A travel/production journal as I shoot my first feature doc in a strange land.

6th January 2013

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Far From Afghanistan - Museum of Modern Art

After international premiers in Japan, Switzerland, Canada, BrazilDenmark, Portugal, Austria, and Croatia, I’m pleased to announce that Far From Afghanistan will have its U.S. premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City during the MoMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight. Feb 15th - March 4th, 2013

I have been a part of the FFA team as an Associate Producer, Segment Producer, and Camera Operator for almost two years and I can’t thank John Gianvito and the rest of the FFA team enough for the experience.

See the MoMa event’s page here and a trailer above. 

http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1351

24th November 2012

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Chapter V - Palazzo Massart

One afternoon last week I was invited to Pallazo (Palace) Massart to meet with the head of the family. The family Massart has been living in this castle on top of the hill since the town was founded in the Middle age. Once the most prominent noble families of the region, they ascended to power by pioneering the county’s drainage system around 900 A.D. which opened the land to development.

During the meeting, I can’t help but read the family’s lingering nobility and the house’s shabby grandeur as convergent layers of a parable that I will never fully understand. Stone stairs worn down by centuries of use reveal the walking patterns of generations of people. Strange doors and add on rooms reveal how the structure has evolved over the decades. It is a living monument.

To my astonishment, after discussing my project and goals, Alfredo and his wife offer me their home for the next month while they return to Pisa to manage his medical practice. Suffice it to say, I graciously accept their offer and now live in a twenty two room stately manor house with three giant private gardens overlooking the village. The house is very cold and dark and I get most of my heat from a few massive wood-burning fireplaces. 

I am later told by a friend that during the feudal period, it was a common practice for nobles to offer patronage to traveling artists in the form of accommodation. While this notion borders on the ridiculous in terms of romanticizing my experience, I must admit It gives me a brief moment of pause to think that I may be partaking in a custom with roots running so deep into history. 

24th November 2012

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Chapter IV - Campionato Italiano

One of the first things I shot when I arrived in Italy was a promotional spot for a small motocross team. I had to cover a lot of ground over two days. The team had two requests: it be dramatic and use electronic music.

12th November 2012

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Chapter III. - Fame and (Slight) Misfortune

In my last update, I spoke of my upcoming shoot with the Italian Bear Grylls. A few weeks ago, I met with him at a bar and we discussed a shooting plan over a few beers. A few days later and I found myself standing in a cave as he lit up a massive torch soaked in gasoline. Shooting went well as we covered various survival skills. He demonstrated how to start fires with wood, stones, and a piece of a car headlight. He also made arrowheads, and cooked steak and eggs on the campfire which we ate after finishing for the day. The footage looks really good, and he’s since introduced me to a lot of people here in town including the Mayor (who I interviewed last week).

I’ve also had a few bumps in the road which started with me putting my italian phone in the washing machine, and ending with me breaking the engine of my rental car. Upon returning from an interview off the beaten path, I noticed oil pouring out of the engine compartment onto the ground. I called a tow truck but he couldn’t make it through the stone arch at the edge of town so I enlisted the help of a local restaurateur. As I pushed and he steered, a crowd gathered to watch the commotion as we made our way through town leaving a trail of black oil on the ancient cobblestones. It was a scene, and after loading up, I went back with a bucket of soap and water to clean up the worst of it. Dealing with the bureaucracy of mechanics and the rental company has been difficult and right now, they’re trying to get me to pay 1,500 Euro to replace the oil pump. I’ve got a few friends looking out for me though and so I’ll see if I can get clear of it.

On a brighter note, I may have trouble returning home as I’ve started to become sort of famous in the region. Two newspapers (one local, one national) have published articles about my project and I’ve been interviewed on Italian television (I’ll put the tv interview up when I get a copy). The interview in Italian was an interesting experience and while I was a little worried about my language ability beforehand, I flipped a switch when the camera turned on and I think I did reasonably well.

It’s funny but following this exposure, random people have begun approaching me to ask questions about their cameras or get my seal of approval on some camcorder they’ve clipped out of the coupon section of the newspaper. One older guy named Enzo asked me to come up into his house to meet his wife and take pictures of his grandkids. After being plied with food and wine, I was asked a lot of questions about my project, my cameras, and America in general. It was an interesting afternoon and three days later, Enzo gave me a giant mushroom which I cooked up for dinner.

Last week I had another great shoot with some archeologists who were excavating a medieval cemetery near the sea. I spent two days with them and we got to know each other reasonably well. The footage of skeletons and the archeologists looks great and I’m heading to Rome for a follow-up interview with one of them this week. I’ve also heard from the Mayor, and he’s agreed to make an introduction for me at the local schools so I can do some shooting there in the following days.

Things are shaping up nicely but I think I’ll have to extend my stay past my initial departure date of December 15th to get all of the footage I want. I don’t mind staying a bit longer, as I’ve carved out a nice little niche for myself here but I have to say that I’m missing Boston, and the fact that I’ll only have a few months left of school when I return in January is a bit of a downer. I’ve been proactive though and lined up what seems to be another great project to work on when I return. Things are really great over here but I’m also excited to get back to Boston and reconnect with life.

Here are the articles and a few pictures:

Tagged: italydocumentarycultureindependent filmmakeritalianoitalian cultureFilm schoolfilmindie

12th November 2012

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Chapter II. - Shooting the Templari

Wednesday had been a big day doing research, sending emails and making phone calls to embassies in Rome. I’ve been desperately trying to gain some traction with immigrant groups for the film and after hours at the internet café, and few more pacing around my apartment as the BBC endlessly recycled reports on the atrocities in Syria, I decided it was time to call it an evening.

As I lay in bed reading a detective novel set in Venice, I briefly heard what sounded like horse hooves clopping along the cobblestones. Not having heard or seen horses in the village in my month here, I decided it was worth investigating. As I got dressed, I decided that the source of equine sound was surely long gone, but since I already had my shoes on, I figured I’d go for a walk through the empty village. I grabbed my camera and walked down the hill a ways to the closest square where I was astonished to see six men on horseback wearing medieval cloaks bearing the badge of the Knights Templar. I smiled and reminded myself that given the choices of sitting in my apartment or investigating these little opportunities, the latter always proved the more fruitful use of my time.

I said good evening to the men and received the cordial, “buona sera”. I approached one of the horses and after checking with its rider, patted it on the head. As I gently scratched around the bridle and reins, relieving the horse’s irritation, I saw further down the hill to the second square. It appeared that a film crew was setting up lights and a camera crane. I decided to investigate.

Upon reaching the setup, I learned that the crew was shooting a documentary about the Templar in medieval Italy.  In addition to the half dozen or so crewmen, there were a few hangers-on and interested spectators. I decided to join the group, get a few shots, and try to stay out of the way as monitors were calibrated and cameras were set up. After about thirty minutes, the crane operator asked me to help adjust the balance of “la machina” (the machine – Italians use this word for every type of machine from cars, to toasters, to 30 foot camera cranes). I helped him remove some weights and together we got the balance just right.

A few minutes later two very large, very drunk, middle-aged German women joined the party. They were falling over each other laughing and flirting with everyone on the set as old ladies leaned out of their shuttered windows telling them to be quiet. It was an interesting scene.

Following a few more minutes of setup, the director – a 20-something indie-rock looking guy yelled action. The army of horses and armed men with torches began their procession down the narrow street as the lead rider sang some kind of operatic hymn. I got a few good shots before Indie-Rock yelled cut and the actors turned back up the hill to reset at position one. As the knights passed, one of them said, “Ciao, Americano”. I realized that he was a friend of my vintner contact Carlo. I had met him a few nights earlier when he’d told me he was a survival expert like Bear Grylls. At the bar, he had pitched me on shooting a survival video to which I politely expressed some feigned interest. I said hello and asked him how he was doing. “Tutta posto”, he said. “Cuando abbiamo fare il film?” (When are we going to make my film?). Realizing that the experience could only ingratiate me with him and possibly open a few more doors, or at the very least make for a good story at a cocktail party, I reconsidered my earlier reluctance. I told him we could shoot whenever he wanted and that we’d talk when they wrapped that evening. I spent the next few minutes trying to remember his name.

As the crew did a few more takes of the shot, I changed positions in order to get enough coverage to tell a story visually. After a few weeks stressing and stewing about my film, pacing and smoking too many cigarettes, it was really nice to be standing in the cold air, focused, camera in hand.

At about 1:30 the crew began to wrap and I walked a little ways down to the bar where a few of the “Templari” were having an espresso. I talked for a few minutes with Sophie (Carlo the vintner’s girlfriend) about the film and asked her if she knew the survivalist’s name. As he walked into the bar, Sophie whispered “Roberto” into my ear. “Ciao, Roberto!” I said shaking his hand and asking him how it went. We spoke a little about the evening’s production and then compared schedules to find a time to shoot his survival documentary. We decided on a Monday afternoon but that I’d give him a call the following day to confirm.

Torches were extinguished. Swords were gathered. As the crew pulled out of the square followed by the horsemen, now in civilian clothes, I made my way back up through the cobbled streets avoiding the massive piles of horse manure. I reflected on the events of the evening and what these experiences mean in terms of my goals and the larger arc of what I’m trying to do here.

28th October 2012

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Chapter I. - The Boar and the Vintner

My first night in the village I arrange to meet Carlo, the local man from the vineyard, for dinner at a café close to my apartment. After waiting the obligatory additional 30 minutes, he arrives. He speaks English and I know he assumes that I don’t speak any Italian. I don’t know why but this bothers me a little. He says he has to “download” some of his wine to this café so I offer to help him, knowing that it’d start things off on the right foot. I also know that it’s good to have the locals see my connection to the guy who makes their wine. While unloading, he says he only has a few minutes because he has to go and hunt the wild boar that have been eating his grapes. As an offhand comment, I say, “can I come?” He laughs it off and says that it’s technically illegal in Tuscany to hunt the boar at night so it probably isn’t a good idea. After bringing in the cases of wine, we sit outside and talk about his wine, why he quit working as a banker, his success so far, etc.

Carlo then tells me that his girlfriend is the blond waitress at this bar and that he comes here most nights for dinner. Again, it’s a small victory for me as I think about the potential of this connection. My primary goal in these early weeks is to start the rumor mill going with news that I’m attached to “il Professore” (the doctor) and that I’m working with Carlo (the vintner). I’ve learned that these people are very insular but once they know someone has vouched for you, you’re seen in a different light. Word spreads quickly in the village and I’ve got to control the spin.

After some more conversation about both of our decisions to leave business to pursue our passions, Carlo says, “Ok, so we can go to my house to eat some dinner, and then we hunt the wild boar”. I laugh to myself and tell him my car is on the other side of the city wall.

We make it to Carlo’s a few minutes later and a brown Labrador runs out to meet us. As the dog is jumping around I pet her and notice a six-inch train-track scar running up her leg. Carlo sees that I’ve noticed it and says “Tusk of wild boar. If it further left, I would have loose her.” We quickly drink another glass of wine and eat something he had left over from the previous night. He loads up a quad with his shotgun and two small chairs and after a few minutes, we’re driving out into the darkness of the vineyard.

We park, hop a fence, and walk in silence through the dark rows of grapes. It’s a beautiful sight, but thoughts of the task at hand are very present in my mind. It’s at this point that I realize I’m probably not dressed for the occasion. I was only meeting Carlo this evening to make contact and see what work he had for me.  As a result, I’m wearing a t-shirt, khakis, and some loafers…not really the best gear if I’m going to be running through bushes to escape the tusks of a wounded wild boar.

We finally make it to our spot at the far side of the vineyard where the boar are coming through the fence. We set up our little chairs in the rocky soil and wait. After an hour sitting in silence, I hear the sounds of bells and cans being struck from another vineyard. A few more minutes pass and I hear a gunshot echo across the valley. Carlo laughs and whispers that we are all fighting the boar together. I can hear the boar in the darkness as they rustle through the trees. Their cry is unmistakable. It sounds like a muted scream from a small child; it sends shivers up the spine.

After another hour sitting in silence, Carlo turns and whispers, “They are inside”. We listen to their asthmatic wheeze as they stomp around, gorging themselves on the grapes. As the sounds grow closer, I hear Carlo click the safety off his shotgun and I get ready. He raises it slowly to his shoulder as the whining continues. He flicks on the red light mounted to the shotgun and I see a cloud of dust and a hoof disappearing down a row of vines. The screams fade away into the darkness.

Then, we wait. We sit in the darkness listening for the sounds of hooves and whining but it doesn’t come. We remain like monks in meditation for hours but I don’t mind. Because the location is so remote, the lack of ambient light reveals the night sky in awe-inspiring clarity. I see the moon, the Milky Way and countless shooting stars as I stare at the great hemisphere of space.

Following the close of the third hour, Carlo declares that we have missed the boar tonight and turns on the light of the shotgun. We walk to the wire fence and he shows me where the boar have chewed through the metal. We walk the perimeter of the vineyard and make our way back to the quad.

Thirty minutes later and I’m back in the village, heading to my place. I pass the café and the women are having a last cigarette after closing up. They greet me in a way that carries an additional level of comfort. Having seen me working with Carlo has already begun to pay off.

I go to sleep thinking about small victories and a great first night in the village.