient time on location, so you’re not swooping in and swooping out, but rather spending a few days with people so they relax and forget that you’re filming. The other thing is that it’s not interview-based, it’s not talking heads-based – we’re filming life as we find it. But of course, we’re interacting with people, so it’s not as if we’re entirely unobtrusive. I try to get people to understand that I don’t want anyone to clear time in their schedule to work with me on my film. I want to come in at a very busy time in their schedule when they can forget that we’re filming because they’ve got so much else to do.

Are there certain groups of people who have been easier to gain access to than others?

I try to treat people the same whether they’re in New York or Chicago or Kenya or Namibia. I really look at my subjects as collaborators, not objects. They need to be on board with what I’m doing. Having said that, though, I would say that people in our culture are much more media-savvy and aware – and that has created a certain self-consciousness that is refreshingly absent in the indigenous cultures I’ve filmed. They’ve never seen reality TV, or TV at all, so they don’t have this preconceived notion of how they should behave.

Or even seen a documentary, or a film…

There’s a wonderful scene from one of our rough cuts of a young Himba woman watching a scene of herself. She had never seen a TV before, much less one with her on it. When we showed it to her, she was totally gleeful, and afterward we asked her, “What did you think?” and she said, “Well, it’s very beautiful, but I especially like that machine that it’s playing on.”

Technology over image! Speaking of image…do the Himba use mirrors? How do they look at themselves?

You know, that’s a good question. We didn’t see a mirror. To some extent they look at themselves through the eyes of other people. They’re always braiding each other’s hair, fussing over each other.

I know you’re headed to Poland today – are you going there to film a new project?

Nope, I’m going to Poland to show Milking the Rhino at a film festival there. We’re doing quite a bit of festivals internationally. We’ve also had several East Coast screenings, but nothing in New York yet.

Would you be interested in filming in Africa again?

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s an incredible experience. The only problem is, I think that next time, my kids are demanding that they come with. Africa gets under your skin, and it changes you forever.

Related Link:
Milking the Rhino website:

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