Saturday, April 30, 2011

Riots in Kampala

Just as we headed out of Kampala yesterday morning, riots broke out across the capitol city. We got bits and piece of news throughout the day: AK-47 fire forced a shut down of all businesses, the U.S. Embassy was on lock-down, and traffic between Kampala and Jinja (the road we were driving) was interrupted.

“Oh Uganda!” – the headline we woke up to in the independent Daily Monitor – is right.

Outrage with President Yoweri Museveni over skyrocketing inflation (200-percent in the past two months for fuel and food) reached a tipping point this week when a popular opposition leader was violently arrested. Dr. Kizza Besigye had started a “walk to work” campaign to protest the soaring inflation, and the people we've met are grateful to Besigye for doing something.

"The government just doesn't care that we're suffering - that we can't afford to drive places or feed our families the same way," a mother of five told me. But by shooting, tear-gassing and beating Besigye, military police prove that the government isn't merely indifferent to the people's plight, it is ready to rule by force.

One editorial asked the chilling question “Is Uganda returning to the days of Amin?” – referring to Idi Amin who became known as the “butcher of Uganda” for his brutal rule.

We kept tabs on the riots throughout the day while filming some beautiful stories and scenes in quiet rural villages around important family planning work in the country. Around 7pm, we received the all-clear to head back. In the end, at least ten people were killed and about 100 injured. (Picture: Children surround photographer Beth Balaban in the village of Kitayunjwa.)

Things are quiet in Kampala today—“Weekends are for fun,” someone told us, so I guess we’ll wait to see what happens Monday.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Millions for Mortenson

When Emmanuel College asked me to be the keynote speaker for their convocation ceremony last September, I just had to accept that I was their back up plan. "We tried to get Greg Mortenson," they told me with voices trailing off.

It wasn't that Mortenson was particularly hard to get - he just came with a price. A big, big price. He commanded $25k an appearance minimum. He demanded first class airfare. And the limo better be waiting outside baggage claim.

So much for Pennies for Peace. More like Millions for Mortenson.

Even though my image of Mortenson waned at that time, I still enjoyed reading "Listen to the Wind," to my 3.5 year old daughter, Isabelle, and marveled at all that he accomplished. Now, the 60 Minutes report that charges "Three Cups of Tea" is a "beautiful lie" and Mortenson's charity is taking credit for building schools that don't exist.

In defending himself against 60 Minutes, Mortenson says, "The program may appear to ask simple questions, but the answers are often complex, not easily encapsulated in 10-second sound bites." Actually, I think the key questions can be answered in a fraction of a second: Greg, were you captured by the Taliban as you claim in your books? Did you build all 170 schools you say you did? A simple yes or no will suffice.

With good work so difficult to accomplish in Afghanistan as it is, it's sad to think about what a negative impact this will have on all the honest people working so hard without even a fraction of the recognition.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So, this is what film directors are supposed to do...

We just visited the Taj Mahal! Sort of...

Bengali film director Ahsanullah Moni made this decision: spending $58 million is worth it to give those who can't afford a trip to India the chance to see "the" Taj Mahal. He spent five years building a replica of the 17th century monument in Sonargaon, a small town that will be an hour's drive from Dhaka when the new highway system around the capitol city is finished in a couple years. But today it took us almost 3 hours.

Open for just a short time now, the Banglar Taj Mahal is already considered one of the best spots in the country for couples to get engaged, giving it the Indian reputation of the Temple of Eternal Love even though Moni didn't build it as a memorial to his wife as Emperor Shajahan did.

No doubt there's something enchanting about this pink-trimmed place--and its "in-the-middle-of-nowhere" location adds to its mystique. Good is coming from it, too. All the money raised from entrance fees goes to help the people of Sonargaon who often suffer food shortages.

(Pictured upper left: Beth Balaban and Director Ahsanullah Moni.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Return to Dhaka

Written on Qatar Air Flight#344 from Doha

Dennis and I had been married for just a few weeks when we landed in Dhaka with our film crew in November 1998. Like I am now, we were working on a global health story, and we planned to spend a couple weeks in Bangladesh and then travel to South Africa for more filming and our honeymoon.

As we made our way to rural villages and documented women walking for days to reach health clinics, our driver played a constant high-speed game of chicken with the brightly decorated buses and trucks that filled the narrow streets. The sense of doom was so great, that every day we were still alive, I began to feel more invincible than ever—-refusing at times to even wear a seat-belt.

While we focused on filming, everyone else was paying attention to the nation’s favorite pastime: cricket. A big tournament was underway—and all eyes were on Jacque Kallis, the pride of the South African team who was admired here even while routing the Bengali players. White, handsome, tall and talented, Jacque’s picture appeared each morning in The Daily Star newspaper.

Enter Dennis—college football and lacrosse player at Harvard. White, handsome, tall and talented—and walking through Dhaka with a camera crew in tow. It wasn’t long before shouts of "Jacque! Jacque! " followed us as spell-bound fans shook our hands, snapped photos and asked for autographs (Dennis was more than happy to oblige, and there were many restaurant napkins left featuring the misspelling Jack Calis).

After two weeks of filming, we were on our way to Cape Town. And so were all the smartly dressed South African cricket players. As we weaved our way through the sea of dark blue blazers, green-striped ties and tan slacks at baggage claim, there he was--Jacque Kallis: Dennis’ blonde-haired doppelganger. Now it was our turn to snap photos and ask for an autograph. To this day we ask ourselves, What are the chances?

This magical trip went on to include sunbathing with penguins, the world’s highest bungee jump and appendicitis… but that’s another story…

Stay tuned for this trip's adventures with the two Beths - Beth Balaban and I are traveling together for a new branded film.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Principle Voices: Beth Balaban on Bangladesh

Associate producer and asst. editor Beth Balaban is heading to Dhaka

I’m really excited for my upcoming trip to Bangladesh. It will be my first trip abroad with Principle Pictures, and the first big shoot I’m a part of. It’s also my first time shooting one of our branded films (for Novartis), and I’ll be using our brand new camera, the Panasonic AF 100. I love this camera! The shallow depth of field, precision focus, and accuracy and saturation of the colors make the pictures gorgeous!

When I started at Principle Pictures I had a strong background in theory from Emerson University where I’m wrapping up my MFA, but very little practical knowledge. Over the past year, I’ve progressively learned more and more about each phase of the production process, starting with grant writing and pre-production and eventually moving on to shooting and producing. Now, I primarily edit our branded films, and so it’ll be great to come back into the edit suite with material I’ve shot.

Bangladesh is special for another reason: I’ll celebrate my 26th birthday in Dhaka! I’m hoping Beth Murphy and I – the two Beths – will go out on the town during our last night before flying back to Boston at 4am the next day. Then we’ll be home for a week before heading to Uganda for a week. Something else to look forward to! And we plan to do lots of blogging from the road on both trips – so, check back here.

Where Monsters Can Grow

To help start a conversation about the connection between ignorance and hatred, "Teaching BEYOND BELIEF" (written by Columbia University Teachers College) includes this poem:


Beware of the monsters
Who dwell in the mind,
Who grow in the shelter
Of shadows they find.

Beware of the demons
Who hide from the light,
Who only survive
When our spirits lose sight.

Those creatures can thrive
Where our knowledge is low;
They fill in the spaces
Of what we don’t know.

Beware of the monsters
That cause us to hate,
To strike out in anger
When we can’t relate.

For ignorance darkens
The mind and the heart,
And helps all our monsters
To tear us apart.

But learning and thinking
Will strengthen us so
We won’t be the places
Where monsters can grow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Principle Voices: Sean on his upcoming Fulbright scholarship

Our producer Sean Flynn received a Fulbright scholarship last month, which he will use to travel to India and produce a documentary about life in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia.

The reason that I chose to apply to the Indian program specifically is that, prior to joining Principle Pictures, I’d spent two months backpacking around India with a friend of mine. I was totally enchanted and mesmerized by the country. It was a life changing experience on a lot of levels - one of those things that really made me start opening my eyes to the world. Even though I had already been thinking about getting into documentary film before that, traveling through India really cemented that decision for me. I wanted to bring stories from other cultures and other parts of the world to American audiences.

Looking back on that two-month trip, I feel like I was just skimming the surface. I never got to dig deeper into the culture. For the Fulbright proposal, I decided to focus most of my energies on slum called Dharavi where the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was shot.

I’ve been interested for a number of years now in the phenomenon of urbanization in the 21st century and the fact that in the last few years we reached the tipping point where more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. I’d like to explore how cities like Mumbai are taking shape and how opportunities are distributed within them. What motivates all these people to pick up their lives, leave the village they came from, and move into the city?

The purpose of the Fulbright is to provide funding for scholars and artists to research and teach abroad, building ties between different cultures on a global scale and breaking down stereotypes. So there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with it - of being a cultural ambassador for the United States.

That idea has definitely given me pause and made me reflect not only on how I can use this opportunity to pursue my own creative goals, but also how I can do something for the community there and hopefully give something back. I know this will be another life changing experience.