Surveying the Latin Landscape

Brazilian Beat - Case study: The Charcoal People...
May 1, 2000

Brazilian Beat – Case study: The Charcoal People

When New York-based director Nigel Noble accepted Brazilian producer José Padilha’s offer to direct a feature documentary called The Charcoal People of Brazil (Os Carvoeiros), he couldn’t have anticipated what he’d have to learn about working in South America’s largest country.

First there’s the issue of access. Padilha says the cinema verite doc was specifically set up to be filmed over the course of one month, following a particular route that led deep into the heart of the country. Charcoal is illegally produced by burning trees in Brazil, and the laborers (many of them children, which is also illegal) are always on the move. ‘Scouting was useless for this film because the charcoal people are migrant workers. Nigel went on four scouting trips before the shooting, but all the charcoal workers that were selected were not there [by the time the crew arrived].’ Padilha solved the problem by splitting up the crew during filming, sending a two-person team ahead by three or four days. ‘They would get there, locate where the charcoal people were, and come up with some options.’

The eight-person crew consisted of six Brazilians: Padilha, whose production company, Zazen Productions, is based in Rio de Janeiro; a cinematographer; an assistant camerawoman; a translator; a researcher; and still photographer Marcos Prado, whose photo exhibit inspired the doc. Noble traveled from the U.S. with soundman Peter Miller.

The translator was brought in as a crew member to accommodate Noble, who does not speak Portuguese. The director says he couldn’t have managed without her. ‘She was able to constantly translate to me, into my ear, through a radio system. I was so much part of the conversations that I could actually ask questions, interview people, join in.’

To navigate Brazil’s bureaucratic ins and outs, and get the US$600,000-plus film made, Padilha was the crucial element. As an experienced producer in Brazil, he has learned that going strictly by the book can often be too time consuming. ‘There are some rules that you can fight officially, or you can break and nobody does anything to you. And that saves you a lot of money and time,’ he says, adding, ‘I never paid anything to anyone to be in my films. If you know how to talk to people, it’s the kind of thing you can get away with – shooting in certain places without paying permits.’

The country’s movie workers’ union requires that one third of a foreign project’s crew consist of Brazilians. As an additional incentive, there are tax advantages. Says Padilha, ‘If you call a Brazilian producer, and he can register the film with the Brazilian ministry of culture, you can save 30% of your budget.’ He warns that it takes a couple of months to process, so arrangements must be made well in advance.

Beyond access, there’s the issue of transportation. ‘It’s not an easy country to travel in,’ Noble says. ‘You don’t suddenly change [plane] tickets because you want to leave a day later. That’s very hard to do. And you don’t just travel on the land, you fly – then you start to drive, and you still go for hours and get nowhere because it’s huge.’

Fortunately for Noble, Padilha knows a few tricks. When flying in from abroad with equipment, for example, where you land can make travelling more convenient, Padilha says. ‘If you land in Sao Paulo, you run a big risk of being stuck in customs for a long time. If you land in Rio, it’s much easier.’ Noble says Rio is generally more relaxed, while Sao Paulo is the business hub.

As an alternative, Padilha suggests picking up equipment in Brazil. ‘I can get an avid for a week with an operator for US$500. In New York, it costs you $2,000.’ The best way to find equipment is to contact producers based in the area, he adds.

For navigating the roads outside of the big cities, Padilha recommends hiring local drivers and cars, rather than using rental companies. ‘Hiring local help is not expensive and it saves you a lot of time.’ And it’s a good idea to walk with a generator and batteries, as access to electricity is limited outside of the cities.

Down Mexico way

Case study: A Place Called Chiapas

Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild learned some valuable lessons about filming in Mexico while shooting A Place Called Chiapas, a feature doc about the Zapatistas. The film focuses on the plight of an indigenous people who are so poor they are forced ‘to change their world in order to survive it.’

In 1994, Wild was in Mexico promoting her documentary Blockade at a Mexican film festival. Blockade features the Gitksan natives of British Columbia in a similar struggle to the Zapatistas. While at the festival, she attended the second National Democratic Convention and met with the Fronte Zapatista (the civilian division of the Zapatistas), and pitched her idea. Once the contacts were established, A Place Called Chiapas started to become a reality.

The 93-minute film – a Canada Wild production, in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the National Film Board of Canada – was shot on a budget of CDN$875,000 (US$602,000). Wild went down to Mexico with a crew consisting of herself and two others. Once there, they were assisted by a Mexican soundman and a translator. She says the reputation of the film’s Canadian partners helped ease their way. ‘I had letters of introduction from the CBC and the NFB. The press liaison at the Canadian embassy introduced us to the office of the president, and we got press clearance for our Canadian and Mexican crew.’

In her estimation, it’s a good idea to contact both your country’s embassy and the foreign consulate at the outset of a project, to help arrange work permits. They can prove to be valuable resources for filmmakers, offering information (often available on the web) ranging from general health and safety tips (i.e. malaria pills are recommended for trips into the Amazon) to economic figures. They can also provide contacts to key people, and recommend customs brokers and foreign counterparts.

‘They were certainly very helpful,’ says Wild, though she acknowledges their limitations. ‘There wasn’t much they could do for us beyond the official route and introducing us to other government people.’ Nonetheless, she doesn’t recommend skipping over the embassy, in case a need for help should arise later. ‘It’s important to talk to them before you get into trouble. The last thing they want to hear is, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m Canadian and I’m in jail.”

Wild says her reception from the Mexican people was mixed, as some welcomed her and her crew while others were not so friendly. ‘The paramilitary groups were very difficult. They told me they were glad I was there presenting both sides of the story but when I put my camera down they were threatening to kill my Mexican soundman.’ Breaking the ice with villagers was less of an ordeal, though Wild notes the key to her success was time.

‘There is no substitute for time,’ she says. ‘Our vehicle was often used for milk runs to the local village and we were glad to be useful when there were delays. We had to spend quite some time in all sorts of different communities for people to drop their guard and let us film. When they started coming to us saying something interesting was happening, instead of us having to ask them, that’s when we knew trust had been established. That’s when exciting filmmaking can happen.’ Wild and her crew spent eight months filming what the New York Times later described as ‘the world’s first post-modern revolution.’

A Place Called Chiapas uses a small amount of stock footage, which was obtained from private families and government sources. Says Wild, ‘Mexico is a phenomenal country of film and still archives, although various libraries are in different stages of repair and disrepair. The vintage stills were obtained from a family at a very reasonable price.’ There is also a Mexican group, CEPROPIE, which is responsible for filming the president and making footage available to the public. This footage (shot on video) includes military parades, ceremonies and other government functions. When Wild went to find stock footage of former president Salinas, however, she came up empty. ‘It became clear the footage didn’t exist and that the government didn’t want any record of what Salinas ever said or did,’ she says. In the end, Wild had to make do without the footage.


And the Broadcasters say… Reality programming is alive and well in Latin America

In the land of telenovelas, disaster-tainment and dubbed versions of The Nanny, it may seem there is little room for reality-based TV programming. However, with more and more channels available both in the region and abroad, the demand for Latin based original programming – non-fiction as well as fiction – is on the rise.

Melissa Muller, head of international programming sales for Once TV (based in Mexico City), says animal/nature docs, cooking programs, travel/adventure series, and youth and children’s programming have proven to be popular genres with their viewers. Recent non-fiction projects include: Survivors of the 20th Century (budgeted at US$600,000), a 9 x 1-hour series documenting efforts to save native Mexican species from extinction (like the jaguar, eagle and Mexican wolf); and Sacbe, the Road to the Maya (US$770,000), a 21 x 30-minute series that follows an archeology student and a photo-journalist travelling along 20,000km of the ‘Mayan’ route.

As Latin America’s oldest public broadcaster (founded in 1959), Once has the facilities to produce a substantial portion of its programs in-house – approximately 2,500 hours a year in total, which reaches half the TVs in Mexico. (Distribution to 280 cities is made possible through satellite pay TV.) Last year, the pubcaster sold 56% of its international programming to other Latin American broadcasters, 33% to the U.S. and 11% to Europe. Although Muller would not disclose specific licensing fees, she did say, ‘we get comparable market prices for our cable, satellite, and public TV sales.’

On the issue of non-fiction’s popularity in Latin America, Beatriz Acevedo, president of Hollywood-based Hispanic Independent Producers, notes: ‘People in Latin America are interested in seeing documentaries that they can relate to. They want more original programming done in their language and not programs and documentaries dubbed from abroad.’

But as a producer familiar with the region, Acevedo is well aware of the challenges, such as getting permits to shoot the programs. ‘Some filming permits we can get the same day for free, while others, like the permit for the caves [in Baja California, Mexico], we paid US$500 a month ago and still haven’t received anything.’ HIP TV is currently producing an as-yet-unnamed doc series for People and Arts (a Discovery Latin America/BBC joint venture) focusing on the cultural and scenic aspects of the Baja area.

‘Shooting for Discovery Channel makes things much easier, though,’ Acevedo notes. ‘They are one of the better ‘branded’ networks in the world, so saying it will air there definitely helps.’ HIP TV has also produced for other U.S. networks, such as USA Networks, E! Entertainment Television, Nickelodeon and Fox Sports, as well as Latin Amercian broadcasters like Mexico’s Televisa and Television Azteca and Brazil’s Globo Sat.

Luis Perez-Tolon, director of production development for Discovery Latin America/Iberia, says, ‘We have a mission to work with Latin American producers.’ The cablecaster is holding the second Discovery Latin America/Iberia Producers’ Workshop in Merida, Mexico, from May 7-10. Perez-Tolon explains that the goal is to unite Discovery executives with regional broadcasters and producers who will have the opportunity to pitch projects for potential development and coproduction.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.