Out of Africa: The Challenges of Shooting in Cameroon
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I've spent a third of my professional life in the developing world. The toughest experiences have been filming a documentary in Cameroon, West Africa. I'll highlight some of the challenges we faced and the tricks I used to ensure our shot list by the time we hit the departure lounge in Douala.
The subject of my documentary is named Godlove Taminang Fonjweng. As a boy, he looked beyond his village in impoverished Northwest Province, Cameroon, for opportunities to make himself a better caretaker for his extended family, a role he would inherit from his father. He decided he should be educated in the United States.
Godlove obtained a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania after much travail and settled into an academic career in the US. Despite being so far away, he returned to his village, where his family initiated him as leader in a fabulous ceremony. Dancers, feathers, masks, palm oil and drumming all ushered in the new Papa Fonjweng--his ceremonial name. But his wife and kids needed tending to, so Godlove flew back to his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. He keeps in touch with his family in Africa by e-mail, telephone and Western Union, which is not easy because his village doesn't have electricity.
I knew Godlove in college. He invited me to shoot the initiation ceremony in 1999, when I was taking a class in documentary film from Buddy Squires. A former student of mine, Sasha Earnheart-Gold, joined me as sound recordist. We filmed the initiation ceremony and conducted interviews with Godlove's family members.
The lack of electricity had its pros and cons. It was a blessing to be in a village without electricity or cars, as there was very little noise to interfere with our recording. On the other hand, we had to schedule days off to go to town and recharge. Without reliable telephones or Internet connections, we could not contact people at home. In fact, we couldn't even call Air France in another part of Cameroon.
This situation was especially tough when Earnhart-Gold fell ill. After filming, when we were on our own and out of the village, he developed a 104-degree fever, a racing pulse, bloody urine and incapacitating cramps. We stayed in a clinic for five days outside the provincial capitol of Bamenda. I left three times a day to buy food from a restaurant and bring it back with Tupperware borrowed from the Peace Corps. He lost 20 pounds. We never did identify what was wrong with him, but if you read the health section of the Bradt travel guide to Cameroon, it will give you plenty of ideas.
After my return to California, the story morphed beyond the initiation ceremony into a tale of how Godlove straddles the Atlantic to care for his family. Filmmaker Adrian Belic, editor Laura Murray and others reviewed my work and advised that it needed to show how Godlove communicates with his family back in Cameroon ; we needed footage of them getting to a telephone and to the Internet. Based on my first experience, I was apprehensive about returning. But with fiscal sponsorship from the IDA and money and enthusiasm from friends and family, I returned this past February with Erik Candiani as camera operator and sound recordist.
The biggest challenges on this trip were police and relatives. In two weeks, police pulled us over four times. The first two times, a bottle of "Two-Buck Chuck" (Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe's) came through. I gave a bottle to the mayor of the town we were visiting; he was a classmate of Godlove's. The mayor subsequently instructed the gendarmes at a roadblock to let us through and not go through our bags.
The second time, police pulled us over for having a camera, which Candiani was holding on the back of a motorcycle taxi. The Bradt guide to Cameroon says you don't need a permit for a camera, but not all officials have read the guide. The police took us to their office. We called the mayor. He got us out of that bind, and immediately took us to call on more officialsthe army, the gendarme and the Senior Divisional Officer. I gave them each a bottle of wine. Only then were we able to continue filming.
The third time we were pulled over we were out of the mayor's jurisdiction. Customs pulled us over as we drove to Buea, several hours south of Godlove's village and on the way to the airport. Officials took the car and driver's papers, and ordered the driver to appear in court the next day. Why? Because we had a suitcase on a seat. Never mind about the cars with pineapples piled to the ceiling on every single seat except the driver's. Losing the car was inconvenient because we had to use taxis from then on while filming relatives at various locations.
The fourth time we were pulled over was at the airport. Erik brandished a signed, sealed document (actually, a permit to export handicrafts) and said we were filming for the governor. There is no governor, but dropping the title and waving the letter worked.
Besides police, the other people we had to negotiate with were relatives. As friends of Godlove's, his family took us in like long-lost cousins. This meant they wanted to house us, feed us, sing Jesus songs to us and in some cases use our car to visit all of their other relatives.
This is pure culture clash. As Americans often are, we were short on time and goal-oriented. The Cameroonians are generous with their time and relationship-oriented. I had to recognize, pretty early, that we were going to hurt their feelings as we worked our way through the shot list. With the police checkpoints already interrupting our schedule, there just wasn't time for the three-hour meals and driving around visiting people.
One time, one of Godlove's sisters prepared an elaborate meal for us only five kilometers up the road from where we were filming. Because the road had such massive ruts and potholes, it would take an hour to get to there. The risk to the car was even worse than the lost time. The car was not jacked up to handle the potholes, and I didn't want it out of commission several hours north of the rental agency. So, we finished our filming, didn't go see her, sent her money for the food she'd prepared and went home hungry to the hotel. The part of me trained in cross-cultural sensitivity cringed, but the part of me that had risked so much to come to Cameroon for the final footage made our apologies and left. Unfortunately, we also found that people ripped each other off: The car rental company didn't pay the driver and the hotel staff pocketed the money I paid for room and board, leaving the elderly owners in the lurch.
At the end of the trip, we found a tiny air-conditioned room at the Douala airport restaurant. We gasped as we entered, because it was like breathing after being underwater for too long. We sank into the chairs, two smelly filmmakers heading home, happy with the footage we needed.
Felicity Wood is an adjunct professor of geography at American River College in Sacramento, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some Additional Pointers on Travel to West Africa
- Buy clothes at a thrift store, as close to dust-colored as possible and without rips or blemishes. Leave them behind when you are done. This avoids the problem of having to do laundry, which has downside--like bugs that have to be picked out of your skin by hand if you don't dry things indoors, and unbelievable wear on clothes. Women wear long dresses, between the knee and ankle. Men can go with standard khaki pants and button-down or collared shirts.
- When you greet people, shake their hands and hold your right forearm with your left hand as a sign of respect.
- Women, don't be surprised to be hit on by young men, old men, single men and married men. Sit with ankles crossed.
- Contact Avis a few months in advance to ask for a complementary high clearance rental car, if your project is arguably charitable.
- Eat a Pepto Bismol every morning and bring food like MREs and Cliff Bars.
- My favorite thing to have with me was light cotton pajamas and a light bathrobe. Total comfort at the end of the day.
- Take a Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness First Aid class.
- Speak French.
- Get a cell phone that works internationally, so you can buy a SIM card in Cameroon.
- Bring cash in $100 bills. You'll get a better exchange rate than for smaller bills.
- Find the nearest Peace Corps workers and buy them food and beer--immediately. You will need them.