Filming Documentary Style in New York
The Coushatta Tribe Experience
Filming Documentary Style in New York
I received a phone call one night asking if I would be interested in working on a documentary series called Living with Health (PBS). Within a two week period I could be putting myself in possible harm's way by covering such topics as bubonic plague, a new resistant strain of tuberculosis and AIDS. It sounded more intriguing than dangerous so I said yes. Working on this series gave me the opportunity to see a part of life that most people only read about. The episodes covered health issues and the human condition from cradle to grave. Our four person crew would travel across the county to interview experts in various fields of health care.
The first leg of our trip
took us to the East Coast to do a story about a new strain of TB (tuberculosis) that was antibiotic resistant. We wanted to show how this strain thrived in a crowded atmosphere, so we traveled to upstate New York to visit the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. After interviewing the staff doctors we needed to get B-roll (additional footage) of the prison to show during the narrative of the episode. Belts, pocket knives, car keys - anything that could be used as a weapon or method of escape had to be removed from our person before entering the main prison area. Foreboding armed guard towers looked down on us as we shot several scenes in the main yard.
Our staging area was the prison cafeteria. We were waiting for the producer and director to come back from scouting our next location. A guard came up to us and said that we had to move out of the cafeteria as quickly as possible. The criminally insane were on their way up for lunch, and the slightest thing could set them off. As we scurried our equipment out and around the corner, I got a glimpse of the lunch crowd: manic looking lost souls in leg irons. Not a fun place to visit.
We headed to New York City
for additional interviews and to get B-roll footage for an upcoming show about the homeless. Traveling with us in our van was a woman who had produced a documentary on homeless people and she helped us find the appropriate locations. It was getting close to dusk and we were under the Washington bridge when we spotted a shanty town of cardboard boxes and corrugated sheet metal. Oil drums filled with trash were burning as homeless men huddled around the flame. The documentary producer said it was safest to shoot out of the van's window. Unable to get the shot that I wanted I opened the sliding door and jumped out with the camera on my shoulder, ready to shoot.
This was the wrong thing to do.
No sooner had I taken one step out of the van when one of the homeless men noticed me, hollered an obscenity and with a group of six men came charging at us, yelling at the top of their lungs. I quickly hopped back inside the van, leaving the camera on. In a panic, the driver tried to maneuver so that we could escape, but it was too late. The men were all around us, pulling at the door handles, banging on the windows and yelling at us. "We're not animals!" one screamed. "Go ahead! Run me over! I got noth'n to live for!", yelled another.
The director lowered the window a crack and did some fast talking.
We were profusely sorry about invading their space, and asked permission to
photograph them. We worked out a deal, basically giving them all the cash that
we had, and got our footage we needed.
We hit the road again
This time we traveled to West Virginia to do an interview with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross about the "stages of grief" associated with the terminally ill and to see her hospice. We arrived late in the afternoon. It was a bucolic setting of rolling hills and fresh air, with llamas on the hillside. We drove up a gravel driveway to a rustic looking farm house to be greeted by two huge Saint Bernard dogs. They trotted up to the car followed by Dr. Ross. After the customary salutations we were invited in to her home where she had been busy baking cookies. She promised we could have some… if the interview went well. We decided to do the interview outside, to take advantage of the scenery. In the background you could hear the bells that the llamas wore around their necks. I set up the camera and we began the interview. While concentrating on the image in my viewfinder I felt a sloppy warm wet feeling on right hand, which I was using to hold the camera pan-head handle. I looked under my shoulder to see the Saint Bernard pup licking my hand. As I tried to silently shoo the dog away a bug decided to occupy my viewfinder. I returned my head to the eyepiece only to be hit in my eye by a bug.
Dr. Ross is a very courageous woman. She has provided care for children with AIDS in her hospice. It was believed by some people in the area that she would bury babies who had died from AIDS which would then contaminate the local water supply. Because of this she has received threatening phone calls and has had a cross burning on her property.
The next location was Santa Fe, New Mexico. We would team up with two government Vector Control Agents (sounds like a TV drama from the 1960's… VECTOR CONTROL AGENTS, a Quinn Martin Production!) to look for evidence of the Black Plague in the country side. Yep, that's right. Black Plague- as in bubonic plague. As in killing 60% of Europe's population during the middle ages.
Around the turn of the century Chinese labor was used in the west to build the railroads. Unfortunately the same little fleas that carried the disease in China decided to take a boat trip to the West Coast. The fleas have a preferment for a particular breed of squirrel indigenous to the Southwest. This is why the plague has not traveled any farther than the squirrel's habitat. The Vector Control Agents told a story about a rancher who had found a dead squirrel in his wood pile. The fleas jumped from the squirrel to the rancher. After two days of thinking he had the flu his temperature soared to 105.F. He was dead in three days. A simple antibiotic is all that is needed to cure the plague.
A major concern is that a pneumonia version of the plague could spread quite easily, infecting hundreds of people.
We went to see a rancher who was concerned about his sheep and wanted the V.C. Agents to check out the surrounding area. An early snowfall had us wading through knee high powder to a hillside that had several holes burrowed into it. There was a den for some animal, possibly a squirrel or fox that might be carrying plaque fleas. An agent took a flexible wire with a piece of cloth attached to the end and fed it into the burrow. After gently poking the sleeping inhabitants with the wadded cloth the agent slowly retrieved the long wire. He would take the cloth back to a lab and see if the fleas he had collected had plague.
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The Coushatta Tribe
Shooting on location gives me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to go and do things that are a once in a lifetime experience. That opportunity came again when I shot a marketing film for Sam's Club Stores that had a Native American theme. The Coushatta Tribe of Texas were gracious enough to let us photograph their ceremonial dances on their reservation.
In the evening we set up our equipment in a wooded area next to a lake. There
was a full moon and a large fire was burning. Those who would participate in
the dancing started to drift in wearing the traditional costumes. This was a
religious ceremony, so interrupting it would be considered extremely rude. Once
the dance began, it had to run its course.
decided to observe the dance the first few times to plot camera positions,
but we were soon entranced by the experience. Out of the dark shadows of the
woods the Chief approached in full headdress and buckskins. He stopped in front
of the fire and uttered a prayer in the Coushatta tongue. This was followed
by gesturing with the peace pipe. The crisp fall air was filled with the scent
of pine trees. It was so quiet that all you could hear was the crackling of
the fire. Suddenly there was the beating of drums and soon followed the ceremonial
dancing and chanting. It was an intoxicating experience.
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