Kit Carson's Africa Diary
With a lot of luck and a little help from Robert Redford, he set out to make a documentary about Africa—with a cellphone.
EDITOR'S NOTE: When the screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson walked into our office one day this past summer, I didn’t know what to make of him. It was 106 degrees outside. He was wearing a red fleece vest. “It has lots of pockets,” he explained. Kit had produced Africa Diary. It was a series of short documentaries, each no longer than five minutes, from his recent travels in Africa. They would run in November on the Sundance Channel, and Kit suggested writing a story for D Magazine about how the whole project had come together. Given that the man had adapted the screenplay for a film that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (Paris, Texas, in 1984), I said, “Sure.”
Then I watched three installments of his Africa Diary and, as with the man himself, I had no idea what to make of it. The mini-documentaries aren’t documentaries in the traditional sense. They are impressionistic, almost dreamlike. But there’s something magic about them. If you take a deep breath and give yourself over to them, the Africa Diary scenes are poetic, moving. And, anyway, Robert Redford liked them enough to make the deal happen.
Then, many weeks later, just days before the magazine went to press, I got the final draft of Kit’s manuscript. It didn’t play by the rules of magazine storytelling. Not only did it not play by the rules, it didn’t even appear to play the right game. Typographically—with hyphens and dashes running amok and Upper-Case Letters sprouting up in nearly every sentence—it was quite something to behold. But if you let your mind find Kit’s wavelength, there’s something quite charming at work.
In the end, I decided that the story was uneditable. Any attempt to rein it in would fail. What follows is almost exactly what he turned in. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it—or of L.M. Kit Carson. But one thing is certain: lots of pockets do come in handy. –Tim Rogers
July/August 2011, at this hot turn of the season, I return to Dallas on a search.
[Fact is: the Filmmaker/Journalist job is a search. Figured that out 25+ years working this job. Go with it.]
The Sundance Channel had contracted me and Producer Cynthia Hargrave to produce a new documentary series—exploring and updating the True News of what is actually working in the now-changing Africa.
This would not be TV-Nightly-News-Beat-Bytes—not BBC/NBC/ABC/CBS/etc.
For The Sundance Channel we went into three countries: Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa. And the unique hook (Sundance always
goes for the unique) on this docu-series: we shot-and-recorded it all on cellphones. We did diary-like digital-video journals. And we worked to catch the What’s Happening Here story in four diary segments from each of the three countries.
We produced these reports being there. Reports with that rush-feeling of being there—mixing into the Africa people up close and unforgettable—getting facts and feelings in still images and cinéma vérité video. We produced the reports focused strongly and mainly on getting this story personally from the Africa people, yes. The series title: AFRICA DIARY.
This digital docu-series is scheduled to be finished-and-delivered August 15, 2011.
And scheduled to launch via The Sundance Channel in November 2011.
But right now all I have is hours and hours of being there footage, a loft in the South Side on Lamar, and a month to edit. A month to search in Dallas.
So the True News here: in a way, in the Summer of 2011, this Filmmaker/Journalist returns to Dallas because I’m
trying to figure out this new project—a first-timer out of Africa.
Put it this way: for me Dallas works because it gives me thought-room…for breaking into/figuring out/searching new-new first-timer Filmmaker/Journalism projects. Such as breaking into/figuring out/searching the how-to-do trick of working with the 1996 first-timer gang on Bottle Rocket. Cynthia and I worked together on that film, too.
[Fact is: maybe for me Dallas works this way because this is where at Jesuit College Prep I was a first-timer—learning journalism—and starting my search into filmmaking. Mentored most key by Fr. Joe Tetlow, S.J., a genius God guy who moved later from Dallas to work in Rome on trying to return the “Holy” to the Holy Vatican.]
OKOK—start back …
How’d you snag The Sundance Channel Project on Africa?
Exactly like snagging much of my work—from adapting Sam Shepard’s Paris, Texas to following up that Cannes Prize-winner by next writing/co-producing Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2—I gotta say “unexpectedly.”
Two Summers ago, I get hired by a group of first-timer wealthy do-gooder docu-makers as consultant for a documentary that they are going to shoot in Mozambique, Africa. They know I’d been around North Africa/Morocco/Casablanca before for Sundance story-writing workshops.
And they know enough to realize that in their know-nothing-ness about Africa—problems of travel/documentary production (corruption; bribery; etc.)—they might blow maybe $100,000? Or maybe more. And get less-than-zero.
This is a last-minute offer, and they need my help hard and fast. OK: going to Africa.
Prepping for this Africa shoot, I decide to somehow shoot/record what personally I can find out in Mozambique. Not recruit and bring another Camera Crew—just shooting/recording on a search by me.
So. Diligently dig into/survey/check out all the Sony/Red Camera/Flip Cams, etc. whatever mini-cams—nope-nope-nope—all still look too much like a camera.
And in documentary shoots I’ve worked on 25+ years—when a camera gets in the way between the shooter and the whoever—when the “uh-oh I’m on camera” veil goes up between the shooter and the whoever—the shooter doesn’t see anything real anymore. No go. That’s key loss.
Fact is: but there’s no prep time here. Finally I give up on finding the right whatever mini-cam for my Filmmaker/Journalist search on this trip.
Last night in L.A.—literally hours before leaving for Africa in the morning. A Good Bye/Good Luck Party at a Studio Exec friend’s house that’s settled into a cliff high in the Hollywood Hills.
And I reconnect on this long Summer sunset evening with a longtime friend/well-known Cinematographer/DP named Ueli Steiger. Ueli shoots all of Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic/disaster movies—10,000 B.C., The Day After Tomorrow, etc. But also shoots smart movies like Bowfinger. He’s got a reputation as a “problem-solving” DP.
Now Ueli is standing right out at the edge of this Party on the brink of this cliff—shooting down the dark hills toward the lights of Hollywood Boulevard. Shooting with an odd hand-held gadget that I’d not seen before.
I quiz Ueli about the gadget. He turns it around and hands it over, explaining that he just yesterday got back to L.A. from heading up the Jury at a Swedish Film Festival. And that the Festival had given each member of the Jury cellphone cameras—they all got new Nokia N93 cellphone cams.
Ueli pokes the new N93 around excitedly in my hand. Raving on and on that the N93 is physically a tough strong hand-held smartphone-device tagged “the Swiss Army Knife of cellphone cams.” It’s a great device: shoots through a top-quality Hubble lens, kinda like what’s on the far-seeing NASA Space Telescope.
And for Ueli this Nokia N93 produces a more-than-great phone picture. For Ueli it beats the iPhone and all the others. N93—it has the best quality of cellphone cam image-making.
I heft the feel of this N93. Ueli and I experiment together technically on how this N93 shoots. Look again: I flat-out flip.
Because the N93 doesn’t look like a camera. It looks like some kind of contraption. It’s this swivel-out T-shaped device no bigger than your hand. Raise it in your hand—and the people in front of you whom you’re shooting/recording—they won’t think that you’re shooting/recording. The N93 is (like I first saw) a funny gadget.
In those few minutes on that last night Ueli solved my shooting-True-News-in-Africa problem.
Next morning on the way to LAX/South African Airways—I swing in and buy an N93 at a T-Mobile Store early. Spend the off-and-on-awake 22-hour SAA flight to Maputo, Mozambique, studying the N93 and the Instruction Book—and it is fun.Again, the Filmmaker/Journalist job is all ways a search.
North Mozambique. Guide/Advise these non-pro first-timers through their shoot. With a pro seven-man Camera Crew—with lights to set up—with sound to set up.
Night-and-day. They’re tracking this Missionary Group called Africa Arco Iris across countrysides, slums, garbage dumps, townships. Shooting the Arco Iris Group saving a lot of lost Tribal Kids. Fact is: they’re showing that this Arco Iris Group works at breaking Despair—making Joy.
Two June/July months.
And at the same time I’m shooting/recording a digital-diary daily with the Nokia N93. And every night as I’m bed-bunking down inside the mosquito netting—each night I also download my N93’s day of sound and still images and video images into my laptop computer. And reboot.
Fact is: during the Mozambique shoot I’m already starting to rough-cut together segments of what I’ve been shooting/recording on the Nokia N93—on my laptop computer.
And for two months we all go shoot tomorrow.
Until the mosquitoes finally buzz through our sleep-netting—hit two of the Camera Crew with malaria.
Next morning we’re out of Africa. We’ve been warned that it will take six weeks for malaria-recovery.
By the end of July—in Venice, California.
Now this Filmmaker/Journalist gets into laptop-editing the diary-cyber-footage from his time in Mozambique. Now I put together a 3-Part Diary—each diary segment between 3-7 minutes in length. Short, rough reports. On The Economy. On The Politics. On The Spirit of The Place.
I burn this onto a DVD that I logo: MOZ DIARY.
Then send this DVD to longtime friend Robert Redford for his birthday in August—no agenda—just to show him what new Filmmaker/Journalist stuff I’m doing now.
Unplanned for me—Redford sends back a message through his L.A. assistant: “Go make a deal.”
Redford had set up a meeting in New York with Five Execs from the Sundance Channel.
I go to NYC. We gather into a conference room set up for a Viewing/Meeting. Three Female Execs and Two Men. They’re clearly professionally skeptical. And we screen a copy of the three-part MOZ DIARY DVD.
I watch them watching—gradually they’re leaning forward—getting into the leaning-forward feeling that I wanted to catch of Being There in Africa.
At the end of the DVD, some of them are wet-eyed. The Chief Exec turns semi-joking to me: “OK—it’s mid-afternoon—we’re execs—those three different diary-segments are each maybe 5 minutes in length—but they hit hard emotionally—we don’t know how you did that?” And then they add: “OK—now what do you want to do?”
And I say: “I just showed you what the people gave me. I think Africa is way under-reported. And now is a crucial time for getting the True
News from Africa. I want to go back—and find out more.”
So we make a deal.
A deal to go back. A deal to search out what’s the next True News in the new changing Africa.
Producer Cynthia Hargrave and I spend about two months in each country—South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia. Both of us shooting digital journalism and working on figuring it out at the same time.
We return with 400 hours of digi-video from this shoot using strictly and only Nokia N93 and N95.
And I know from before that when I’m working a strong deadline—for TV Series or TV Miniseries for HBO—like when we were living out in Easthampton—I know eventually I’ll need to go at this work more than 24/7. I’ll need to go kinda off-time—kinda off-planet. Need to zone into a creative no-time/no-place—like isolating into a kinda Special Space-Capsule for Making-It-All-Up.
And again now I find unexpectedly—for me anyway—this creative no-time/no-place/no-distractions feeling here at the edge of downtown Dallas in a large no-pretense loft space. In South Side on Lamar.
I wake out-of-time here. Every hour. Go for—Empty. Gloriously Empty.
Next Fact is: I figure out that this work—editing hundreds of hours of digi-video into self-contained beginning-middle-end five-minute diaries—is going to be like inventing a new story-making language.
And I decide, in a way, that to invent a new story-making language, I need a Team of New Collaborators with no standard movie-making habits to break. Ready to explore: try this—try this—try this …
Producer son Hunter Carson (himself a sharp 35) recruits two young Edit-whizzes: Rance Adams (38); and Ryan Fyffe (31), who runs an edit-biz called Illusion Fields. And a young Sound-Recorder Smart-guy, Christian Dupree (30), to cyber-link with a genius Music Director, John Aylward (31), who’s teaching at Harvard. We patch together a makeshift editing studio in my South Side loft.
And we go. To work.
It works. We hit the finish of the last Voice-Over at about 11:37 PM near-midnight on August 12. Next morning we package up all the project and FedEx to The Sundance Channel in New York City. We make the Delivery Deadline: August 15.
And at the end, the Edit/Sound Team celebrated at Opening Bell Coffee, the espresso bar/coffee shop in the basement of South Side on Lamar. I semi-joke to Jeff West of Matthews Southwest, the property’s owner: “Jeff, I think you guys sell Inspiration here.” Jeff’s comeback: “Nah [laughs]. We give it away. Free.”
Really, the search is the main action going. For me, anyway. The search. What it takes outta your heart.
To keep funding the Africa shoots and post-production, we’ve won three AFRICA DIARY grants from The MacDowell Colony. This is a 100+year-old Artists Colony in New Hampshire—where Thornton Wilder wrote his play Our Town and Alice Walker wrote her novel The Color Purple. Thirty-two multi-discipline cabins in the mountain woods for writers, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers.
Wrapping up on our third MacDowell grant, one of the Grant Advisors cocked his head, casually noting to me: “We figured out what you’re doing with these online Africa Diary-Segments for The Sundance Channel. You’re doing Jack Kerouac for the internet. Y’know, a 21st Century version of On The Road—in Africa.” Go with that humbling thought.
And edit a Special Thanks to The MacDowell Colony into the Sundance docu-series End Credits.
Funny thing is, more and more my life feels like “Who knows what’s going to happen next?” Not me. Like, how do you get from a Dallas Jesuit College Prep-Schooler with a Summer job unloading freight cars for the Irving Lumber Yard to … a guy standing up in a pack of Euro and American movie stars in the Grand Palais theater at the Cannes Film Festival with the audience roaring cheers and applause at the end of the screening of Paris, Texas, a movie he adapted? And that wins the Cannes Grand Prize, Palme d’Or? Figure: lots of Luck and-lots-more.
Keep your cellphones on. The future will be downloadable.