Filming in the D.R.C. (Congo)

Posted in Africa with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2013 by chrischilow

We were all caked in a red hot dust, none moreso than Matt, one of our camera operators. It was his turn to follow the action, and I gladly obliged. The sun bore down on us intensely. I ducked under my tilley hat and leaned against a building for some shade, waiting for the painful dullness of the afternoon to pass. I thought it was odd that anything could be dull in the Congo, but that was how things became after a couple weeks filming on the road.

Best seat in the house.

The initial burst of excitement upon touching down in Bunia was still present but somewhat dampened, the heat had sapped it continually. Small shabby offices sat next to a burnt out airplane and an airstrip. This was our entryway into the D.R.C. Fees were paid in cash and all official documents written by hand into a ledger by two women in a tiny back office. Armed guards examined my bags while I stared out across the span of concrete, eyeing U.N. barricades occupied by armed soldiers and sandbags. There was a tension in the air, the kind that sets in when you are only half sure of what’s going on around you, and guns are laying around. I heard someone say “chinoise”, one of the only French words I happened to know, and I turned around, now aware I was quite an oddity, even amidst a crew of white people in an African country. The luggage examiners smiled at me. Our guide had explained that I boxed. We shared a laugh, presumably in part admiration and part amusement at the thought of me in a boxing ring. Before long we caught a missionary plane into Epulu. The view from above gave me the indication that we were essentially in the middle of nowhere.

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A healthy crowd of villagers (mostly children) and some Mbuti pygmies welcomed us. Before long we found our way to our lodgings at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. I was lucky enough to be able to fix myself a cup of tea before a few of us decided to explore the camp. We were situated next to a river (populated by alligators in some parts, we were told – but didn’t quite believe) which is also where we took our breakfast. I was weary from all the flying and gear hauling, but it seemed a waste to take a rest when you were in a dangerous place. Rangers armed with AK-47’s were present throughout the camp, and although we were somewhat accustom to armed escorts, there was an edge to their presence. Their easy-going smiles belied the very real threat which lay hidden in the forest surrounding us. It was easy to forget.

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In the mornings I would find monkeys leaping between low hanging branches, calling out while a heavy mist rolled off the river. In a veranda next to the water we were served thick slices of white bread, jam, butter, and fruit. It paired well with a cup of tea, but got a little tiresome after having it for breakfast and lunch for 3 days straight. The evenings we dined with our host, Rosy, and her parrots whose names I can’t recall. She was a Swiss ex-pat, so it was imperative that the camps cooks learn a few Swiss dishes. Each evening we ate a mix of Swiss and Congolese food as her parrots would attempt to nest in my hair. Rice with braised cassava leaves, stews, rosti (potatoes), and “pile pile”, a condiment of fried, smashed chilis were accompanied by wine and Tusker, a light Kenyan beer. After dinner we would be sufficiently filled with enough booze to get to sleep while moths the size of our fists fluttered in our rooms.

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The first day we found ourselves trekking through a length of thick forest. The aim was to film at a hidden ranger training camp. The leaves of the trees lining the path were broad and heavy, they hung low and hugged us from the sides. My collar was damp from sweat and in between my labored breaths I think I may have been smiling, but maybe not. The camp itself consisted of a makeshift obstacle course, a firing range, and a bit of cleared out brush for various drills. I believe the instructor was a French ex-pat, now overweight but presumably experienced, and fit. I saw him bite into an onion as if it were an apple and thought perhaps I might start doing the same when I got back to the States.

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It was easy to become lost in the surreality of filming in the D.R.C., the casualness with which guns and RPG’s were wielded, the remoteness and proximity to wildlife. The heat tempted me into becoming lazy with my work, and I would have to remind myself that we were, in fact, doing something special. Matt put things into perspective for me during our hike up a mountain, “Two years ago I was making videos for lawyers and now I’m being lead up a mountain in the Congo with a guy holding an AK-47”. One afternoon some men from the local pygmie tribe stopped by the camp, eager to sell their wares to us. I bought a bow and arrow and shared a few cigarettes with them, to the dismay of our director. “What do you think they’re going to buy with the money we’re giving them?” I asked. The next day we would visit their village to find them well liquored and dancing. There seemed to be a correlation between how many teeth one had and how wild one might get during their celebrations.

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Somewhere in the process of it all, I managed to find myself wandering some of the villages alone. I only had a vague understanding of what the daily lives of the Congolese people was like, despite the number of interviews we were conducting. I peered through wood fences and found women washing cassava leaves, sitting and laughing with their children, their grandchildren. Salted fish steeping in pots of water and girls carrying baskets of firewood back to their homes. At some point a gang of young children found me and began mugging for the camera, following me as I guiltlessly distracted kids in classrooms, filming them through windows, looking for moments that appear when there is a thin veil of understanding between a photographer and their subject. I could only communicate through smiles and vague gestures, hoping peoples interpretations would lean toward the more positive end of the spectrum.

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Another tiny plane would take us out of Epulu, back to Bunia where we stewed in the boredom of their airport till we caught our plane to our next filming location. Not too long after we filmed returned to the States, we got news that the reserve had been attacked, buildings destroyed, and all the Okapi in captivity were killed.

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Thanks to Jenny for most of the photos. To see the films http://www.greenlivingproject.com

Los Angeles, California

Posted in California on June 1, 2011 by chrischilow

I awoke this morning into a familiar half consciousness, the smeared whiteness of sunlight over closed eyelids fooling me into believing I was in another time and place. In a split second the moment was over and I remembered that I was in Los Angeles, not New York and apprehension burrowed its way, quite surprisingly, back into my body like the roots of fledgeling trees. I dreamt of wandering totally foreign streets with a sense of nostalgia. I wore a blue sweater with white sneakers (these were never part of my attire). Yet I understood that somewhere, pieces of my childhood were calling out to me. I laid twisted in my bed breathing deeply as a light sweat faded from my body. I had no inclination to sit up, even if I did, my recent bout of food poisoning paired with last nights double cheeseburger and onion rings left me crippled with indigestion (it was a brilliant choice at the time). I pondered the purpose of my dream (odd as I usually don’t believe there is any meaning in them at all) and of course came to no conclusion.

I moved to Los Angeles (I fear to count the months as I write this)…roughly 6 months ago.

The question disappeared from my mind quickly but the feelings lingered, as they usually do after a dream. The sun made the room glow, inviting me to fall back asleep in my contorted state. I woke up 2 hours later, and it would be another hour before I mustered enough strength to get out of bed to do some editing. The apprehension which shot back into me upon realizing I was in LA was odd and somewhat shocking, as I know the move has been the right one. I enjoy my poignant long hours on the road, alone, to film in dusty, sparsely populated towns along the I5, interspersed with senior citizen filled diners, overcooked burgers followed by mediocre apple pie, sweeping mountainscapes (I recently found myself hanging by my ice axe off a steep slope on Mt. Williamson), and rural farmland. The Thai and Vietnamese food is better here. I have space, quiet, lack of distractions.

But a part of me must still not consider this place “home”, and I suppose I won’t – now or ever.

Neighborhood House – Morristown, New Jersey

Posted in New Jersey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by chrischilow

I was passed out in a crew van, still in the fog leftover from yesterday’s trip to the Clover Club. We drove to Morristown, NJ, a small, abysmal town with a familiar face. It carries shoddily built homes and buildings, like plastic McDonald’s versions of what you would find in Connecticut or Long Island, the homes of low income immigrants or shelters. The streets were lined almost exclusively with Spanish adorned storefronts, with long time hasidic residents in between the cracks.

We pulled up to a red bricked building with a sign which read “Neighborhood House”

We were here to film some promotional videos for non-profit. I was being underpaid and knew I’d be overworked off of a few hours sleep. I had a difficult time gathering myself, but managed to fish out a few pieces of bacon glued together with cheese, bits of egg hanging off from the bagel I tore it from. I downed it, needing something to make friends with the remains of last nights liquor.

I stepped into an unusually large classroom, the tables and chairs at knee level, with cubbies stacked against the walls. Traces of naive and bitterly tainted childhood memories emanated from overhead – dim florescents lulled me into a depressive mood. Slowly, I got to work.

Our first shots were in the yard where soft and gritty turf laid underneath a small play set. 5 and 6 year old’s ran screaming into the yard (upon instruction! We were filming, after all) and I found myself somewhat dumbfounded. I live in a world of down trodden adults and it had been eons since I had been around children at play (although I’m aware that I tend to act just as they do, making it easy for us to get along). A wild boy appeared, picked up a lone rock and smashed it on the ground, leaving the sprawled remains of pure impulse over the turf. I was thankful for their noise and unruliness – although an unusually sharp and hot morning sun was upon me, I felt refreshed.

Back inside we began filming the kids receiving their gifts of backpacks and school supplies. I felt an uneasiness grow in me as we repeated more and more takes of these children feigning excitement, untrained and half in the dark. The uneasiness mounted as we kept asking them to do things such as draw using the crayons the foundation provided (intended to be used as school supplies in the coming fall) or raise their hands screaming “I know!” in unison, new pencils in hand, so we could have enough b-roll. The promo was for a non profit, but at times almost looked like a pharmaceutical.

The interviews of the children themselves had an unexpected impact on me. I liked these children, and their apprehension during the interviews unsettled me. They often came from bad family situations and we would occasionally lead them into revealing information about themselves – which they did with complete naïveté and innocence. During a scene where we filmed some 3rd graders writing about their families, I heard through my headphones one boy whispering to his teacher. I felt like a bastard.

They understood emotion, trauma, love and gratitude but only in the simplest ways, and their expressions of their understanding was equally as brilliant. Some of the 8 and 9 year old’s we interviewed, slightly older but worlds apart from the first graders, shared some poetry they had written in their donated notebooks earlier that day, and I was almost jealous.

They knew how to capture moments without a single extraneous word, and they loved so easily – without any apprehension! One girl said she knew the backpack and school supplies she received from her teacher were special, because they were given with love. She loved her teacher, and was inspired to become a teacher herself (this was a stark contrast to the first graders who all wanted to be cops for unspecified reasons, which was in a way highly disturbing). I teared up multiple times, touched by their stories and comments. Most of all, their unrestrained love for others. They could love their teacher, love anyone or anything, and proclaim it with genuine, unfettered words.

They would return to their homes, still somewhat oblivious to the harshness of their lives – an ignorance that would in all likelihood fade too quickly. Maybe they will grow up to be decent people. Rappers, teachers, cops.

I hope so.

Li Zhang – psuedo-redux

Posted in Uncategorized on July 29, 2010 by chrischilow

It’s quite easy to describe Li Zhang, to show photographs of rural China, and to imagine that sparse, warm community. But detailing the essence of that place, the depth of its poignant wonder, is something I am still struggling with.

Melka, her husband, her children and Claire – none of them really knew us. Honestly, they found out very little about us as people (my crew and I) during our short stay with them, but we discovered a great deal about them and their lives. They were outsiders in the village as well, to some extent. Melka and her husband were brought to Li Zhang a number of years ago for vacation, and they eventually decided to restore and transform an old lock factory into a guest house (primarily for ex pats). They could see the magic of that place in a way the residents of Li Zhang could not, and thankfully allowed us into their vision.  We were unabashedly voyeuristic (that was the damn purpose of our visit!) but Melka and her family really enabled us to step beyond our voyeurism, and we made (if only brief) connections with the residents in the town, transforming what could have been an interesting shoot into a deeply effecting experience. The crew and I shared in our love of the jade hued soil, haze shrouded mountains, and honesty of the land and its people. Beyond the purpose of filming a travel show, this was what I wanted to see, to explore, to show my crew.

I was seriously stressed throughout our time there though, however serene the surroundings, and my responsibilities kept me from connecting with the subjects which, as a director and producer, I genuinely try to do to the best of my ability. I felt like I was a failure, and an ungrateful guest. Sometimes I hate cameras. But it did not mar our overall experience, thankfully, and we all left Li Zhang with a bit of longing.

I plan on returning to that place.

Resident Shanghai – Part 2 – Li Zhang

Posted in Uncategorized on July 28, 2010 by chrischilow

The rain was falling hard outside our window, it was too early for breakfast.

Our driver, Little Liu (whose name was given to us by a man named Little Wang…), drove through the downpour as I ate my way through a couple of unidentifiable qwik-e-mart pastries. It was our eighth day in Shanghai and my brain had become pickled, delicate from filming in the madness of Shanghai. I leaned my head against a window, the gentle highway motor hum rocking me to sleep. I passed in and out of consciousness, sometimes filming the road, sometimes just watching, the concrete lullaby keeping me in a daze.

Eventually green mountains began to appear, which were a relieving site, as were passing crop fields, both keeping me from going back to sleep. For a brief moment we passed through a familiar, dust drenched town – the type which is so commonly found in that accidental space separating large cities, caught somewhere between city and rural life. It reminded me of a port town I once visited in Borneo (Semporna), but did not carry the same air of pleasant stagnation. Only rusted people drying out among plastic bottles in a parched limbo. Farmland replaced buildings once again before we finally stopped in a quiet town with nothing in it, Li Zhang.

My crew and I were a bit out of sorts. It was the first time I was meeting our host, Melka (an interior designer originally from Paris), and her family, yet they took us in with unbelievable warmth and hospitality, which was slightly confusing and highly endearing. They told us we were going to eat, apparently at the town’s only restaurant, which was down a bumpy dirt road. The ride was short but long enough for Melka’s assistant, Claire, to exclaim to my producer,

“This is the real China.”

Up the side of a steep hill, overlooking a lake enclosed by mountains, was country cooking, fresh and salty. Only a few hours before we had been stuck in the insanity of a rain soaked Shanghai. The switch to a rural town surrounded by a majestic, ancient nature had not yet sunk in, and despite the relaxed and quite nature of our surroundings I felt rushed, camera glued in hand, my eyes constantly searching for some anonymous perfect moment – but there were too many. Too many perfect moments. When the cameras were finally put down, a cold beer touched my lips, and the first bite of food sent a delicious shiver through my tongue that almost bordered pain.

The rest of the day was spent touring the town. The children of Li Zhang, whom we found at the local school, were wild and unruly, screaming and completely unsupervised – as children should be. Their exuberance put a smile on my face, which was nice, because at some point in the day I had begun to bear a strong grimace, a result of my anxiousness about the show and heavy equipment strapped everywhere on my body.

Our hosts took us to a couple of supremely old homes, built a bit further in the mountains. Falling apart, open roofed, with roosters and pigs strewn about inside, the building still housed a few ancient, toothless denizens. We found one cracking open watermelon seeds with a giant cleaver. Electricity and running water were missing, but we found side by side posters of Yao Ming and Mao Zedong in a dark, cluttered room. I’m sure a painting of Confucious was somewhere in that room as well, forming what would be The Holy Trinity of China’s most influential men.

On the edge of a cliff, peering down into green pastures, we screamed into a valley, listening for our echoes before heading off to some secret location. Wild and overgrown paths suddenly gave way to an entire village, dilapidated, burnt out and abandoned. Broken pieces of porcelain hid themselves among weeds, the buildings beginning to give in to looming trees and tall grass. Nature had begun to reclaim the land. A lonely looking man, a dog and her three pups stood watch over this dead town, guarding it from no one. We were told that the village had a fire, and instead of rebuilding, everyone moved away – leaving the village hidden far in the mountain. Melka intended to restore the village, as she did with her guest house. Before we were able to spend too much time captivated in the areas mysterious aura, we left.


Another warmly cooked meal at Melka’s guest house was followed by rice wine and tall beers (both of which were supplied endlessly). Melka projected Chinese films from Shanghai’s bygone film boom in an open courtyard, the old songs wafted from her home and into the emptiness of the twilight hours. After Melka went to bed her husband told us that when he was alone, he would play action movies and blast the volume, putting images of a screaming Arnold Schwarzenegger running through rural China in my mind.

Why would I ever want to leave?


Find out more about Melka’s guest house  HERE

Resident: Shanghai – part 1

Posted in China, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2010 by chrischilow

I decided to produce the pilot for a travel show. This was what brought me to Shanghai.

Trailer for the show:

I was told you could get by with only English. Now he’s looking at me, confused, examining the scrawled mess of ink on a tiny piece of paper. He double checks the address. With thousands of dollars worth of equipment and our lives, we step into his taxi and put our collection of trust in him to take us to our hotel. There is no small talk, just a car full of tired gazes, fixed on hypnotic, neon highways. Ultra violet snakes over white and yellow amidst blue-tinted blackness, the buildings an ever changing puzzle of rainbow lights. We pass out in our rooms.

There was fried chicken at the breakfast buffet.

Grease made love to boiled eggs in my stomach, both of which sat rather nicely alongside the kimchi and sweet black rice I had scraped off my plate. Our first full day in Shanghai was reconnaissance, hopefully shooting some b-roll and doing a bit of pre-production work. We managed to find a rather jovial driver to take us into the heart of the city. He sang for what seemed to be the entirety of the ride and laughed endlessly at my cameraman, whose lens was fixed peering through water stained windows at the ever expanding city.

We arrived at The Bund, a strip of colonial buildings straddling the Huangpu river which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. Amidst the remnants of European footholds stood a statue of chairman Mao, and when one looked out across the river at the Pudong skyline (Shanghai’s newest, rapidly developing waterfront area), he stood neck to needle amongst them. Pollution diffused the sun, the light falling drearily on the city as I floundered, looking for a shot. Not a single ray broke through the haze as I searched myself for a vestige of emotion or excitement, remembering most of it must have been lost somewhere between learning to walk and my first word (which, I’m told, was “fan” – Mandarin for rice). I was happy to be there, but I was too caught up thinking about the show.

We wandered down Nanjing road. Power lines criss-crossed the sky, dividing it into in a scrambled grid. Hoards of Chinese (and very few non-Chinese, surprisingly) became entangled in the mess of stores and traffic. Old colonial faced apartments eventually gave way to a wide, touristic shopping street which Nanjing road is famous for. After filming a few wild shots on some amusement rides which we found in a city park, we nauseously made our way toward what was designated as Old Town. Along the way we found a woman deep frying noodles in a thick batter next to the highway, in front of what appeared to be her driveway. We bought a few and she topped the noodles with a hot and spicy sauce before enthusiastically handing them to us, delighted that a few foreigners were open to tasting her specialty. The fried-noodle-batter-balls were simple and shockingly delicious, almost exciting, in a way. They were scalding hot, the batter oozed out with each bite and seared my mouth, the pain continuous as I foolishly kept eating, not allowing the burn to subside.

As we encroached the outskirts of the neighborhood, we discovered serene, orange bricked alleyways squeezed between aging storefronts. The stores were chaotic in their filth, the alleyways carried the scent of waste, and ripened old people baked in the sun or chopped chicken among a web of hanging laundry lines. It seemed as though we had quite suddenly stumbled upon something “honest” – the truth hidden by the city’s inflated ego. No rainbow lights, no glitz, no tourists (except for us). We were engrossed in our voyeurism of these people who knew Shanghai before it became the city of the future. My cameraman and I would wander aimlessly through these narrow streets in the coming weeks, hoping to discover the secret lives of the city’s average (in all likelihood, poor) residents. What we discovered was that past the side streets, within these tiny enclaves, peoples lives were unfathomably open. Local fish monger’s shops were also where their family’s beds rest, in plain site, half open, sprawled out onto the sidewalk. Their children laid in bed next to buckets of bloody fish scales, did homework and watched tv without taking notice of us or our cameras. Their friendliness, their openness took me by surprise.

Old town itself was a mix of tourist traps and genuine local haunts. Being in Shanghai, I thought it would make sense to have variety of soup dumplings for lunch (the foie gras soup dumplings were evil in their decadence) at Nanxiang Mantou Dian, one of, if not the most famous soup dumpling restaurant in Shanghai, nestled in the center of the Yu Gardens bazaar (a massive tourist hub). Slightly kitsch but still beautiful, the bazaar was filled with people hawking useless trinkets (I wound up purchasing a cheap pocket watch the following week) and a great assortment of food. Somewhat jet lagged and hounded by the clamor of the streets, we ducked into a Buddhist nunnery close by. It was a welcome escape, a moment of peace, before stepping back into the madness of the city. It seemed the locals did the same.

We took off in one direction and all traces of the English speaking world and modernity quickly disappeared. This was becoming a common occurrence, it seemed. The city was sprawling but densely populated, the past snuggled up next to the future in slightly ironic fashion. By dinner we had found a night market populated solely by locals. Our eyes fell on grilled meats, fried noodles, bread, and cakes being sold under hanging, bare light bulbs. I tried a grilled oyster bubbling in its own juices with garlic and spice followed by a bit of sausage so laden with fat and preservatives it melted in my mouth, tasting more like candy than meat.

Somehow I found myself drawn down a shady lane, leading my crew past a series of homes which extended partially into the street, their kitchens blurring the boundaries of public and private space. Their lives seemed to bleed out into the street in the same way, making me feel like an intruder (which I most certainly was). Past the intimate air of that dark passage were a collection of roadside restaurants, each with the space of a phone booth. Menus were written under their stoves, all in Chinese, not a trace of English seen or heard anywhere. I was called over by a woman inviting me to sit down and eat. I peered into her fridge, picking out the items I wanted her to cook. Frog legs, fried and braised fish were washed down with a few cold Tingtao’s as my producer tried to explain to the cook how much she loved her hair, making her giggle profusely.

Right past the seedy, but warm and welcoming hole where we had dinner, the street opened up back onto a main road, the Pudong skyline reared its face, lit up, the Citigroup building had become a 42 story TV. We caught a cab and got lost in the blur of highway lights once again, trying to recall where in time we were.

More info HERE

Trumbull, Connecticut

Posted in Connecticut, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by chrischilow

For a while in my teenage years, every November I would take the metro north a couple of hours down the line and spend thanksgivings in Connecticut with a friend of mine. His mother cooked turkey curry and we would play cards or videogames, and from time to time I would sit awkwardly in silence as my friend would get into heated arguments with his father, after which he would sometimes cry. They were good times overall (I cooked pulled pork one time – damn good, too) and the docility of Connecticut was always a welcome reprieve from the madness of rich Jewish kids in Park Slope.

Outside of my friend’s home there would be nothing to do but drive, and the only destinations we ever visited were the mall or a nearby forest. One time we had dinner at a small pizza store not too far from Bridgeport (a rather poor, murky little city) where I accidentally but happily nudged  our waitresses boob (I still remember her name – Michelle…) as we took a group photo. I was only 14, I hope, but considering we were driving, probably not. It was about as much action as I was getting back then – or even now for that matter. For the most part, though, we got lost in the woods.

I had three friends in Connecticut, and the four of us needed the forest. We walked in silence, save for our breaths, the only other sound breaking the tranquility was the crunch of dead leaves underfoot. Each of us were lost in our own introverted, depressive adolescence. Crawling streams appeared meticulously placed between patches of tall grass and shallow creeks, each step inching us back towards boyhood. It was easy to forget about all the difficulties of growing up and simply exist, shoot the shit and watch the frost roll off our words.