The world, close up
Printer-friendly version | Posted: Jan. 23rd, 2010
Documentary filmmaker Michael Davie uses his camera to project the stories of everyday people and creatures out into the world
Ever seen a mountain gorilla at a zoo? Chances are if you have, you haven’t really seen a gorilla. Behind glass, in a cage: That’s not a gorilla. But witnessed in an equatorial forest, in Rwanda, say, or Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, in its natural element: That’s when the beauty, the majesty, the incredible intelligence of one of this planet’s amazing primates can be experienced. Trouble is, there are fewer and fewer places to see them. Human encroachment, land loss and, sad to say, even murder, have decimated the species. Fewer than 700 mountain gorillas remain in their natural habitat.
But who would want to murder a gorilla? Michael Davie wondered the same thing. So he went to the heart of Africa to see why, in a certain sense, its heart was breaking.
A filmmaker, Davie had been to Africa before. In his early 20s, he hitchhiked from South Africa to Egypt — a trip of almost 4,000 miles — with a video camera, documenting the people he encountered, the sights he saw. The two hours of edited footage landed him a job with National Geographic, which sent him around the world filming events in the Balkans, in Pakistan, in Liberia. From place to place to place he traveled, capturing stories that are hard to visualize here in the U.S. His documentary recounting the aftermath of the slaughter of mountain gorillas, “Gorilla Murders,” showed the pivotal role the animal plays in the life — and survival — of central Africans. It won an Emmy last year.
On Jan. 20 and 21, Davie will be in Seattle as the first in the National Geographic Live speakers’ lineup. In a preview for his talk, “Africa: Through the lens,” Davie agreed to speak but, not surprisingly, he wasn’t in the United States: He lives on Norfolk Island, “a dot, a period, a comma” in the South Pacific. Luckily, Skype.com and its capacity for free international calling made a conversation possible. And so, with 19 hours between us, we talked about his witnessing a murder, the dangers of working in war-ravaged countries, his film “The Choir,” based in a South African prison and, of course, the sad plight of the gorilla.
Can you describe the first time you picked up a video camera?
Basically, when I graduated from university, I wanted to write novels but I couldn’t find anybody to pay me to write. And I really needed to earn an income. So the only job I could find was as a 6 o’clock news reporter at a small, rural television station in Outback Australia. I spent a year as a reporter there, up to my knees in cow shit, reporting stories about cattle sales and Bob the banana farmer’s new tractor and the chickpea festival and the mouse plague, and all of these rural stories as an on-air reporter. It was terrific training, but it wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, this stuff. I wanted to get out and see the world and get my ass kicked by life.
So I dreamt up this idea of hitchhiking from Cape Town, in South Africa, to Cairo, in Egypt. I pitched the idea to ABC Australia, which is kind of the equivalent of PBS. I had some money saved up — $15,000 — and they agreed to match that figure if I survived the trip and came back with some footage. So off I went to Africa with one of the first generation digital video cameras — this is in 1997 — and I started hitchhiking. It took me about eight months and I shot all sorts of stories about young African people along the way. I first imagined my journey as a kind of boy’s own adventure where I would go whitewater rafting, climb some mountains and go on safari. But I very quickly saw that there were all of these extraordinary stories about real Africans and the struggles that they were faced with in their lives, and many were very inspiring. So my project took on a much more serious tone. I ended up doing stories about police brutality and landmine victims and street kids and homelessness and the heroin trade and all sorts of socio-political stories.
How old were you?
I was 22.
That’s a big adventure to take as a 22-year-old.
Yes, I got in lots of trouble. I got arrested a couple of times, I witnessed a murder, I had to flee from the island of Zanzibar because I’d been filming without permits. I got mugged, I fell in love, got dumped, fell out of love: You know, it was a proper adventure for a young bloke.
Well, most young blokes don’t see a murder.
Yeah, that left me very badly shaken for a while. I was doing a story about police brutality in South Africa. The police didn’t commit the murder — somebody else did — but it happened right in front of us and it was just awful.
Even though you were working in Australia you grew up in Rhodesia?
Well I was born in Rhodesia — it’s now Zimbabwe. Our family left Rhodesia in 1978 during the civil war. My grandparents and other members of our family stayed behind when independence was gained [in 1980] and Robert Mugabe became president. We went back to Zimbabwe a lot in the ’80s and ’90s to visit. So Africa is very much a part of my childhood, very much a part of my identity and that’s precisely why I chose to hitchhike from Cape Town to Cairo rather than from Patagonia to Alaska. Africa was in my blood and it was a place, on the one hand, I had always been familiar with, but on the other hand, had always been curious about exploring more of.
After you did the project, what was the next step?
Well I got to Cairo and I returned to Australia and showed the network the footage, and we edited it into four half-hour films, which they broadcast in Australia. Then I sold them in Europe and to National Geographic in Washington, D.C. They then, on the basis of those films, invited me to move to the United States and to take up a position on staff. I lived and worked based out of Washington for about six years and made a whole pile of films for them. Then about four years ago I decided to go freelance.
One of the films you did for National Geographic was “Gorilla Murders.” What drew you to the project?
Well I made a film called “The Choir” before that and it was a really huge project and I was exhausted afterward. I was in that funny, in-between-projects kind of phase. And I was walking down the hallway at National Geographic one day and a colleague stuck her head out of her office doorway and she said, “Mick, we’ve got this incredible story in the Congo: It’s about the murder of mountain gorillas and the civil war, and there are going to be bullets flying and rebels and warlords and the Ebola virus.” And she was all red in the face and out of breath. “And what?” I said, and she said, “If you want to do it you’ve got to be on a plane to Africa in 10 days” — which is a ridiculously short amount of time to prepare an investigative sort of documentary. But I said yes because she showed me an extraordinary photograph of an enormous silverback mountain gorilla that was being carried on a crucifix by a group of park rangers from Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a burial site. When I did some research into these rangers, I realized how dedicated they were to try and protect these mountain gorillas, and how dangerous their job was because the park is surrounded by rebels and poachers. I just thought this had all the makings of a very dramatic and worthwhile story. So I put a team together very quickly and got on a plane 10 days later.
I saw the film on YouTube and it’s pretty incredible.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
One of the fascinating parts was this black market and production of charcoal. What makes charcoal so important to the region and how [are] the gorillas connected to charcoal?
Basically charcoal has always been important to that region because in order to eat, people have to cook, and to cook they need charcoal. So historically the people living in the Congo — and almost everywhere in Africa — have chopped down trees and sort of slow-cooked them in kilns to make charcoal. The civil war in the Congo has driven millions upon millions of people from their homes. Many of these people have fled eastward towards the city of Goma and because Goma is just a few miles away from Virunga National Park, the United Nations has set up enormous refugee camps right on the edge of the park. So a lucrative, illegal industry has evolved around providing firewood or charcoal for these refugees, and the industry is run by the Congolese mafia, who lead huge groups of workers into the park [to] strip the forest of the hardwood. So there’s sort of an immediate environmental impact because this is traditionally where the mountain gorillas live: That’s indirectly the reason that mountain gorillas are killed.
You’ve also covered war in Liberia.
In 2003 I pitched the idea of going to Liberia to cover the conflict. I was interested in the fact that there was a civilian population that was being hammered by this war that had been going on for 13 years, and I was also very interested in the fact that there was a direct connection between Liberia and the United States: Liberia was created by freed American slaves back in the mid-1800s.
America and Liberia have always had a very close relationship: America has used Liberia again and again to serve its strategic interests, particularly during the Cold War in the fight against communism in Africa. The Liberian people, in 2003, as this civil war was coming to a head, were crying out to the United States for help and the U.S. was ignoring them. I thought this was very unfortunate and deserved coverage, so me and my team flew in there during a cease-fire. And almost the moment we arrived the cease-fire broke and we ended up trapped in the capital, Monrovia, being shelled very heavily by the rebel army, which had surrounded the city and was killing a lot of civilians. We were making a documentary for National Geographic, [which] had a relationship with NBC Nightly News, and so we were filing news stories every day for NBC. Which was terrific. I think the combined efforts of all the press corps — the photographers, writers, journalists, filmmakers, cameramen who were there — did help motivate George Bush Jr.’s, government. And eventually the United States did intervene in the conflict and helped bring it to an end.
You filmed war refugees in the Balkans and the abuse of women in Pakistan. These are places that, at least from our viewpoint, are reeling from a war or the aftereffects. What calls you to these places?
I do it because I think that often the people involved — particularly the civilians — don’t have a voice on the global stage. It’s very easy to see images, particularly from Africa and other Third World countries, of people butchering each other. But you almost never hear the stories of the civilians — the everyday people — who are caught in the crossfire. I think an effective way to raise awareness about a conflict or about a crisis or an issue is to document the voices of those everyday people that we rarely hear from. In doing that my goal is to try engender compassion for these people, so that maybe we think twice about bombing them or killing them or ignoring them.
In the United States people are very lucky: They have congressmen and senators who sometimes listen to their constituents, and we have a mechanism in the “First World” to influence politicians and policy. In order to do that people have to be informed, and in my own small way I try to help. It’s getting more and more difficult, I’m finding, to convince networks and broadcasters to take on these subjects. They tend to be much more interested in celebrities and scandals rather than issues which are affecting millions upon millions of people. I think that’s my job—to try and do that whenever I can. I don’t do it all the time: I do lots of jobs to cover my mortgage. But occasionally I sort of summon the energy and get the opportunity to do these other stories which are more meaningful.
[This] may sound small-minded, when there are people in Monrovia and there’s shelling going on, but how did you handle the danger?
I’m a pretty high-strung and nervous kind of person. I’m certainly not some tough, hardened, bulletproof war correspondent. I do have to think very carefully and I do toss and turn and pace and mull over the danger a lot before I go into these places. I do a lot of homework, I speak to other journalists who’ve worked in those areas to get as clear a sense as possible of what the dangers will be. When you go into those places, you kind of have to make decisions on a minute-by-minute, moment-by-moment basis as to whether you’re going to leave the hotel that morning or get in that particular vehicle, or look that person with a gun in the eye and stare them down or are you going to avert your gaze and try to seem as passive as possible? There are about a hundred or a thousand decisions a day, in these environments, that you have to make that could have very serious consequences. [Pause.] I’m tapping my head as I speak and I’m looking for a piece of wood to touch. I’ve had a few close calls and it’s very unpleasant and colleagues have been injured or killed. But I suppose you do it because you believe what you’re doing makes a difference. And also it gives my life meaning.
Earlier on you spoke about the film “The Choir.” How did you come across the topic?
“The Choir” is a feature-length documentary about a choir in a prison in South Africa. I met a prison warden who asked me if I ever heard an African prison choir sing before—
[The line goes dead. Thirty or so seconds pass. Davie calls back.]
Yes. Where was I?
You were talking about how someone asked you about this choir.
So she took me to Leeukop Prison on the outskirts of Johannesburg: It’s the biggest prison in South Africa. We walked through the prison out into the yard and there were 30 or 40 tired, broken-looking prisoners sort of shuffling around in the red dust. She walked up to one of them — a sort of heavy and thickset man with a bald head — and she whispered something in his ear and he immediately sang out the first bars of a call-and-response song. Immediately all of the other inmates in the prison yard gathered around him and sang back the response in this booming four-part harmony. They turned and they stamped and they kicked up the dust. As the music was growing louder, as their voices grew stronger, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my bones were shaking and I thought: “One day I am going to come back and make a documentary about these guys.” It was just as clear as day that this was crying out for film: all these men with these very violent backgrounds but these incredibly beautiful voices.
Are you working on a project now?
At the moment I’m just preparing for some public lectures that I’m doing in Seattle, Chicago, and D.C. And I’m drumming up stories and trying to come up with the next project. I’d very much like to go to Zimbabwe: It’s time to return to my homeland and make a film about the political and humanitarian crisis there. It’s getting worse and it’s more and more underreported all the time.
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