The first film I ever shot was a documentary about French hip hop. I wasn’t exactly stressed out: riding mopeds through Paris, with a Sony DV camera, interviewing MC Solaar and eating Salade Nicoise. Back then, I was just happy to get an image. My co-director was just happy to secure an interview. Since then, my expectations have increased dramatically, as have the ambitions of my directors and the stories they desire to tell. With ambitious stories, comes challenging locations and production schedules. Insanity can and will ensue. What keeps the insanity still strangely entertaining is largely based on my attitude and what I pack.
Here is my list of actions I take prior to international jobs and my must have items. Some pertain to equipment and shooting issues, others address my well being. I’m focusing on docs and no budget features. There are “people” and sufficient funds to handle a number of my concerns on commercial shoots. I also asked some of my ridiculously talented and busy DP friends what are their “must haves” for international shoots. I’ve included their suggestions at the end of my list.
1. Inconspicuous Black Bag - Camera bags draw a lot of attention. I always bring a light weight non-descript bag to carry my camera in once I’ve reached the visiting country. I have one black bag that is relatively shallow. I can place the camera inside, with just the lens peaking out, to film our actors or steal crowd shots. I hold the bag as if it were a purse and go unnoticed.
2. Visit to the health food store - I like to travel with a couple of homeopathic remedies. I bring No Jet Lag pills and Neem Oil on every international job. They may be psychosomatic or truly effective, but ever since taking No Jet Lag pills, I’ve had virtually no issue adjusting to different time zones. Neem Oil is a natural pesticide. I always spray down my bag so as not to bring back any “friends” when I travel. The smell is kind of awful, so mix it with tea tree lotion if applying it to your skin. I purchase both at LifeThyme in NYC. I also travel with a healthy supply of Airborne or Immune Support vitamins. I take one every day regardless of how I feel. My thinking is if they are homeopathic, no harm done. But I like to have an extra shield to protect my immune system against the stress of exhausting travel, shooting schedules, change in climates, time zones, and eating habits.
3. Know Your Constitution - When traveling abroad, your well meaning friends and family will fill your head with horror stories about the food, water, diseases in your visiting country. I had a doctor gasp in horror and ask “why would you want to go to Nigeria?!!”. Nothing beats a judgmental doctor. Don’t let people scare you out of a job. Know yourself, your body and listen to your intuition.
Of course, read up on the country at the CDC website and check out a travel book or two. But more importantly, learn to trust your own instincts and know how your body reacts. For instance, I know which malaria pills give me the least side effects and take only those religiously. The first time I traveled to Nigeria, I went with two other filmmakers. We all ate virtually the same foods but only one of us got sick. Knock on wood, I’ve never gotten sick when traveling. I credit knowing how to graciously say “no thank you” to certain foods I know my body doesn’t like and permitting myself to stop eating the second I feel “off”.
4. Protein Bars, Trail Mix and Dried Fruit - I am a vegetarian and have worked in several countries lacking in veggie options. Even if a country is veggie friendly, like Ethiopia or India, having immediate access to my own supply of healthy foods is necessary. I never want to rely solely on the producer or our “fixer” to feed me throughout the day. When I was in Belize, we shot a group of musicians taking a bus down south to attend a memorial service. I believe the drive was 4 hours. I was shooting the entire time from when we left Belize City at the crack of dawn, to arriving in Barranco Village that afternoon and through the memorial service. The first real moment the director and I had to eat was later that day. I knew that this was the most important day for the documentary and the last thing I wanted to do was nag the director for snacks.
There was also that time Stacey Holman and I got lost, at night, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I, well intentioned, asked our driver/fixer if we could stop at a gas station to buy a V8. Ah...nah. No V8s in South Africa. When we eventually made it back into town, the only place open was a Popeye’s. French fries never tasted so good (alas no biscuits).
On another recent trip, our travel agent forgot to place my Vegetarian request with the airline. That meant an 18 hour flight with only chicken or beef options.
I share these stories only to demonstrate that even when working with the most professional and considerate directors/producers, inevitably something happens and I’m grateful for that Luna bar.
This brings me to a sub-category...
Liquor - I was told everyone gets sick the first time they go to Mexico. The first time I went, I was joined by a friend from there. His advice was if I felt “off” to have a shot of tequila. There was one day that my stomach felt less than perfect. Did a shot. All gone. Felt great the rest of the trip. I am not a doctor nor do I play one on tv, but the tequila shot worked for me. I usually pack ginger/green tea and ginger candies for the same purpose.
My other liquor “rule” is one alcoholic beverage during my flight helps me to fall asleep. More than one drink keeps me awake and filled with anxiety (real fun). Similarly, I only drink coffee once we are landing. I love love coffee but that can make me feel as anxious as William Shatner in the Twilight Zone when flying. If you are a coffee fiend, I strongly suggest you bring some instant (European or Latin American brands are better than what is found in the US) or chocolate covered espresso beans (thanks to Raquel Cepeda for that one). It’s not uncommon for a country’s best coffee to be export only. Or if there is good coffee, where you are shooting and your schedule may not premit access to a cup until late in the day. Upon arrival in a country, “location scout” your coffee options.
5. Extras - It’s extremely easy to lose or damage small items when traveling. I’ve learned to never assume we can find or afford replacements abroad. When I was in London for a documentary, I thought it would be simple to get extra AA batteries. However, I didn’t take into account that we would be primarily in East London, in soccer stadiums with a hectic shooting schedule. Since then, I know to bring more than enough batteries, adaptors, memory cards, transformers etc. Definitely always bring at least two external hard drives and back up the footage every day.
6. Cocktail Dress - The second time I went to Nigeria, I was under the impression I would be teaching. In fact, I had been flown over to attend the AMAA awards (their Oscars). An American, Daniel Roth, had won an award for Best Documentary for his film “Do You Believe in Magic?” but was not in attendance. The judges elected me to receive the award for him. I had a decent dress but really wished I had a cocktail dress for my/his acceptance speech. This scenario probably won’t ever happen to you. However, my experience has been there is always a dinner hosted by a dignitary to honor the film crew and/or an opportunity to enjoy a fancy restaurant or nightclub.
7. Monopod is My BFF - I typically don’t have a 1st AC when I shoot docs abroad. A monopod is easy to attach and release from my camera with one hand. During my coffee industry doc in Ethiopia and Tanzania, I had a Manfrotto Monopod with three small legs for extra stability. This came in handy especially while shooting clean panning shots on rugged terrain.
8. Visiting Sporting Good Stores - Before traveling to any new country, I visit a local sporting goods store (EMS, Orvis etc). They’re used to advising extreme sport and adventure enthusiasts. I explain to them where I will be shooting, under what conditions and ask what clothes, footwear and accessories I should invest in to keep me safe, comfortable and dry. My father bought me a Fly Fishing Vest from Orvis that turns inside out into a bag. I brought that with me on my recent Africa trip. With the exception of when we were walking through the rainforest, the vest became my “inconspicuous bag”. (Sorry I can’t find a link to the product).
My staples are GorTex waterproof sneakers, silk long underwear, polypropylene socks and glove liners. I used to travel with a No 1 spring clamp but that was confiscated in England.
9. No Checked Luggage - This is my rule but not suitable for everyone. I like to know where my items are at all times, especially when there are last minute itinerary changes. Traveling this light also makes going through customs relatively painless.
And now from some more experts:
Jendra Jaragin: “I was in 10 countries last year and the thing that turned out to be the most consistently valuable to me was a small "Cine Saddle". Actually, the one I purchased is a competitor to the Cine Saddle called the Low Rider Mini, made by Digital Juice. I have found this thing invaluable for setting the camera in a low position, propping it on a fence or car when I wasn't using a tripod, sitting on it when I needed to elevate my position when shooting in a car with the camera on my shoulder, etc. The most consistently important use I had for it was shooting B-roll from a moving car. In India, South Africa and Haiti, our production schedule was so rushed that we heavily relied on driving shots. I shot a lot out the window. I could either turn the bag upside down and have the U shape cradle the car door, or put the bag on my lap to point out the windshield or side window. It's incredibly light weight and makes great padding in my suitcase. When I was taking puddle jumper planes around Papua New Guinea with no suitcase, I just slapped a luggage tag on it and gave it to the client as a carry on.”
John Aduloju: Personally, I like a water bottle with glucose inside in my backpack, maybe some chocolate for strength if I’m not able to eat on time. I would rather not do short nickers in case I am in an Arab country or sharia environment. (I was thrown out in Senegal when I went to shoot the President in the palace. Thank God I went with an extra tracksuit. It saved my day). My portable music box with headphones is a way to relax, if time permits.”
Liz Rubin: “Earplugs are essential. For flights: the decibels of jet engines are actually bad for your hearing. There are babies, the chatty people next to you or behind you, the never ending announcements etc. They are also essential when having to share hotel rooms with fellow teammates. In general, they just help me sleep better and shut out any noise. Sometimes, there are loud neighbors on the other side of the wall, a slamming door or radiator that can wake you. Usually, you are getting so little sleep anyway, so every hour is precious. One night before I started using earplugs, I was awakened at 430 am to a loud couple going at it on the other side of the wall. I banged on the wall, they banged back and it just got worse. I eventually had to call the front desk to send someone up to tell them to be quiet. Now, I carry earplugs like a ritual.”
And last but definitely not least:
Vlad Subotic: “Since digital Photography overtook film for most part, our game has changed! I don't carry any of the good old things that I did a few years ago: Foto camera or even earlier, a Polaroid for checking the light, bunch of light meters, etc. I only carry a light meter, if that, since my gaffer and the AC have one. This is what concerns gear: traveling light! I find myself always with some sort of a notebook and a Swiss army knife. Notebook: you can always jot down thoughts, lighting set-ups, camera filters, ideas, memoirs, diary, write or draw a word in a foreign language that you're looking for and needed a translation. Swiss army knife for all the other instances and purposes.”
Thank you Jendra, Liz, John and Vlad for adding your voices.
As always, I hope people feel inclined to share their suggestions for working abroad in the comment section.