Many Western backpackers regard India with equal measures of fascination and dread. It is a vast country spilling over with things to see – but in the course of seeing them, travelers encounter obstacles: bureaucratic red tape, language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and often a diarrhetic assault on one’s insides. Such difficulties are magnified when one is not merely a traveler but a doc-maker on a limited budget.
Some Western filmmakers address the challenges of filming in a Third World country by hiring a ‘fixer’ – a translator and cultural interpreter. But, there is another – some would say better – option, and that is to round out the crew with local talent.
Alphonse Roy has filled this role for countless producers who have come to his home country to make docs. He was one of Animal Planet’s first South Asian presenters (in Great Cats of India), but he’s not just a pretty face talking to a camera – usually, he’s behind it. Roy is a cinematographer with nearly 20 years’ experience. Based in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, he has shot for the BBC and PBS, and was on the crew of Rory Kennedy’s 2003 doc Pandemic: Facing AIDS.
His first love, however, is wildlife. ‘During school holidays my father took us to different sanctuaries. [One day]…a white tiger delivered a young one in the Calcutta Zoo.’ This early encounter foreshadowed Roy’s career path – so far, he has shot at least five films on tigers, most with Bristol, U.K.-based indie prodco Icon Films, helmed by Harry Marshall.
Roy has worked with Icon on more than a dozen projects over the past decade. According to creative director Marshall, Roy’s camera skill combined with the greater access he is able to secure – Roy is fluent in six Indian languages – has proven invaluable. Marshall gives the following incident, during filming for doc Holy Cow, as an example: ‘Alphonse was able to jump on a bullock cart driving through downtown Chennai and film from it. If a [Western] cameraman had done this, he would have made the people on the cart very self-conscious – and secondly, could not have explained what he was doing – and would have generated a lot of attention. As it was, Alphonse was able to quietly film from this moving platform…getting lovely, intimate shots.’
Another advantage to having a local filmmaker as a key production team member is if the shoot is running over schedule, the Western crew can pack up and go home while the skilled local camera crews can continue to work.
Roy also helps his Western colleagues navigate the potential landmines of local customs. As an example of the kind of cultural faux pas Roy’s 24/7 on-set involvement could prevent, Marshall cites the cautionary tale of a Western filmmaker who entered the cave of a Hindu ascetic wearing leather shoes – a major taboo. Marshall equates this gaffe, unwittingly committed, with ‘walking into your house and crapping on the table, in terms of the offence it caused.’
Marshall tells this story to illustrate a point: hiring a local crew when filming in foreign countries is the most expedient option. ‘You can have a Western cameraman and a fixer, but it’s not nearly as good,’ Marshall says. ‘If you’re a cameraman trying to follow the action, often it’s an unrepeatable situation, and if you can’t understand what people are saying, to have a fixer constantly telling you what’s going on slows everything down and removes spontaneity.’
Ironically, though Roy has shot many docs in India, the finished product is rarely seen by Indians. ‘At the end of the day, I’m entertaining U.S. and British audiences to make my living,’ he laments. But, he’s hoping to change that. Currently, Roy is working with Icon to produce a Tamil-language version of a film he shot for PBS’s ‘Living Edens’ strand, and he hopes to take it to schools near the sanctuary where it was shot to promote conservation.