The Risks of Making a Film about Risk

 

Last week I attended the Axa Research Fund Celebration where existing and future research into environmental, life and socio-economic risk was showcased. Sitting through this research presentation I thought about how far I had come in 10 days – the tasty canapés and central Paris location were as far away from Msata and daily chapati as you could get – and how a project about risk and mitigating risk had become so fraught with risk.

One risk that I was very aware of (and worried about, I think that every trip to Tanzania my luck here will run out) was that of a car crash. The roads in Tanzania have improved significantly since my first visit in 2004, but the cars and driving have not. Cars are used until they fall apart. People overtake at every opportunity. Drink driving is common. And like all drivers around the world, there is a set practice of hand signals and flashes to indicate police speed cameras. Every day we would pass a new crash by the Wami river crossing (between Msata and Mandera Tanzanian road geeks) and shudder. This shudder became all the more real one afternoon in the first week. We were driving through this crash zone when translator Charles noticed some rocks in the road so decided to jump out to clear them. Driver Jackson decided to help and jumped out. So far, so good citizenship, until we started rolling backwards down the hill into oncoming traffic and the ravine. DOP Craig, translator Anitha and I yelled (okay, maybe screamed) and Director Leanne saved the day by jumping over the seats and pulling up the handbrake. Survivors!

My new risk – and one that kept me up worrying in January – was that of kit confiscation by a public authority. As regular readers of this blog will know (hello newer readers!), I submitted all documents for a film permit in November 2015, paid up $1000 for the permit in December 2015, and then never received a permit. Several friends and fixers tried to rectify this for me to no avail. We therefore decided that a permit was pretty much this project’s unicorn, as much as I believed it existed and I wanted one, it was not going to land in my inbox anytime soon. Therefore knowing I had paid for it and put in all the documentation we decided to proceed as unicorns aren’t real. This would be at minimum risk to us as individuals – worst thing that can happen, film board find us in the middle of nowhere and shut us down, or tell us to leave Tanzania – however I was bringing into the country kit insured for £250,000 and confiscation by a public authority was not covered. I was therefore making my university liable for this potential risk (I also informed the university Insurance tsar of this QM readers!). Yikes. The irony was not missed on me that at this point I was making a film with money from the insurance sector but could not insure against this risk. Fortunately 2 days before leaving for Tanzania the super insurance for film industry man Karl Gunner came up trumps and found me political risk insurance that included confiscation. The all-important kit was now insured against terrorist acts, military coups and confiscation. It cost, but we were covered!

The risk that I’m not sure I believed was that of local bandits. Driver Jackson first alerted me to this when he was worried about how late we were filming in the fields and on the rural roads. People were talking about the crew and the kit. This in part was inevitable but I didn’t think anyone locally would rob us as everyone knows everyone in Miono so the culprit would soon be found. The risk here is that people from out of town would stage a robbery. We addressed this risk in several ways. First, we were never in the same place for more than two days – hence if a staged robbery was planned we would not be in the place people would think. Second, we would leave Miono before dark so we were back on the main road. And third, when shooting night scenes we would hire guards to be on location and accompany us part of the way back to where we were staying. These guards did little, and I’m still unsure as to the real risk involved, but it made several of the Tanzanian crew members happier so I was pleased to do it.

The unforeseen risk that makes me the saddest was the attempted bribery by a crew member. I’m not going to say much more on this other than I greatly underestimated how making a film means people think you have more money than you have: this risks relationships, the safety of your crew, and the successful completion of the project.

The last risk I was aware of but hoped would not happen was death and illness among the cast and crew. Several cast and crew members had sick family members who they were concerned about over the 6 week period, most crew members had a sick tummy at some point, and kidney stones took translator Anitha away from the action for a chunk of the shoot. One day we arrived in Miono for a day filming to learn that Bello’s sister had died. As is custom Leanne and I were invited to show our respects at the funeral. After borrowing a headscarf and kanga, Leanne and I sat with Bello, Sikijua and Mama Bello in the home of the deceased’s family. I’m not sure if you can have a good funeral and I did not know the deceased, but, for me, Miono mourning was much more cathartic than any other funeral I have been to. Women sat and sung, you could disappear under your headscarf to cry, or you could wail openly at your loss. When the despair reached a high level the cool and calm singing would begin to soothe again.

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