I sought out a connection in the International Division of US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) and remortgaged by house. My connection at USFWS explained to me that the project I presented to him might qualify for funding from both their Great Ape Conservation Funding and their Forest Elephant Conservation Funding as the subject matter would deal with both those species. The money from my remortgage would keep me fed and pay for my travel to Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. But writing those proposals was hard work as the redundancies needed for requesting government grants felt like unnecessary repetition, but anathema to someone trained to excite Executive Producers to finance documentary films. These many years later I've learned that government proposals have nothing to do with either excitement or creativity and after several attempts the two grants I applied for in 2005 were indeed funded for approximately $80,000 all together. The goal was to make a series of films connected to Great Apes Conservation and prevention of Ebola, along with a second series films that addressed the Conservation of Forest Elephants, poaching for ivory and human elephant conflict.
My $80,000 might not seem like a lot of money, but put together with my ability to work connections for transportation, office space and and working with Anatole and Bonne Année (my cameraperson and journalist) I felt we could do it. I was, in a word 'inspired'.
It is often the case in aid projects that lots of meetings and theory go before any action is taken. However, I am a documentary producer and although I usually know where I am going and what I am to focus on, my tendency is to find the story as I go along. I'd spent two years doing just that for CBS's 60 Minutes. A little research and prep and then a plane ticket. I remember my first effort. The producer said we want to do a piece on HIV/AIDS in Africa, figure out whether we should do it in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) or in Uganda. I spent two weeks talking to organizations in London, where I lived at the time, bought a ticket to Uganda and returned after three weeks with a list of interviewees and sites we should shoot at.
To take this a step further, there is an old saw about anthropologists Anthropologists figure out what they are looking for and then go out and find it. And as we now know, most of the great studies Margaret Mead in Somoa, Colin Turnbull with the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, have been debunked. So rather than approach the project with a list of films and go out and collect materials for those films, we had a list of subject matter to cover and the list looked a bit like this:
Conservation of Great Apes – Chimpanzees and Gorillas – what are the obstacles to preserving them in the Republic of Congo
Hunting – illegal hunting of protected species – how can it be prevented
Ebola - the link between Great Apes and Ebola
Ebola – prevention of Ebola
Over hunting of all animals for the commercial trade in bushmeat – is there a solution?
Forest Elephants – What are the obstacles to preserving them in the Republic of Congo
Hunting – are they hunted for ivory or for meat and who profits?
Human Elephant Conflict – what are some answers to preventing elephants from invading crops – threats to food security.
And off we went as a team of three. We knew where we were going to land first, but until our funds gave out, we didn’t know where we might end our journey or what exactly, for the most part, we might film. We wanted to be lead by the people we met and what we found out.
That first trip was a long one, two months of talking, shooting interviews, walking or hitching rides from village to town and back to village again. We rode planes, boats and bounced around the back of pick up trucks. But we found our stories -- found being the operative here -- and kept any presumptions, especially academic theories, out of our daily work.
We revisited Lossi and the villages of Lengui Lengui and Mbomo to film interviews with those who could talk about the Ebola outbreak from from 2001/2002.
We gathered footage and interviews and began to form the footage into topics for short message focused films realizing that the best way to focus these films was to do them without narration in the same storytelling tradition of the villages and towns we filmed in. We would use testimony --people to telling their own stories. We knew this method would allow those who viewed the films to come up with their own conclusions and that the films would incite not only discussion, but debate.
I am greatful for the International Division of US Fish and Wildlife who continued to support our project during those first years. We ended up hiring the editor Jehu Bikoumou and creating 16 films.
The next step would be to devise a method of dissemination.
To be continued… Walking videos from village to village