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What it was like to work as a documentarian in the world's hottest desert

January 18, 2014, 10:25 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 2224

By riazhussain

Documentaries inform us, educate us and enhance our awareness of the world and its problems in numerous ways. All over the globe people like watching them. The visual presentation of processes,  problems, mysteries, natural landscape and cultures  is so captivating and persuasive  that even people who do not understand English can make out what the documentary is all about. This is why there has been a proliferation of documentary channels. The Discovery, National Geographic, Al Jazeera and History channels seem to enjoy global viewership.                                                                              

In order to produce such a program, documentarians have to conduct their own research. With their camera crew, equipment and factual records, they have to stay in jungles, mountains, deserts and extreme weather conditions for days and months. Sitting in our cozy rooms, with TV remotes in our hands, we watch their products.   But we pay little attention to how documentarians have worked hard in the background to document those important facts. This story provides a glimpse of the problems and conditions documentary filmmaker, sometimes, have to face. For this story, we interviewed David Ross Smith, an experienced documentarian, producer, director, videographer, photographer, film critic and writer.                                                         

Our interviewee worked with National Geographic Television and the National Geographic Channel for more than twelve years. During the course of his job, he had to visit twenty countries across four continents: Africa, Central America, Europe, the United States, China, South Asia, the Arctic and the list goes long. He says, ‘having worked closely with people in many countries across several continents, I am certain of this: people are the same everywhere. The good, the bad, and the in-between inhabit all lands, but, honestly, how you perceive a person is all about timing, context, mood and state of mind. The friend you work with today will turn out to be your nemesis tomorrow.  It’s almost predictable. And then it’s not.  The individual you perceive as potentially dangerous may turn out to be your savior. This is what makes humans so fascinating and simultaneously so disgusting. And you find this everywhere… everywhere. You cannot escape it’.  What Ross says does not seem to be far from truth. Actually, humans are not machines or static objects. Their behavior can develop or decline any time. Despite diversities on the surface level, in essence,  human life is the same everywhere. But, these colors of  diversity have their own beauty. Our explorer has a keen eye for these shades and, as a documentarian, he tries to explore the diversity of cultures, the sublimity of art and the voices of social activism by capturing faces, textures, personalities, emotions, moments and motivations. 

Of all the travels, he explains that the ‘most visually productive expeditions (for photographic purposes) – and most meaningful – were for director Iara Lee’s ‘Cultures of Resistance’ projects, which took me to 10 or 12 countries’.  The project included traveling to the Sahara. 


They flew from New York to Bamako, the capital of Mali. When we asked him about Bamako, he said, ‘Bamako is hot, dusty, dry. I loved some of its Old World elements, like horse-drawn carts, but the country is poor, plagued by malnutrition and substandard hygiene and sanitation. I quickly captured some b-roll for the film during our first day there, and then we headed into the desert to attend the Festival’. From Bamako, then, they flew northeast to Timbuktu and landed at a wee airport in the Sahara desert that’s really nothing more than a landing strip and a small, skeletal building. From there they hired a driver & Land Rover and drove the three hours or so to Essakane, the location of Festival Au Desert, Mali’s annual music festival, fairly deep into the Sahara.

Essakane is surrounded with sand dunes. Reaching there, they (David Ross Smith, director Iara Lee and sound recording Cory Choy) set up camp in a large tent.  They spent the next three or four days in the desert recording the music and dance performances, both on and off stage, interviewing musicians and festival organizers, and capturing daily life at the event: rituals, ceremonies, meal preparations (which included beheading a goat), and general camaraderie.  All these activities were held in service of Iara’s film.

Telling us what it was like to be at Essakane, he said, ‘It was really cool being in the scorching hot desert.  I had only seen dung beetles on National Geographic documentaries, but now I was seeing them scurry across the dunes and right over my feet. Neat! This might be a good segue into mentioning the toilet facilities at the festival.  Now understand that approx. 10,000 people attended the Festival in 2009.  We had set up camp around the main performance stages, and I spent nearly all my time in this area. Here, the options for relieving oneself were pretty limited and unappealing – or, rather, appalling. Two men ran a strip of concrete toilet stalls.  Festival attendees lined up, coin in hand, to pay for and use the concrete holes, after which the two men who ran the operation would then muck out the waste with buckets. I never asked how much they were charging, but Cory and I decided to go the distance: We didn’t squat the entire time we were in the desert. I’m not sure what Iara did, but when we finally returned to our hotel rooms in Bamako four days later, I had only one thing on my mind….The only real drawback in the desert (for me) was the lack of adequate toilet facilities – and I never realized I could hold a bowel movement for three or four days.  Returning to the hotel in Bamako was a literal relief – a private toilet and the first shower in four days'.

But, in the hotel in Bamako, he had another trouble--mosquitoes . He said, 'I remember having a marathon mosquito-killing session in my hotel room on my last evening in Mali. I was counting with each swat: 27. But I wasn’t shocked: Malaria is quite prevalent in Mali. Although I took Malarone (an anti-malarial) on nearly all my trips to Africa, Mali was the only country in which I felt it was warranted. I rarely ran into mosquito issues in other regions of Africa, but the insects made themselves known in Bamako'.

In  Bamako, they spent the next day or two shooting b-roll around the town.  They  walked into a village where school was in session. Two men sat outside the school; one played a homemade stringed instrument. As Smith filmed them, the elementary school let out the students. 'The students, says Smith, ran outside and swarmed around us, and I frantically pulled out my still camera and knocked off a few quick shots.  As usual, I wish I had more time'. 

'Capturing images of children on my travels is always so much fun. They are giddy and excited with digital cameras, and I’m giddy watching their amazement as they see the end result. It’s like magic to them, seeing themselves. And, sometimes, it’s a little frightening. Some children run away at the site of their own visage'.

They continued to document  life in the village. Then, they strolled toward the river, where they ultimately caught a ride on a little skiff. En route to the river, they captured footage of women tending and watering crops. It was all seemingly idyllic, and the images were iconic. Past the crops, they were led down a dirt path flanked by dry, brown fields. Then, says, Smith,  'We approached what looked like an elevated sewer hole, topped off by wire mesh and a haphazard assemblage of boards and large rocks to hold down the mesh.  A man pointed to it and urged me to look into it, which I did with my camera.  It was dark down there, made even more difficult to see by the zillion buzzing flies that swarmed over the mesh.  Breaking through the black, I suddenly realized what was down there, and why a nation of flies hovered above. Lurking down in the dank dark was a crocodile surrounded by raw meat, obviously tossed in by the locals. I gleaned from a local that they had captured the reptile to prevent it from wreaking havoc in the village.  In the process, the creature had become, by default, the local pet-slash-attraction'.

We asked Smith about the food in the town of Bamako and the desert. He said, 'The meals we had in Bamako were memorable, as they are throughout much of Africa.  In Bamako I recall an excellent Mediterranean cafe, yummy hummus and baba ghanoush.  We had lunch there, and then in the evening we found a dark restaurant with dimly lit outdoor seating.  Fresh whole fish and homemade, sweetened juice drinks were the evening’s meal.  I remember savoring a couple sugary Hibiscus drinks that were absolutely addictive. 

The food, even in the desert, was delicious – possibly because I was so hungry!  Aside from a limited variety of snacks that we brought along, I ate mostly the rice and goat meat that was served to me. Eating cooked meals in the desert – and simply living there for a few days – you quickly learn to revile the sand…and respect it. Sand finds it’s way into everything, and it becomes an ingredient in each meal'.

Another problem documentarians, sometimes, encounter is common people's unfriendly behavior. He said, 'I know after Cory and I left Mali, our director stayed on for another day or two, and she encountered some issues while filming in another village in Bamako. I believe they threw stones at her. I’m not sure of the specifics, but it’s a testament to the nature of documentary filmmaking – sometimes it’s a bit of a high wire act that requires a delicate and nuanced balance in order to make it work for all involved, including the subjects'.                                                                                          

Concluding his thoughts about his visit to Mali, he said, 'My stay in Mali was good.  Really good.  I’ve traveled to Africa a number of times, and Mali is definitely near the top of the list – a positive experience, from the flights and accommodations (hotel and tent) to the people in front and behind the cameras. 

They also went to Nigeria to document the interviews of militants there. He remembers, 'Nigeria was an especially challenging and taxing shoot, and because of that, I have vivid memories of working there. We were there for may be ten days, arriving and shooting in Lagos, then traveling to Benin City, Warri and onto the Niger Delta with Nigerian militants. The vibe throughout our stay in Nigeria was, admittedly, a little creepy. I never felt completely comfortable there, but we slogged through and everything turned out OK. In retrospect, I wish we had spent more time with the militants in order to capture more footage and more photos'.

'And, man, those guys served some of the best food I had the whole time I was in the country. I recall being served a rather tasty crawfish dish before one of the interviews we conducted with several members of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.  As I mentioned before, experiences like this are often more satisfying in retrospect, after you make it back in one piece, unscathed. I have to say, despite it being one of the most uncomfortable shoots I’ve ever done, I’d probably work in Nigeria again given the opportunity'.

Why is it so that having gone through creepy challenges in Nigeria, our documentarian is willing to go there again?  As we have already mentioned in this account of Mr. Smith's visit to the Sahara gives only a glimpse of the difficulties documentarians have during the course of their work.  They forget these difficulties and problems because they want to create something. As David himself says, 'I came to the medium through  a desire to document, as well as to create'. It is this desire to create which does not let them sit. This is why documentarians continue to  acquaint us with the distant cultures. They help us explore the unexplored aspects of life. In short, they help us see how beautiful, varied and  vast our world is. 

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