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Friday, March 26, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal (Back in Bristol)


It's safe to say Bristol, Connecticut is a long way from Monrovia.
After a 30-hour travel day - Monrovia, Brussels, DC, Hartford - sleep in my own bed wasn't hard to come by.
And let me tell you, I couldn't put a price on my morning coffee after ten days of Nescafe.
The most exciting part about returning from a shoot is looking at what we shot. I don't often micromanage my crew and look at everything we shot through a monitor on-location. You always remember where your cameras were, but how they shot it is always a mystery.
Today, like a kid a candy store, I opened everything and took just one bite of each. Yes, my job is better than yours.
I quickly screened through half the video we shot. I can't get enough of the street scenes from Monrovia and the other areas we visited. There's something about those faces we shot. A curiosity I can't explain. Imagine the feeling of seeing something for the first time. For some that we saw, it was the huge $100,000 camera Gregg pointed at them. For others in extremely remote areas, as our security explained, it was a white person. And as I mentioned in an earlier entry, imagine a 6'4", 265 pounder.
Other highlights included our final practice on the beach and the music with the Liberian Crusaders for Peace. That stuff is stunning. More updates to come as I digest it all in the upcoming weeks.
But first, more pressing items, like the not-so exciting part about returning from a shoot: expense reports. And in a cash-only country... yikes.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Michelle Akers photo shoot

Sutton, Ma. – Producer Heather Lombardo was drawn to a story about Michelle Akers, the retired soccer great who has turned her life to the rescue and care of abused horses.

Lombardo’s youth as a competitive rider, and now as a recreational rider, made her a natural for the story. And when she saw Akers’ photos of the abused horses, and of a heroic rescue during a flood last September, she was hooked.

But how to tell it? She knew Akers’ still photos would play an important role because they were the only visual record of a crucial part of the narrative. Her challenge was to use the photos effectively.

“I wanted to try and stay as organic as possible,” Lombardo said.

Most still photos are filmed in a studio. But Lombardo decided to film the photos outdoors, and to try to copy the feel of Akers’ Florida farm. Photographer Tony Melfi suggested Waters Farm, which was settled in 1757 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lombardo, Melfi, and grip Eban Hathaway arrived at noon, as sun broke through and wind rustled trees and bushes impatient for spring. The non-working farm was deserted.

They looked over the 120 acres, the stone walls and wooden gates, the 2-bay and 6-bay wagon shed, cook barn, and shingle mill.

Lombardo chose a weathered gate in front of a stone wall, and applied tape to the back of the photos. Melfi set up his Varicam DVC Pro HD.

Soon, thirteen still photos, taped to the gate, fluttered in the wind. Melfi dropped in a Tiffen filter to darken the sky. Lombardo watched the HD monitor and asked Melfi to come in tight.

Later, more photos were filmed against a gray fence next to the 2-bay wagon shed. Still later, another set was filmed inside the shed, in the shadows. Melfi shot through a hole in the shed’s wall, while Hathaway held a reflector above the photos, for minimal light.

“These photos are somber,” Lombardo said. “The background should be somber.”

- posted by Steve Marantz, March 25, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 10


We spent our last day with the Youth and Sport Minister. She gave us a different side of the amputees. Why are they poor, homeless, and begging? Well, frankly, much of it falls on their shoulders, according to her. Or at the very least, their management.
It's not just about soccer, she told me. It's about becoming valuable members of society. That's what the amputees have neglected to do.
I hear her. I do. And to some of the players, it rings true. But others, like the many talented people we met over eight days in this impoverished West African country, are products of unfortunate circumstance. And even the strongest of men have a hard time digging themselves out of these ditches.
When you see the Liberian Crusaders of Peace perform in the piece, you'll understand. When you listen to Richard Duo, you'll understand.

We left Monrovia on the red eye. We had a special visitor on the flight: Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. How about that? Too bad we packed our camera batteries. I would have snuck up front for an interview - one her communications dep't blew off... Though I couldn't have been happier with the way the Minister's interview went.

Leaving Brussels now. Bound for DC. Cheers to those that visit Monrovia in the future and can fly direct from Atlanta.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 9

Monrovia, Tuesday

Last full day in Africa.
Our bodies have taken a beating and have been largely ignored.
Yesterday, our director of photography, Gregg Hoerdemann, walked down to the lobby. He said he was feeling signs of malaria. He was tired and achy.
Seven straight days of shooting in 100 degree heat with a marine-size load to carry. No, bro. You don't have malaria. You are just tired. As expected.
We ended our shooting today with our final practice with the amputee soccer team. After getting our meat and potatoes in the first two shoots, it was time to add a bit of gravy. We brought the squad to the beach, where they often practice, and had them scrimmage under a setting sun.
This is my first trip to Africa. But for those foreigners that now live here, they all say that Liberia is a bit different. The worst, some even say.
You think about that when you see these amputees practicing in such a beautiful, natural environment. We're here trying to tell their story, but tomorrow we leave, and life continues for them. That happens every time you finish a story, but the desperation here is, well, the worst I've seen.
Two nights ago, as rainy season slid its way into West Africa, the sky opened up with a barrage of six straight hours of consistent downpour.
Earlier that day we visited Joseph Kolobeh's inhabitable shack. He told us when it rains, the tin roof leaks. As I stumbled out of bed around midnight to the steady, comforting sound of rain, I thought about Joseph and all the others under their tin shacks. They're getting soaked. Trust me, it wasn't just him. It was everybody in his neighborhood.
When we saw Joseph today on the beach - the same guy who defends goal with just his right arm, but yet can't even pump water from the area well on his own - he reminded us of his situation. He asked us whether we could help him fix his roof; he wasn't asking for our carpentry skills.
I tell him and the countless others that have requested anything from a handout to a home for their daughter in the states that we can't do anything. We are journalists, after all. It's not that we don't have a heart, but we aren't aid workers. All I tell them is that I am going to put together the best piece possible. Maybe something good comes from it.
It's not the first time I've been asked. Or even the first time I said no. It's just the first time that I've thought that these guys aren't asking for something to make them feel better. They just needed something to make them feel normal.
We finished up just before seven. The sun had nearly descended into the Atlantic. The crashing waves welcomed the night. Four of us left in our comfortable air-conditioned van. The team watched. Some waved. Others began to pile into their 10-person van. Soon, it would be full with all 18 of them.
Soon, we'd be on our way back to the America.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 8

Monrovia, Monday

This is a shoutout to our drivers. Hassan and ... Hassan (We also have a security guy named Hassan.). It seems ripe for some type of ultimate hilarity, but none has blossomed just yet.
Anyhow, driving in Liberia is no easy task. The city is a total sh*tstorm. There are no traffic lights and practically no lanes. It's a hodgepodge of Nissan Sunny yellow taxis, motorbikes and your occasional Japanese/Chinese/American car. It's enough to weave in and out of the traffic - which is accomplished by a simple double beep of the horn - but it's a total other to leave the confines of the city and travel down the much frequented two-lane 'highways'. When we traveled up to Gbarnga last week, a semi (one of the few I've seen) had toppled over. When we traveled back 30 hours later, the truck was still there, stationary on its side - though they were unloading its contents.
Today, we took the trip outside the city to Penson Gold Mine. We didn't know what to expect. We drove our normal route outside the city, where one mile can take 15 minutes in the bustling red light market.
Now, once you leave the city, you encounter potholes the size of half your car. No joke. It provides for a NASCAR like environment, weaving in and out of traffic. Then add cars coming at you in the other direction. Good times.
Passing 15 gate, I knew we were close to the turnoff.
And when we took the left down a jungle like road in Hassan's yellow Honda Odyssey, I hoped we were close.
I asked the owner of the mine, who we'd picked up on our way, how far away we were. 'Oh, close. Very close.' Translation: 'Well, we're a bit farther than you think, but should be there within the hour.'
We didn't go but 50 feet when we encountered your typical Liberian off-road: two totally different tiers of road separated by a ditch. Hassan took the road slowly and below us a huge sound bellowed from the car. It was one of those sounds that you don't expect to hear. Your axel smacking the earth and then scraping for 10 feet. I thought we were done, and we hadn't even gotten 'very close' yet.
It was the first time I questioned our driver. 'Hassan, you sure we can do this?' He got out of the car, peeked underneath, and gave his approval. 'Yes, fine.'
When you're on the road in a foreign country, you have to trust two people: your fixer and driver. Hassan said fine, so I said fine.
For the first time on the trip, I made sure we had our satellite phone somewhere in the back. Last thing I need is for the crew to drive deep into the jungle and our radiator blow, and we're stuck. Not a call I'd like to make to anybody - but at least I'd have the sat phone.
So 25 minutes later - the road did improve - we got to a little village. Every time we emerge from our car in one of these villages - populated by 50 or so people - the eyes of the community always seem to be transfixed on our audio guy, Chip. He's a big guy. He played college football. Maybe 6'4", 265 and built like a fridge. I swear they will be taking about the giant who visited the village for years to come. Always comical to watch the eyes of the children. Two days ago, he scared a pack of kids near Joseph's shack. He wanted to take a picture with the group of kids that had followed us. When he approached them, they scurried like he was the plague. He would later say the shirt with a skull on it probably wasn't the best idea. Funniest thing about Chip is that he's the nicest guy. He brought three soccer balls from the states and handed them out after one of the team's practices to the little kids who congregated around the field. Today, he was friendly as usual as we started our walk from the village.

We still had a journey ahead of us. 'How long?' asked our security guy, Abbas.
'Not far,' said the mine owner.
'Ok guys, let's go,' said Abbas. 'Thirty minutes.'
And it was pretty darn close, along a narrow path, winding trails, walking across single logs of water. I'm glad Indiana Jones was on TV the night before.
Mining is tough. These young men work hard the old school way - with their hands. They sift through pounds of dirt all for about 15 grams of gold per day - maybe $300. And of course, that mostly goes to the owner.
While diamonds were a contributor to West Africa's civil wars, gold also played a role. The mining still goes on today, deep into the jungle.
We spent about 15 minutes there, walked back, and drove to Monrovia. It couldn't have been more than 45 miles on Google Maps, but it was a good six-hour trip.
I'm not complaining, though. Not with Hassan behind the wheel.


Penson Mine

They pull $300 a day here. Part of what started the conflict more than 20 years ago.

Liberian Dancers

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 7

Monrovia, Sunday

For some of you that have spoken to me while I've been out here, it's been quite an experience driving up and down the roads of Monrovia. I actually feel like I could navigate a visitor around here -- there aren't too many main roads. But when we sit in our comfortable hotel, at the end of the night, I can't help but think of the poverty out there.
I've seen poverty before. Whether in the DR, Venezuela or Brazil. I've seen tribal areas near Thailand's border with Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer) that seem to be caught not just in a different time period, but in an alternate continuum. But in Liberia, the poverty is everywhere. We leave our hotel, and 300 feet away - poverty. Not just small shacks, but ripped clothes, kids running in sewer water or playing in alleys full of who knows what.
When we watched Liberian Crusaders for Peace today - a group of 14 playing Liberian tribal music for us - much of the 'neighborhood' down the street from our hotel came out to watch. It was another instance where our cameras brought kids out by the hundreds. Man, they were so excited. It was one of the few times where I saw those large brown eyes of these children without a look of fear, sadness or desperation. There was simple excitement. It proved there was life behind some of these eyes. After being to a hospital in Bong County, driving down any street in the capital city, or looking out the window, you swear sometimes that within these souls, there is no life. Or at the very least, not life the way we think of it.
If one of your senses isn't captured by what you see when this piece is fully produced, then I haven't done my job. But day in and day out, my crew and I think about how we can best bring our viewers to this West African nation. Sometimes it's the city, sometimes it's the music. But it's always the people.
I know everyone speaks of Haiti today. And I have never been - either before or after the earthquake - but for those that have, I wonder if before the destruction, Port Au-Prince looked like Monrovia. Because if it did, why did it take an earthquake to help that place? And what's it going to take to fix this place? As foreigners, we drive around this city thinking about the enormous challenge it will take to really turn this country around. As we see it, there are no multinational companies, no foreign investment, nothing.
How would you fix this country? I'm not sure I'd know where to begin.