The first filming trip I ever made was also my first trip to the continent. I fell in love with the place and the people. I was commissioned to make a film about blood banks in Malawi for the WHO, back in 2006 and traveled to Lilongwe. I met up with a crew from Nairobi in Blantyre to then travel on in the smallest plane I had ever set foot in. The seat barely had any cushions and the luxury I was used to from the big international flights was nowhere to be seen. To me it was all part of my adventure in Africa. What an eye opener this trip was. The crew, Ken and Abdul, taught me a lot about African food, what to eat and how to eat and other local traditions.
It wasn’t a trip to show the beauty of the country. We were filming in local maternity wards to showcase the desperate need for blood the hospitals are in. At the time the AIDS epidemic was still rife and collecting uncontaminated blood and storing it in a safe place was not a luxury but a necessity.
Malawian people are very modest but most welcoming. I couldn’t get over the fact that these women who just had given birth to their young, sometimes even premature babies were allowing us to film in the ward. Malawi, the land of smiles. It’s where my collection of African wood carvings started too!
I have had the privilege of travelling to the African continent 15 times to visit 12 countries. All of them for a variety of projects. From the opening of a luxury hotel in Morocco, for which we brought in 3 crews and 3 edit suites, to a conference in Mauritius, crewed by South African talent, to NGO projects in Kenya and Ghana. Every experience was as different as the countries I was operating in. I was sent on a last minute shoot to Senegal. It was the middle of the rainy season, so the humidity was incredibly high. I used a local crew as that was the only way we could actually get the filming done at such short notice. My cameraman was a French guy who’d been based in west Africa for over 25 years. His knowledge of Dakar was unbelievable and we thought we managed to capture some amazing shots, until I returned to London, where we noticed that 25% of the footage looked like it was filmed through fog. The humidity at a certain point of the day was so high, the glass elements of the lenses had been affected. At one of the points when we changed lenses, something had gone horribly wrong. Some creative editing made sure that the client never found out we didn’t have as much footage as we thought we had. I have worked both with local crews in Nigeria and Kenya and flown crews in depending on the type of project I was working on. I once worked with a brilliant ex-BBC cameraman who had set up his new crewing company in Lagos, Nigeria when I went to produce a film about the launch of Guinness Extra Smooth. We had so much fun filming a group of people in a bar in Lagos enjoying the brand.
Other times I have taken my crew with me. Getting equipment into some of the countries can be challenging. I have had a stand-off with a customs official more than once, who didn’t accept the paper work from British customs. Having someone local, a production company or NGO, to pay a bond for the equipment is becoming more commonplace these days. I have also seen that obtaining a filming permit from the Ministry of Information or Media is becoming more and more imperitive in order to gain access to the country. In Kenya you need to have it before you can enter the country. For Ethiopia you need to apply for your permission, but you can enter the country to collect the paperwork from the Ministry. Having contacts on the ground however is always a must. Inside knowledge of the law and customs will make life so much easier once on the ground.
My top 5 favourite memories of my trips to Africa in no particular order:
Filming Thandie Newton singing songs and cutting up cassava with local farmer women in Ghana
Celebrating my birthday in a UNHCR Refugee camp with an Ethiopian Feast
Being surrounded by 20-30 children looking at images of themselves on an iPad in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Being invited by an Ethiopian farmer to have coffee with her family and neighbours
Morocco – Freuds 2011
Ghana – Arthur Guinness Fund 2011
Kenya – Educate a Child 2012
DRC – Educate a Child 2013
Ghana – Galaxy (RED) 2014
Ethiopia – Diageo 2015
When Ben and I were assigned to a filming trip in the rainforest of Borneo, exploring caves and looking for bats, we couldn’t quite believe our luck! We immediately did what all seasoned travellers do and nipped to Uniqlo to buy a couple of ponchos and then stopped off at Boots for some Jungle Formula … preparation done.
After a 13-hour flight we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, very excited and very hungry. KL already had two of our favourite things, great food and weather that is actually worth discussing. The tube map made no sense to us, so we headed to what we considered to be the middle of everything; somehow we made it to our randomly selected destination without any hiccups.
Kuala Lumpur was teeming with life, there were so many people, so many different noises and smells, it was a sensory overload. We decided to dive in headfirst and eat at the street market of Bukit Bintang.
Once we sat down and we were able to spectate rather than being swirled around in the current of KL, we realised what a surreal experience it is to be in London sipping on a soya latte in the afternoon, and then be transported into what felt like a parallel universe the day after, adrift and anonymous in a completely dissimilar place.
The next morning, one breakfast and two flights later, we were in Borneo, now it was KL that felt like a futuristic dream we’d just woken up from. As we drove further into the jungle, I could have shrieked with excitement, I instantly felt like an explorer, in reality I looked a lot like the lovechild of Michaela Strachan in The Really Wild Show and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones.
As soon as we arrived in Mulu, we were introduced to our guide, Kenneth, and off we went for an afternoon trek through the rainforest to see our first cave! The rainforest was incredible, like no where I’d been before, a never ending botanical garden, despite the humidity, I felt a bit like a Labrador pup that had been let off the lead for the first time, I wanted to sniff and touch and ask questions about everything … obviously I didn’t do any of those things, I remained wholly British and kept it all under my new beige bucket hat.
Over the next two days we explored 4 caves in total, Lang Cave, Deer Cave, Clear Water Cave and Wind Cave, they all do what they say on the tin, but each of them are very different. It is really quite difficult to explain the sheer enormity of these caves and then in contradiction the intimate and minute alcoves and crevices. Covering these caves on foot is quite a challenge in itself, especially as we also had to carry all of our equipment. Translating the caves through film really took some thinking. We realised that without people in our shots the sense of scale is lost, it just looks like an alien territory.
Our second challenge, was to capture the famous bat exodus that happens every few days, around 3 million bats reside in Deer Cave, it’s the guano (bat poop!) that attracted the Deer to the cave, every so often those 3 million bats have to head out to feed.
Ben and I had a fairly specific vision of how we would like to capture this and that was with me in a batman suit stood at the edge of the cave looking stern. This unfortunately wasn’t possible, so we sat with everyone else and filmed from the ground, it’s hard to explain what we saw, around 3 million bats evacuated this cave in what looked like a choreographed masterpiece, a black ribbon twizzling through the sky, it was staggering, who was in charge? Who said go? This tactic is actually to confuse any aerial predators, but also makes for an awesome afternoon show!
Another element that proved a little difficult was that it rains in the Rainforest … it rains a lot! The first time it started to rain, Ben and I casually donned our ponchos, however they lasted roughly 15 minutes. After nearly an hour of the most almighty downpour we were soaked, everyone was, there’s no getting around it. Our feet squelched as we marched along the footbridges and our clothes were dripping in warm water! We just had to pray that our cameras would survive, the chitchat died down a little at this point, whilst silent but raging panic set in. The cameras along with all of our footage did indeed survive. Phew.
On our final day in Borneo we found out that I was a deadly assassin in another life, we visited an arts and crafts market where you could have a go at the blowpipe, I hit the bull’s eye twice, I earned huge kudos that day! Not so much for Ben though, he was pretty much useless.
Looking back we had a fantastic trip, both personally and professionally. The 8 of us, despite some of us having never met before and being from different countries and professions, were immediately fused together as what felt like a genuine team! Perhaps it’s removing daily routine, and the awesome surroundings that we were suddenly in, but we instantly skipped through the usual veil of introductions and egos and worked together seamlessly. I felt quite sentimental by the end of the trip, and have very fond memories of our time spent in Malaysia.