Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sylvia Caminer on "Tanzania: A Friendship Journey"

What was your filmmaking background before making Tanzania: A Friendship Journey?

SYLVIA: I come from a narrative film background and have been producing indie film mostly out of NYC since 1993. I got to work with and learn from a lot of really talented filmmakers and actors.

My very first film job was as a p.a. for one of my idols, Martin Scorsese, on The Age of Innocence; from there I went on to work with another idol, Robert Deniro, on A Bronx Tale. For a few years I was kind of the "go to' p.a. in NYC to work with extra's on big films with lots of background actors.

While p.a.'ing I got my first big break producing a film for writer/director, John Gallagher. I had produced a couple of music videos for him. I was also the casting director and assistant director. The film was Men Lie and we won a bunch of film festival awards. I was busy producing films for the next eight years until personal reasons took me out of NYC and to Florida in 2001. That was when I started producing and directing for Discovery/Travel Channel and got to travel the country and then Europe and South America. I even won an Emmy award, which was pretty thrilling.

The feature documentary bug hit me and I started work on a long-term project, Angels Among Us, which is an extremely personal film that I am still working on.

Tanzania is the first full doc feature I have directed and produced and since completing that in 2011 I have completed another feature doc, An Affair of the Heart -- the journey of Rick Springfield. My tastes/interests are quite varied and I plan to continue to explore different genres. I have a narrative feature film, which I wrote along with John Gallagher, The Exchange, which I plan to direct Winter of 2013.

What was your pre-production process like?

SYLVIA: It's funny I tend to live by the words "a film is made or broke in pre-production" but this all happened super FAST! I only met the subjects of the film in November and that was when I started to conceptualize the journey of the film and we were in Tanzania filming in early February.

Much of the pre-production process was spent working out logistics with the executive producer, Michael Hinds. I also spent countless hours dealing/thinking thru safety and power issues. I knew there would be plenty of places where we would not have access to electricity and that would of course make dumping footage and charging batteries very challenging.

We had a to buy a bunch of spare computer batteries and memory cards. We even arranged to have a very small generator to take up Mt. Kilimanjaro though we knew there was no way to insure it would work all the way to the top.

The two subjects of the film, Venance (Ven) Ndibalema & Kristen Kenney did quite a bit of research. Especially Kristen, who had never been to Africa or anywhere off the beaten path. Ven and I worked quite a bit figuring out the route we would take across Tanzania. It all had to make sense though within the confines of the emotional journey so we often did not take the shortest/most economical path.

There were also things like international insurance, immunizations, medication and endurance training -- to better prepare me to make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (not sure how effective that was since I only had a period of four weeks for this). Budget concerns, visas and shooting permits also plagued our pre-production process.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

SYLVIA: We had some incredible obstacles to overcome regarding the budget. Initially we were supposed to have the majority of our funding (for the shoot and post-production) from one source and 10 days before we were supposed to get on the planes it became very apparent that they were not going to come through. Tickets were bought, shots taken, visa's and permits lined up and no money to take us thru the shoot in Tanzania.

I made a hail mary pass to a friend/colleague I had worked with previously and he came through with the cash we needed to get us thru the 6 week shoot in Tanzania. This really saved the entire production. I knew this meant having to come home and immediately look for finishing funds but I felt confident that with beautiful and compelling footage we could put together a killer teaser and raise the rest. That's exactly how it happened.

David Dean edited an amazing trailer and with that I raised the rest of the money. I was super fortunate to find someone who really believed in the project and the vision of what we were trying to do and he took us through most of post with just a few additional smaller partners.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

SYLVIA: We shot on the Sony EX1 and EX3. I love these cameras, they are small enough not to intimidate and also capture great images and sound. I think the person behind the camera is incredibly important and I had two brilliant cameramen, Douglas Bachman and Francisco Aliwalas.

There is nothing I really hated about the cameras, the work flow was pretty simple, though quite time consuming. The SXS memory cards however are ridiculously expensive! And that was a bit limiting especially with our power concerns. These cameras are real sturdy, they survived crazy conditions (bitter cold & excessive winds) climbing up Mt. Kilimanjaro and hours and hours of the bumpiest roads you can imagine! We also had a third cameraman, Scott Shepherd, who shot with us on Mt. Kilimanjaro and in the Serengeti. He used the JVC GYHD100.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

SYLVIA: Allowing time to film interviews with the two subjects of the film on an almost daily basis. This really allowed me to check in with them emotionally nearly every day and capture their immediate thoughts and reactions.

The dumbest?

SYLVIA: Having a couple of guys whom we rented a large 4-wheel drive vehicle from extort money from us. In fact they actually held Kristen hostage until we paid this additional money. Pretty crazy ...

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

SYLVIA: Always be open to the unexpected and never no matter what change your moral compass because of what you're filming or the hectic pressure/schedule you are on.

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