Siroki Brijeg, Bosnia & Herzegovina //
It was 4:30 in the morning. One of my students, a mentor, and I had just set up the gear on a hillside just outside of town to capture what would be a sunrise time-lapse for our documentary.
The moment we pressed record, rocks seemed to scatter just a few hundred feet below.
I looked down to see where they may have landed, but before I could do so, out of the near pitch black two giant orange eyes grabbed my attention.
Something was staring straight at us… and that something was moving slowly up the hill in our direction.
Whatever it was, it’s gaze did not waver… however, my legs did.
You know, I’ve seen and been around a lot of wildlife in my time as a native to Washington State… but nothing can prepare you for coming across two glowing eyeballs moving towards you when it is pitch black out at 5 am (especially after pulling an all-nighter editing, running on Coca-Cola and Milka chocolate)
The only thought that crossed my mind was about a conversation I had just one day earlier with some of my students.
“Do you have mountain lions here?”
“Yeah. That and wolves. But we don’t really ever see them.”
My instincts kicked in… “TURN ON SOME MUSIC! Grab some rocks and start banging them together.”
Before I could even think I was throwing dodgeball sized rocks down the hillside at…
“Wait, where did it go?”
“Omg, it’s over there!”
It was as if its eyes knew of no where else to look except at the lanky white American giraffe-looking-man throwing (attempting to throw) small rocks in his direction. One of these things was a terrifying sight.
Whatever it was continued to look straight at me as it bolted up the entire hill, darting around the side of us, in an incredible (what should be a world record) 1.5 seconds.
The animal found its place on a rock about 150 feet away but it’s eyes would not turn another direction for another 2 (going-on-eternity) minutes.
Finally, it vanished.
And I may never be going back to Bosnia & Herzegovina.
I already thought I might never make it back to that country.
Let me explain.
You know, last year I travelled with a non-profit called Outside the Lens to Eastern Europe for my first time to help lead a group of high school students through the narrative filmmaking process. We were to conceptualize, shoot, edit, and screen a film at the Mediterranean film festival all in the matter of 2 weeks.
Filmmaking typically is madness, but MFF School (the program we teach) is a whole other level.
Very little time means very little sleep means very little room for error… all while teaching a bunch of high schoolers how to use equipment some of them have never even heard of. It was quite the challenge in 2018, and I was just along for the ride then. You can see the whole blog here.
Regardless, my purpose for going last year was to be an emergency last-minute replacement for MFF school’s editing educator. So naturally, my initial feelings when 2019 came around would be that I wouldn’t be asked to come back.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
When I got the call to make the journey across the pond again, I would learned that Outside the Lens wasn’t asking me to fill any position similar to the one I had previously occupied. No, they had that filled with the educator they had always used.
To my surprise, this year they were requesting me to add on a whole additional documentary portion to MFF School, which traditionally centers itself around the students creating one single narrative film.
That’s right. This year we didn’t make just 1 film in 2 weeks. WE MADE TWO. As if we weren’t mad enough already. 2 films that would screen at the end of the week for everyone from the students parents, to the US Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina, to film producers from all over the world.
My intrigue reached an all-time high.
Narrative was one thing… it is scripted, planned out. Documentary is, well, documentary is completely unknown in both time and subject matter until it’s being shot. Which meant the room for error was pretty significant.
Yet, my documentary mind couldn’t help but say yes to the opportunity.
The doc crew would consist of about 6 students and 2 mentors. Our goal was to capture the essence of all that MFF is, but to also not lose the heart and life-changing influence this program has on these kids.
Let me tell you a little secret about when you put camera into the hands of people from a community where you are shooting…
- Getting heart into a project is the least of your worries. -
When you see the eyes of a community through the eyes of someone who is from there, suddenly transformation is happening not just in front of the camera, but behind it, beside it, and all around it.
Watching these kids run about their community this past week… we no doubt had some setbacks learning equipment/dropping equipment/running away from equipment ;-)… yet the turnover on the back end once everyone understood and was able to really take ownership of their role was more worth it than even our final doc could capture.
A film for students, by students.
By the end of the week, we felt like a well-greased machine. I nearly didn’t even need to go out on set, and the story was falling into place like clockwork. I became so proud watching as these kids fell in love with an aspect of film that is so dear to my heart, all while capturing their own stories.
Don’t get me wrong… we had some major setbacks -
A student accidentally stepped on our Ronin Camera Stabilizer and broke part of it on about day 4.
Another student dropped our camera on day 5. **Side Note - In all of my filmmaking, this has been the 1st time I/we have ever broken a piece of equipment. Needless to say, crazy that two things broke within a day of each other!** (Praise God for really good insurance).
The narrative film rushed to finish everything in the two week amount of time… but however rushed they were, doc felt even worse. Imagine trying to find time to interview people who are creating a film from sunup to sundown. Undeniably, there were tense moments where the doc crew had to cut corners to get in some interviews in time.
I mean, you remember me talking about the wild animal, yeah?
I’m not going to tell you that documentary filmmaking is the hardest thing in the world (although, **Side note again** getting doc equipment through International TSA may very well be). But what I will say is documentary is really hard. Trusting that a story is coming, that something is going to all fall into place somehow (in a matter of two weeks) is hard. And doing that whole process with 6 high school students is hard.
Taking on this role as an educator grew me as a filmmaker for sure.
But in the end nothing, and I mean nothing in the entire world will be as hard as explaining to my mother why she should trust me to travel half way across the world again.
And that’s the real reason why I might never (get to) go back to Bosnia & Herzegovina… despite how much I want to 🙌🏼
Shoutout to all you moms in the world. Keep sneaking pepper spray into your kids bags… because one day they might be peeing their pants on the side of a hill in the middle of the “old country” and really, really wish they had it.