Monday, November 13, 2006

Kinshasa, here I come.

10 Nov, 2006

The final election results are being released any day now. (Scheduled a week from now, 20th of Nov.) Congolese expect something to happen or for there to be some trouble. I’m not a political commentator so I’m not going to wage into the web of possibilities. But the bottom line is when most people with the means are leaving Kinshasa and the Congo for their ‘other’ lives in Belgium, France, South Africa and wherever else they find themselves in acceptable temporary ‘exile’ I am flying to Kinshasa to shoot a music video/commercial for one of the biggest musical stars of the DRC, Werason.
It can be said that when some people run out of a burning building and others run into it, they do it for the same reason or more specifically out of the same human mechanism. In this case my decision is that I am not ruled by fear, certainly not a nameless and unfounded fear. We shall see. My hosts and employers have made it clear that it is a less than desirable time to have to make this commercial and that we will have to be ready for anything and every eventuality.
Wow. I don’t know how often in life I am in a situation so focused and aware of what must be one of the fundamental laws of nature, namely that anything that can happen will happen.
Of course, our modern (western) lives seem to be predicated on the much more insubstantial premise that we have somehow managed to bring a large proportion (99%) of all probabilities into obeisance and can proceed with almost no chance of anything unexpected or unplanned happening! Ha ha!

I bought Richard Dwarkin’s book “The God Delusion” to read on my journey. We’ll see how that turns out.

I sat next to a South African security expert who was en route to prepare for Mbeki’s planned visit during the announcement of the results. Hey, if Mbeki’s coming then it must be ok I thought. I tried to fish for some ‘intel’ from this guy who did concede that they are not aware of any potential blow up, however he did say that he was there to prepare for any ‘eventuality’. We’ll see.

When I got to Kin I was met by the usual ‘protocol’ guys employed by the Agency to usher me through customs and baggage collection. However this time my passport was whipped out of my hand I was sent post haste into the baggage collection hall without even seeing a customs official. Used to a large amount of variation by now I went with the flow and sat on the very inactive luggage conveyar belt while I waited. After about 30 min I wondered what might be happening. Then Gill, the guy who usually meets me arrived and burst into long reams of French when he knows I understand very little. It seems that the more I say “I don’t understand much French” in French the more he assumes that I must understand something if I can say that much. Must be my accent or something. Anyway, I heard ‘visa’ and ‘pas bon’ and had to assume there was some trouble with my visa. At the end of the day it transpired that the lady who organized my ticket in JHB and visa had erroneously give my travel dates and that I my visa was only for an entry in two days time! If this was South Africa I surely would have been sent packing, back where I came from. This is the Congo so Gill and his assistants ensured that my passport was duly stamped with the appropriate entry stamp (reflecting my arrival as being two days later) and I was in!

We drove a different route to back to the City and I couldn’t really pick up any energy or vibe that would indicate that Kinshasa was on the brink of any kind of explosion of populist or military insurrection.

Back at the Agency it was business as usual. It’s great to see everybody again. I heard from one of the Agency guys that the three Maltina ads we shot last month have tested very well and everybody is thrilled by how they have turned out!

We work all afternoon and then I head off with Kris to his house in the hills, (Ma Campaigne) I wish I could take a photo of the view from up there but it’s almost impossible to find a vantage point. If you thought JHB was security mad, here every single house is surrounded by 3 meter walls, turning the roads into canyons from where you can’t see a thing! Walls, barbed wire, spikes and if you have airs you hire a private security company to hang around outside your house like one or two dudes in the street we live in.

It’s Friday night and everybody is planning to go out and party. Apart from going clubbing the first time I was here, I’ve avoided it ever since. (another story) But when we get home the heavens open and I experience a real Kinshasa thunderstorm that puts a monsoon to shame. Within minutes the drains can’t cope and the house, including my bedroom is flooded! Luckily the rain stopped 15 minutes later and we mopped and cleaned up. I ended up sleeping on the couch.

Take Two

10 nov
take two day one

I’m off to Kinshasa again.
Yesterday was my last day of my Yoga challenge, 5 days of yoga for 8 weeks!
My last class last night was also my 2nd worst class since I returned to practicing Yoga this year. My worst class being my first class three months ago when I wanted to run screaming out of the yoga class but didn’t. I exaggerate somewhat. I mean, why stay in a place that you want to leave with every fiber in your body and nobody is making you stay? Except yourself that is. Well, that’s it, isn’t it. And it wasn’t every fiber in my body that was screaming for me to get out of the hot yoga room. It was just the more vociferous fibers, my digestive tract, some of my temperature sensors were a bit freaked out by the unfamiliar temperature. Mainly it was my brain and it’s notions of what constitutes a good experience and what doesn’t that was freaking out. As it turned out, my being (that part of me that isn’t my mind) was more than capable of staying in the room, suffering no damage. In fact now that I’ve finished 8 weeks of 5 day yoga my being has experienced some very powerful moments of just being.
I tried to figure out why it was my second worst class but I couldn’t. It might have been an extension of my day which was uncannily similar to the last ‘pre-departure for Kinshasa day’. Except this time I wasn’t taking any medication and can’t attribute my rising panic and extreme physical discomfort to an adverse reaction to my malaria medicine. And as much as I can suggest various reasons, none may be true other than the fact that I just felt horrible all day. This basic fact, that I felt terrible with no reason or discernable cause, is almost harder to bear than the actual discomfort of the day.

Anyway, here I go again.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Chicken or the Egg?

Day 10

After the brief night in the flop house (see "A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN KINSHASA") the Agency moved me into an apartment called Zeka. Very clean and simple, little kitchen, lounge and seperate room and bathroom. I woke up this morning to find an egg in the frigge. Yes, an egg. No, I don't have a clue as to how it got there. I looked for the chicken, but not a feather in sight. Just the egg. In the fridge.

Right, moving on.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Perfect Shoot

Day 8

Yesterday was our contingency day but because the second shoot day went so well we had a break which felt great! The Agency has asked me if I'd be willing to shoot another commercial on Sunday, the day before I go!!! The rest of the team is up for it and I figure why not, we are here after all. IT does mean that we only have 2 days to prepare. Tomorrow and Saturday! Hmmmm. It's for a local artist, Felix Wasekwa and we went to his house to watch him and his posse rehearse. We are going to have to do something with those girls!

the Last shoot day was inside a beauty salon that we revamped. It was the most controllabe of all the shoot days and in many ways the most enjoyable. We worked very hard and I definately feel that this one will be my favourite.

Sun, glorious sun

Day 7

After the great day we had yesterday I expected today to start on a high. It was overcast when we drove to set only to find nobody else there. It felt like we would never get going. When Omar eventually got to set at 9am, two hours after call time I was pacing up and down like a caged tiger.
The catch 22 of being here is this: I might as well keep a calm head and breathe because shouting achieves less here than anywhere else in the world and what is, is more so than anywhere else. But as I sit there keeping calm and watching the hours slip by I wonder if anything will happen at all and at the end of the day I am responsible to deliver the commercials.
So I alternate, periods of calm punctuated by little explosions. At least the explosions are a deliberate, conscious strategy and not some automatic behavior.

Funny enough, the day turns out to be most perfect to date, with blue, blue skies and great sunlight and we manage to shoot today and tomorrow’s shots in one afternoon. When the sun eventually set, Merlin, my cameraman, and I turned to each other with a bewildered look in our eyes not quite sure if we had in fact managed to pull off the impossible. Of course, it could have ended up the way we’d planned it, with shitty weather and nothing in the can after two days.

I realized that evening how fantastic it is to have people you can trust working with you. Manuela, the art director, Merlin and I have really worked well and had fun so far. Fun seems to be the essential ingredient.

Our first shoot day was a day full of surprises!

Day 6.

It was overcast and raining when I woke at 6am. We first went to the office as the organization was a little slower than we had planned. When we arrived at the botanical gardens where we were going to shoot it was still overcast but had stopped raining. Amazingly we shot our first shot at 10am, only an hour later than I had planned and we went on to have a fantastic day with great energy and shot all but 2 of our shots!

Elvis and his mobile soundsystem

The camera team

A light stand in Kinshasa

A light stand in Kinshasa, originally uploaded by Llewelyn.

Merlin's home made kineflo's and lighstand on the Maltina shoot.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A beautiful day in Kinshasa

We start shooting tomorrow so today is it (or was it). Today was an absolutely perfect day with beautiful blue skies and hot sun. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed this kind of weather in the Congo in 3 visits. Apparently this is the norm during the ‘rainy’ season. Blue sky, sunny days interrupted for brief thundershowers. If this is the case then we’ll have great light to shoot with. As I’ve learned, however, nothing turns out the way anybody says it will so I’m not holding my breath with the weather.

Great sunset from the office window.

Finished my 5th week of my yoga challenge today and walked out of the office at 7pm leaving Omar, the local producer, to hold the reigns. It’s a bit scary for me to do this but if I don’t let him do it on his own he’ll never learn. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. Call time on set is 7h30. Who knows what will happen!

I had to change accommodation from a house in the hills which is too far to drive to and from set everyday (more than an hour during rush hour), so I brought my clothes into town and when I arrived at the apartments they are renting for me and the other South African crew my room key was nowhere to be found. I very quietly threw my toys and insisted that I be taken to the only real hotel in town where the only rooms available were $400 per night which seemed to galvanize everybody into action and I ended up staying in what I would graciously call a ‘passion-palace’.

So I went from this...

To this.... The d├ęcor is conducive to sudden rather dissatisfying bouts of passion with strangers.

As I was ushered into the room I almost fainted from a lack of oxygen. They had just emptied a full container of air freshener just prior to me entering the room. Gagging, I insisted they get me another room and no spray this time. The new room was marginally less garish (marginally) and I immediately had a bath. When I got into bed I discovered that the Aircon (mounted next to the bed and blowing directly onto my pillow) had only one setting so it was either 33 degrees or ice cold air.
Oh yes, and I also discovered why they emptied a bottle of air freshener into the other room, the aroma of piss was everywhere!

If I had the conviction of a certain friend of mine (Wendy, you know who you are) I would have burnt the f**king place to the ground. By this time it was 10h30, I had to shoot the next day and I needed sleep more than I needed to have another fight.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Beware the Undertoad

Day 4, Sat 14 Oct 2006

This is my temporary Yoga room while I'm in the Congo. I started a "yoga challenge" four weeks ago. Basically to do 5 90min sessions a week for 8 weeks and then this job was confirmed and I decided to just continue. This may seem straight forward but I do Bikram Yoga which is usually practiced in a room heated to 40 degrees celsius which does wonders for one's flexibility. The congo get's hot, 33 degrees on average, so I'll have some heat and I've got a CD of Bikram talking through a class and I'm playing it on my laptop (which you can see on the chair). Tomorrow I finish my 5th week.

After my yoga this morning I began to think about what it means to act here. What it means to have an intention and to follow through with it. There is such a powerful pull, undertow, that seduces (not the right word, there’s very little seductive here) that seduces one to just let go, to let things happen exactly as they will. I can feel it now, gently tugging at my consciousness, suggesting that I just let the day turn out the way it will. It even has a logic. I can hear it’s voice if I concentrate. “Don’t get into too much of a plan today because only so much can happen,” and “take it easy, every body else is,” and “why set yourself up for disappointment, just take it as it comes.” Of course, these voices are only the thin edge of the wedge.
I have to shoot three television commercials in four days and deliver quality as well. On the face of it, this seems to be an unrealistic expectation of anybody. Why? Well, for starters, a commercial requires a huge amount of planning and co-ordination of a variety of resources during a specific day plus the good fortune of a whole number of uncontrollable forces like the weather, the moods of all the crew and so on.
My experience so far is that if anybody can get away with not doing what they are supposed to do they won’t do it. Oh, eventually they’ll do it, eventually.
There are no consequences. Nothing happens when you don’t do what you said you would do, apart from a baby dying somewhere of course, or a woman get’s beaten to a pulp, or a whole country is left to scrabble around in the sand while the leaders get fat off the natural resources. And if you think this is judgmental then please write to me and tell me where is the judgment? This is what happens.
I wonder what I’ll do today. Maybe I’ll just take it easy, read a bit, have a swim. Or maybe I’ll be ready for my driver at 8 o’clock as agreed and go into the office and wait for everybody else to eventually arrive and start work. I wonder.

The lift in the Agency's office does not operate on weekends or after 7pm so it's up and down 9 flights of stairs a few times a day!

Friday, October 13, 2006

The first rain!

Thursday, 12 October, was a bit of a blur. I spent the first part of the day looking for cast and the second part of the day for locations. The event of the day was the first rain of the rainy season. The day began dark and gloomy and while I sat in the advertising agency's offices with the window open I suddenly heard this rush of air and suddenly the rain hit. It was a 2 hour monsoon like downpour.

looking up at the office building, 'tres modern'

Omar, my producer, and I took the gap and went and had some lunch. Lunch as you can see consisted of batter fried fish. I don't know if the photograph does the fish any justice but it was a lurid Orange and I had to perform culinary surgery on the batter to extricate the fish.

This is the first city in the world that I've travelled to where you have to drive a 4x4 SUV to get from A to B. While the main drag, boulevard is fairly navigable, the moment you drive into one of the side roads in the city you are faced alternatively with bottomless pools or series off-road conditions.

I went home and fell asleep immediately, this time with the aircon on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A bad Trip to Kinshasa

There's nothing better than that feeling of excitement the day before an overseas trip. Which is why I couldn't figure out why my stomach was in knots and I felt the anxiety move through me like a bit fat aligator looking for something to kill.
Perhaps the fact that I was on my way to the Congo, the veritable heart of darkness, two weeks before the next election might have something to do with it. The Congo (DRC to be exact) where more than 2.5 million people are reported to have died from famine, disease and that most pernicious of plagues, civil war driven by greed and more greed.

Anyway, this was not my first trip to the Congo, and I wasn't prone to the kind of debilitating fear that seems to run the editors of the major news organisations, never mind most of the world. Colleagues of mine were in the capitol, Kinshasa in the weeks running up to the first set of elections. They, like me, were there to film a series of television commerials, and I got a series of sms's like "They are running through the streets firing automatic rifles right now," and "which direction is the airport?" The surreality of it all was that the incidents that there were, were so contained to a specific street or goal, like burning down one of the candidates TV station that life could and did continue fairly normally. At this point I have to point out that using the word 'normal' comes with a huge disclaimer, but you have to be here to know what I mean.

So, if I wanted to be afraid and paranoid about my impending trip I could be, but being me I shouldn't be so what's going on. Early the next morning on my way to the airport, feeling just fine, it dawned on me that I had taken my malaria medicine a little while before the paranoia set in. Silly me. I was just having a bad trip.

I arrived very late at the airport to a very full plane and had to take a middle seat which did my head in. So when I boarded the plane and sat down in my middle seat I instantly had the intention that somebody was not going to show and I was going to get my isle seat. I asked the flight attendandt if they could move me if an isle seat presented itself and all he could say was "the flight is very full" and roll his eyes. SAA truly knows how to pick them. I ignored his attitude and repeated myself. He rolled his eyes again and did a funny thing with his wrists which reinforced the stereotype that all male flight attendandts are gay.
As I sat down I marveled at how sure I was that I would get my isle seat, that somehow the fabric of reality, "the plane is full" would get off it's point of view and I'd get my seat. Not 10 minutes later another lovely attendant asked me if I was the gentleman who wanted the isle seat and promptly escorted me to my new seat. I ended up with french woman sitting in the window seat and the middle seat open next to us and I promptly decided that nobody was going to sit there either. Wonderful stuff, the power of intention. So, needless to say, the plane filled up and nobody sat in the middle seat and I had a very relaxing flight. The french woman and I made a silent agreement not to bother each other with our respective stories and we listened to our ipod's and read the whole way to Kinshasa.

The airport at Kin is a textbook case. I have to admit that since my last visit the whole checking in procedure has drastically improved. The first time I arrived (May 2005) I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of an experience business man I met on the plane. He had a handler who took us immediately to a special waiting lounge for VIP's where we sat in airconditioned comfort sipping cold drinks while it took the handlers the better part of an hour to get our luggage. This cost my business man friend $100, which I soon came to realise was the costs of efficiency in this part of the world.

This time round I was through passport control and had my luggage within 30 minutes. I was dumbstruck. I then had to wait 30min for my lift to arrive.

Where have you seen a bus like this before. Seeing one in Kinshasa is the equivalent of going forward while moving back. Or put another way, even thinking that you are in America for one second could damage your brain here.

the market en route from the airport.

Day 1 ends with a swim at Kris's house and some supper and bed. I switched the aircon off, thinking I'll aclimatise while I slept. Woke up at some stage in the night swimming in my sheets but too out of it to turn it back on.