film production + social action

Posts Tagged ‘WEB’

WEB World Premiere

We’re thrilled to announce that our documentary film, Web, will be having its world premiere at the DOC NYC Film Festival on Saturday, November 16th at 2:00pm at the IFC Center in Manhattan. The Michaels will be there for a Q&A after the film.

It’s been a long and unforgettable journey working on this project over the last four years and we’re so very excited to finally share it with the world. We know geography will force some of you to miss the premiere but we hope that many of the New Yorkers can join us. For those who can’t make it to Saturday’s screening, there is a second screening being held on Tuesday, November 19th at 5:00pm also at the IFC Center.

You can find details about the film and buy tickets here.

Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks and months as Web starts touring. Follow us on instagram, twitter and facebook for updates!

See you at the Movies!

Social Media and Political Change: A Discussion with Clay Shirky and Anne-Marie Slaughter

by @ChristieM

Like most people out there, I rarely ever watch live streams after they have happen, or a completely unedited panel discussion as they are usually long, wordy, and – let’s be honest – boring.

But this one is worth your time.

The video below is an hour long Foreign Affairs discussion on the role of social media and technology in fostering political change, with Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for the State Department. Every piece of this was worth listening to.

Since we at Righteous Pictures spent some time this week brainstorming for our upcoming doc, WEB, this was a great discussion to get my brain juices flowing.

Please watch the video yourself, but if you don’t have an hour, below are the highlights.


Clay Shirky says that the power of the Internet (and mobile phones) empowers and mobilizes people in three ways:
1. It makes massive amounts of information quickly available
2. It provides amateur’s access to communication tools for speaking out
3. It allows groups to coordinate their activities rapidly.

We overestimate the Internet’s ability to give us access  to endless information, and we underestimate it’s ability to connect humans to each other.

The key to supporting Internet freedom is not in reducing censorship of information, its about allowing for better group coordination by using these tools.

Social Media is NOT something that can be easily weaponized. (Umm could Al-Qaeda please get on Foursquare already??)

Anne-Marie Slaughter says that online tools and connective technologies allow people to
1. Synchronize opinions
2. Coordinate meet-ups
3. Document and share their results

Coordinating with weak ties through your Facebook “friends” does not create political change. It is using these tools to mobilize your strongest ties, the people who trust you, and in turn get them to mobilize their strongest ties.

The Internet Freedom Speech was the most important speech Anne-Marie says she worked on. In this speech the U.S. stated that everyone in the world should have:
1. The freedom to connect to the Internet itself
2. The freedom to connect to any information they want
3. The freedom to connect to PEOPLE.

Calling the events in the Middle East a “twitter revolution” is unhelpful and demeaning. It was the people behind these tools that facilitated change.

You cannot be a modern, working country without cell phones. And once you add cell phones, you are essentially handing people access to information, connection and freedom.

The amplification of Libyan voices made the events impossible to ignore, BUT it wasn’t until there was physical threat that other countries intervened. Pictures, videos and testimonials posted online just helped facilitate that. Unfortunately, crimes against humanity are being committed in areas where there isn’t as much connectivity and we may not know about them until it too late. It is a tragic effect of the digital divide.

Which begs the question…as information technology spreads, are we will likely to see more atrocities, and if so will we do MORE interventions?

According to Anne-Marie, the answer is yes. Libya has set a precedent in some senses. Clay chimed in saying that we should wait to see how it turns out to see if a precedent for intervening has been set.

While connective technologies have allowed individuals and groups with no formal affiliation or organization to coordinate and support one mission, such as overthrowing the Egyptian government, it creates a new problem. The leaders of the revolution are not of one ideology. So in the 21st century we are seeing what happens when a government is overthrown and there is no new government (which in the past has been the leaders of the revolution) ready to step in.

I think the most important thing we all need to remember is that the Internet has allowed for the creation of TOOLS. And it is the HUMAN use of these tools that has sparked the revolutions. As Clay said, it was the educated, underemployed, angry, repressed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya that used these TOOLS to pursue deeply held political goals. Not Twitter, and not Facebook.

What do you think?

Laying the foundation for “Web”.


Sitting down with @Ajkeen in his Berkeley office. WEB shoot day #2 under way.

Yesterday we met Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. Here’s a shot of Jimmy from the interview:

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

Today, Andrew Keen, self-proclaimed anti-Christ of Silicon Valley.

Tomorrow, Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet / Chief Internet Evangelist at Google.

Exciting times for Righteous Pictures!

WEBlog Part II – 3 – At Last, Departure

The Hercules

The two weeks went by rather quickly and before I knew it I was sitting at the Air Force Airport Annex with Humberto and Martin, set to head out to Purus for a second month. I was expecting the journey to be a long one as it had been back in November when we were first delayed four hours at the airport, then our plane broke down at the first of four stops and so we were stuck in the city of Atalaya and didn’t make it to Purus for three days. So, it’s safe to say I was surprised when by 9:30 we were in the air, holding on for dear life as our giant Hercules aircraft made its way across the country. You see some funny things when you fly with the Peruvian Air Force. Ever flown on a plane sitting next to a car? Not like a toy car – a real car. As in a Toyota. Apparently someone needed to get their car from Lima to the city of Pucalpa and the Air Force seemed like as good an option as any.

Unlike our first journey, this voyage went rather smoothly. We went from one stop to the next without any breakdowns or delays. I could hardly believe it when by 5:00 that same evening we had touched down in the region of Purus, in the capital city of Puerto Esperanza. We were greeted in Esperanza by the local technology specialist at their education office, Gardel. Gardel helped us collect our things and lead us back to Lucho Lima’s fine hostel.

Puerto Esperanza was exactly as I had remembered it: muddy roads lined by giant puddles of rain water, little shade in which to hide from the brutal afternoon sun, the same two restaurants that feed the whole city. It turned out the City of Puerto Esperanza remembered me too. Every where I went people were saying hello…”You’re back!” They’d say, unable to hide a smile. “Where are you going this time?” “Back to Palestina.” “For how long?” “Another month.” And the same confused smile as if to say, “You crazy, Gringo!”

“You’re famous here,” Martin told me as we sat having a coffee on Saturday morning, me greeting each passerby.

“Just wait until we get to Palestina,” I told him.

There had been one important change in the city of Puerto Esperanza: access to the region had been significantly improved by the announcement of small, 12 passenger planes that flew in and out of the city twice a week on Monday and Thursday. We had arrived in Esperanza on Friday night and Gardel and Lucho Lima had arranged for our transportation to the village of Palestina for early Sunday morning (Miguel and Robert had not come to meet me this time). The flight office was closed for the weekend so there was no way for us to reserve Humberto a flight home for two Thursdays later – I had promised to get him back to Lima no later than Saturday the 3rd as he had an important presentation in Lima on Monday the 5th. So we reached out to a friend – Valduino, the MC of Purus’ local radio station who had become a trusted friend in Esperanza. I gave Valduini the 110 soles he’d need to purchase the flight and instructions to go to the flight office first thing Monday morning to book the ticket for Humberto.

“No problem, Michael. I’ll take care of it.”

WEBlog Part II – 2 – Don’t Get Cocky

Rainy Day Activity

The syllabus of any respectable film school’s Purus class probably starts with a lesson that by now is ingrained in the head of every student whose ever passed through its walls: “Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Cocky.” Having not gone to film school myself, I never learned that lesson. It was tempting to be cocky. After all, the first time I went to the jungle things were in a word, hard. The weeks leading up to my departure were one big mess of worry, desperation, and bad news. Cinematographers cancelled on me, power generators were not delivered from factories, and congressmen were shot. And now, things were going without a hitch. It was as if the jungle had been conspiring before that first outing to keep me away and now, after having proved myself during that first month-long trial, it had deemed me worthy of admittance. And like any prestigious club, once you’re given the Jungle’s seal of approval, you can come and go whenever you’d like – you’re expected even. And so, I felt good – damn good actually. I told myself that things were going so smoothly because I had obviously grown quite a bit from my experiences, I was learning, maturing, mastering my profession. I was getting very cocky.

Me, my crew of two, and Roddy the technician were booked on an Air Force cargo flight set to leave Lima on Thursday morning, March 4th. By Tuesday night, I had everything packed up and was all set to leave. The sound recordist had arrived from Buenos Aires and we had gotten along very well. Cesar had packed an entire extra suitcase of canned goods to help us fight Dionisia’s cooking experiments of turtle and cow stomach. We were set. On Tuesday night, I lay in bed and thought about what was left to be done on my final day in Lima.

I had to buy batteries.

That was it. I searched my head for other things I had to do and in doing so thought again about how simple everything had been. Yes, all that stood between me and a second round with the Amazon in Purus was a box of nine volt batteries. That’s when the nightmarish thought entered my head that would keep me up the entire night: “Something terrible is going to happen tomorrow.”

The call came at about 1:00 PM the next day. I was with Martin, the sound recordist, on our way to get the box of batteries that was the lone item on my “To Do List.”

“Michael, it’s Roddy. Listen, Michael, I don’t have very good news.” It seemed that the Air Force had re-routed all of its civic cargo flights to Chile where they would be delivering needed aid to Earthquake victims. The flights to Purus would be postponed indefinitely.

Now, what exactly is the correct reaction here? Are you supposed to get mad at that? No, you can’t get mad about that – that would be inhumane. Frustrated? Perhaps you can be frustrated on the inside, but it’s certainly not appropriate to express that frustration outwardly, is it? Compassion and empathy seem like good, stable emotions for a situation like this. “Oh, well of course, they need the flights more than we do.” That seems like a reasonable response, though not a very productive one. These are the questions that I would like to ask a film school professor. That and, When you are told that the flights that are the only means of accessing the region that is the key to your entire film, have been re-routed indefinitely to Chile, what the hell are you supposed to do?

Now, again I haven’t taken the official Purus course, but here is how, I would imagine the book would go:

1. Asses the situation. What are your options?

-I could give blood. I had given blood a few times in my life, once in the aftermath of 9/11 and a second time at some high school blood drive. The second time did not go so well – the blood didn’t come out easily. They had to stick me with a needle 5 or 6 times just to say in the end, “Thanks anyhow.” I decided not to give blood.

-”We could go to Chile.” That was Cesar’s reaction and I won’t lie, I entertained it for more than a few seconds. But Chile would have been an entirely different film and would have meant the end of everything I’d been doing here in Peru. It felt like giving up.

The only option was to wait and keep myself as up to date on good information as is possible in Peru. I called the Air Force flight office about 3 times a day – often getting different answers with each call. Things got worse when a few days later I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone.

“Michael!!! It’s Robert from Palestina. Where are you?” Robert and Miguel, two of my friends from the village had heard I was coming at the beginning of March – I’m not really sure who would have told them (I certainly didn’t), which only strengthens my belief that the jungle knows everything about those who intend on passing through its depths. Robert and Miguel had gone to Puerto Esperanza to meet me and take me back to Palestina with them. I was flattered, but devastated as I felt by not showing up I’d let them down and, to make matters worse, couldn’t give them a straight answer about when I’d be coming.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m not sure when the flights are leaving. I’ll be there soon.”

“Michael, can you bring me a pair of Nike sneakers?” Miguel asked.

“Yes,” I told him. I went on to apologize one last time. “I promise I’ll be there as soon as the flights leave.”

“Yeah. Don’t you leave without my Nikes!” Were Miguel’s final words.

In the end, it turned out that the round of flights had been all out cancelled. There would be nothing departing for the region for another 15 days. March 19th was set as the new departure date.

2. Asses the Damage.

At the end of the day, the damage caused by the two week postponement was not all that grave – or at least didn’t appear to be. There were two big hits:

Cesar would no longer be able to come. He had booked other work for the end of March going into the beginning of April so could not come on the 19th, nor could he meet me there at the midway point on the 4th. Roddy, couldn’t come either. He had to go out to the mountains for other work and Bari Gloria would be on an assignment in the north of the country. Bari assured me that the local specialist in Purus, Gardel, would be able to handle anything that might come up. Bari had, after all left the Internet OK and the only major work that was needed was the installation of the two solar powered batteries, which was really no big deal at all. I was in good hands, he promised. I had my doubts.

But Humberto could still come along for the first two weeks and Martin was very flexible and could stay on with me for the full month. I’d be able to handle the camera work myself the second half. The important thing was that we were leaving.

WEBlog Part II – 1 – Everything Appears OK

The Port of Palestina

I never went to film school. It’s definitely not a decision I’d ever say I regret per se, but I’ve certainly, on more than one occasion, found myself reflecting on the choice in the context of a lingering “what if?” I imagine that had I made a different decision after college and decided to invest three more years of my life getting a degree in production from a directing or producing program, I would have arrived on the first day of registration, opened the course offerings booklet and found in bold letters under required courses: How To Get You and Your Crew Into And Out of the Region of Purus in Peru. I imagine it would be a two semester course. Semester one: Getting In. Semester two: Getting Out.

You may remember the region of Purus where I lived last November. Referred to as the “Capital of Isolation,” the only way to access the region is via Peruvian Air Force cargo flights that depart from Lima every 15 days. The flights drop you in the “city” of Puerto Esperanza from where you can take an 8-hour boat ride down river to the village of Palestina on the Brazilian border. There are no roads in Purus. I had lived in Palestina in November and spent most of my time with an adorable ten-year old girl named Lidia and her family. The month was in the end a success, but was not without its fair share of challenges and setbacks. Most notably, the Solar Powered Internet system that had been the reason I had chosen the village of Palestina in the first place – offering me an opportunity to film students in one of the most remote parts of the world using the Internet for the first time – was not working. Upon my return to Lima in December, the Ministry of Education here had promised they would send one of their technicians out to Purus in February to repair the Internet and, for good measure, they promised to send a technician along with me when I returned for a second time in March.

The three months in between trips to Purus flew by and before I knew it, it was time to get things together and prepare for my return to Palestina. Things went delightfully smoothly. Both of my cinematographers, Cesar and Humberto, agreed to come along for two weeks each – Cesar the first two, Humberto the second two – and, with Humberto’s help I found a sound recordist from Buenos Aires who was willing to fly himself up to Lima and come along for the full month. The technician from the Ministry, Bari Gloria, returned from his own trip to Purus in mid-February and happily informed me that the Internet was left “OK.” (Peruvians very much like using the term “OK.” They don’t use it as we use it – back home, I interpret okay as “so-so.” So if you asked someone how they are and they responded, “OK,” you’d probably follow up with, “What’s wrong? A Peruvian “OK” is much more enthusiastic, in the vein of “Great!” or “Fantastic!”). A second technician, Roddy Guillen, a plump and friendly fellow who had accompanied me on an expedition to the mountains back in February was all set to come along with me as the on-site technician should anything go wrong. (I imagine that phrases such as “should anything go wrong” are not used in the textbooks that they give out in the Purus Class in fIlm school. They probably use the phrase “when things go wrong” instead.) To top it all off, I had received a small grant from the U.S. Embassy here to help me with the expenses and I had convinced One Laptop per Child to buy a pair of Solar Powered Batteries that would allow the Solar-Powered Internet System in Palestina to function 24 hours a day. “The Capital of Isolation” was about to have 24-hour wireless internet access and I would be there to film the consequences. Things were looking OK.

WEBlog 6: Departure

My good relations with the townspeople continued and I began to feel very much at home. Where ever I’d walk, I’d see someone I knew. They’d stop me, we’d speak for several minutes – conversation usually focused on where I was going (no where really), when they could get a copy of the wedding DVD (whenever you want, I have them in the house), and how much I was charging for the DVDs (nothing it’s a gift). They’d smile and I’d be on my way. Everyone was friendly and always smiling. I shouldn’t say everyone. There were at least a few people who viewed my presence as an imposition – they didn’t like the idea of a Gringo hanging around and filming them. “Gringo, what are you looking for?” An elderly woman yelled out at me once as I filmed near her house – a profound question and one I’ve often asked myself. But other than these few objectors, I was a hit. As the time for my departure came closer, conversations centered around the date I’d chosen – October 12th. “And when will you return?” They would ask.

Indeed my final few nights at Yanet’s had an heir of sadness to them. “We’re going to be sad when you leave, Michael.” The father told me at dinner. “I don’t think you should leave. You should stay with us longer,” the sister told me. I reminded her that when I left she could at least have her room back and not have to share a bed with her sister. “I don’t care, you can have my room,” was her response.

However, the comment that will remain with me always came a week earlier, during an interview I did with Yanet’s father, Mauricio. The mother had gone into town for the day and the children were all at school. The house was quiet and we spoke at length. When I had finished all of my questions, as I do at the end of all my interviews, I asked Mauricio, whether there was anything he wished to add. He thought about this for a moment and then looked right at me.

“Don’t forget about us,” he pleaded. “Everyone else forgets about us but you – you remember us.”

I promised that I would.

I as wrap up this account of my first three weeks living with families in the Andes Mountains, I recognize, that I can’t have possibly captured all of the moments that pervaded my time in Antuyo and have indeed shaken the foundation upon which I have built my view of the world. It is an incredible thing to be welcomed into the home of those who have so little, whom happily offer all that they can, not only with a smile but with insistence. Indeed, their generosity was so great, that at times I forgot how poor they are. But they are poor. For a full week of back-breaking work on the canal, each person was paid a salary of 20 soles – less than $7. At the end of my stay, a high electricity bill was the source of much angst. The bill: 12 soles – about $4. (As I had been using electricity to charge my equipment each night, I insisted on paying it).

In addition to the many moments I have described in Antuyo, there were many others – the details of which escape me. There were moments of sheer awe in which the mountain view that my eyes never took for granted offered indescribable miracles of nature. Like in the first hours of the morning, when the mountains blocked the sun’s dominance of the sky, creating the illusion of a battle between the moon and its peaceful nighttime stars and the sun which pushed the night from the sky with all of the power of its daylight. Moments of fears in which guard dogs chased me from their property as I made innocent hikes around the mountains. There were small triumphs of joy when I climbed trees with Bernardo, who sang the whole time, and remembered again what was to be a kid with nothing to do but get dirty, play and be home before dark. Undoubtedly, there were moments of difficulty and foreigness, times when I felt of a different world and that I couldn’t stand another minute there. But above all, what I have learned from my time in Antuyo is that while we all inherit different lives – different challenges posed to us that are met with different reactions – we are above all else the same. And while this appearance of other often clouds our vision and ability to see the undeniable truth of similarity that is at our core, when we demand that our eyes see through this fog, the world offers to us the greatest of its gifts: connection – a bridge between two worlds that allows us to learn, to understand and to grow.

WEBlog 5: Building a Canal

Life in Antuyo is hard and the people are poor. As I mentioned, the greatest problem is a lack of water. To aid in this issue, while I was there, the people of the town joined together to begin construction on a canal that would bring water down from a lagoon several miles away. The construction began on a Sunday. I was told we would be going very high up (“Arrrrrrrrrrrribba!” as they were fond of saying) the mountain, riding along on donkeys. I let myself daydream on the idea of a peaceful ride up the beautiful mountain bouncing along on the back of donkey. I heard wrong. We were not going to ride up the mountain on donkeys, but rather load the donkeys up with bags of cement and herd them up and down the steep mountain. I climbed the mountain five times that day in all, filming the townspeople as they marched their donkeys onward, often carrying bags of cement over their own shoulders – the heavy load pushing them toward the rocky Earth. Everyone in the town participated in this work – young fit men, old men, young women, old women, kids. For fear of being excommunicated if I didn’t help out, I herded a few donkeys myself. It’s pretty easy, you just need to stay behind the donkey and walk at a steady and purposeful pace. On my third trip up the mountain, I got a little slow and the donkey started veering off to the right. I started to run after him, which only caused him to run faster. He started heading downhill, picking up speed – perhaps sensing freedom. I grabbed onto the ropes that tied the cement onto his back. This seemed to piss him off – he darted away, dragging me along for a few moments until I was wise enough to let go. I dropped my heavy pack of gear and sprinted after the donkey.

Here’s a little known fact: donkey’s are fast. Much faster than you’d imagine. I had no hope of catching up with the donkey that ran with great strides toward liberation. The terrible shame that comes with losing one’s donkey started to come over me. I turned to look and see if anyone was looking and was relieved to see Bernardo, my 12-year old savior, sprinting out toward the donkey. Bernardo is also fast. Much faster than I am, even faster than the donkey. Within seconds he was well ahead of me, and managed to make his way in front of the donkey. Upon doing so, he came to a halt and turned back toward the mountain. Apparently, this is all that is needed to curb a run away donkey. Just get in front of them (as you see, not an easy task) and they give up. So, I’ve learned that donkeys are very fast but not very hopeful animals. Bernardo took over from there and the case of the run away donkey was solved. I of course, would not live the episode down, as Yanet’s father would often bring it up during dinner, laughing about the fact that I couldn’t keep my donkey in order.

The next day, with the cement distributed along the canal’s intended path, construction began in earnest on the canal and continued throughout the week. I went to film the construction on Friday. The people gathered on the mountain at 9, they spent an hour relaxing, chewing coca leaves and talking. They split into two groups – each working on different sections of the canal – and many arguments erupted about who had more cement, who had brought more cement, and where each group’s designated territories ended. It was not exactly the quaint, “we’re all in this together scene,” I had imagined. At 10, work began and continued until lunch at 1. First they dug out the canal from the Earth – pulling out large boulders that stood in their way. Then they lined the canal with large rocks, then laid and smoothed cement to preserve the design. By 11:30, satisfied with the footage I’d accumulated, I decided to help out with the canal’s construction. The people were all very pleased with my volunteerism. In fact, they even argued over which group I would help. In the end, I split my time between the two groups. I was assigned three different tasks: first I brought buckets of water to use in mixing the cement; then, once mixed, I brought buckets of cement up and down the mountain from the mixing site to the specific areas where it was needed; finally, I searched for and retrieved large rocks to put along the canal as a type of foundation – this seemingly easy task was complicated by the existence of little black spiders that hide under the rocks. I didn’t quite catch what would happen if I was bitten, other than that it would be rather painful and would include an hour long drive to the hospital. “And I don’t have a car!” The woman who was telling me all this concluded. The point was, I should be careful.

Work finished at four. Too tired for the long trek home, most of the people hung out for a bit before heading home. In helping out, I had certainly won over the respect of the whole community. Before then, while I was a recognizable face, I was still the unknown Gringo who danced kind of funny. Now, the people seemed to actually enjoy my presence. At lunch, I was given food by three different people, each insisting on taking my already full plate and adding to it. And, by the end of the day, my name had changed from “Gringo” to Michael.

WEBlog 4: A Dedicated Professor / Roy the Revolutionary

I come from a family that’s deeply embedded in the world of education – everyone in some form or another: my mother, my father, my brother-in-law, several of my cousins, and now my sister. They all work hard and are extremely passionate. I must say however, I have never met a more dedicated educator than the wonderful teacher who governs the one-room school house in Antuyo, Peru. The professor of the lone school in Antuyo wakes up every morning between 2 and 3 am. He spends several hours preparing for the day’s class and doing work for the classes he himself takes on the weekends. At 5 am, he starts his round of household errands: he feeds the two donkeys, the three pigs, the two turkeys, the chicken, the four guard dogs, and the cat. He has a quick breakfast with his family and by 6 he has begun his long commute to the village of Antuyo to begin school at 8:30. The day, which lasts until 2:00 sees him governing a class of wild students that range in age from 5 to 13, teaching eight different grade levels (from pre-K to 6th grade) at the same time. Throughout the day he wears the hat of principal, math teacher, grammar teacher, science teacher, gym teacher and custodian. When there is an issue with a student, he makes the long hike up the mountain to visit their families personally. He’s got a tough job.

I’ll shift gears here and say that, perhaps the greatest benefit of life in Antuyo is that it’s socially acceptable to pee anywhere. On a couple of occasions, I found that the person I was having a conversation with while walking had stopped to relieve himself. At night, with the doors to the house locked up, one need only leave his room and take care of business (the whole house is outside anyhow). Despite designated outhouses, the rule of free peeing is in no danger. After all, the animals do it and, as their masters, why shouldn’t we? I found that no one took greater advantage of this luxury than the five-year old, Roy. His bed was upstairs, looking out at the mountains and the outdoor area of the house below. Standing on his bed, Roy would lean over the balcony and let loose. One morning, I was having a conversation with the father below when Roy started peeing from above. The father smiled at me, “It’s raining,” he said. While everyone in the town took full advantage of this privilege (women included), Roy was a true revolutionary – always pushing the envelope. One morning, I went to great lengths to set up a beautiful shot of Roy running freely toward the school. It was really a great shot: the full mountain landscape filling the frame, lit perfectly by the fresh morning sun. Roy ran into frame as if on cue. I was admiring the shot from behind the camera, giving myself a big old pat on the back, when Roy suddenly stopped at the edge of the frame, sat down and took a crap in the middle of the field. I learned a lot from Roy.

WEBlog 3: An Andean Wedding

Just a few days after my arrival, I learned that my timing was rather apt. It turned out that on the first Saturday I was in Antuyo, Yanet’s sister would be getting married! I was invited to the wedding and, as a gift, agreed to film the wedding for the family (I figured it would also be a good opportunity for me to film their culture for my own purposes). The day of the wedding was a long one. We got into Ahuac around 6 am to prepare for the ceremony that would start at 10:30. I had a breakfast of pancakes and coffee – a welcomed break from my otherwise steady diet of potatoes – while the bride changed at the hair salon. Nothing exciting to report about the ceremony itself – very similar to our own – the party however, was phenomenal. It started immediately after the ceremony (around noon) and went on for two days at three different venues. We started at the plaza right outside the church, with a full band set up. We danced in circles in the plaza for about an hour at which point a parade line formed. The parade made several tours of the plaza, pushed along by the band which played at the rear (throughout the night the band played a slew of Santiago songs – at one point I got into an argument with another guest about whether or not they were playing the same song over and over again. She insisted they were different songs, I’m pretty sure it was the same song all night). After making many circles, we headed down the streets of Ahuac toward the main venue – a big outdoor field with two stages for the two bands. I thought the luxurious venue would be a nice opportunity to seek out a toilet, but was disappointed to learn that it merely offered holes lined by tile. The dancing started upon our arrival at the wedding hall and continued until midnight. Each key part of the party would begin with the key objects being displayed in a dance that circled around the field. Before lunch, the guests picked up the dozen or so full pigs, formed a parade line and danced around, swinging the pigs back and forth, presenting each to the bride and groom. After lunch, gifts were presented. The guests formed lines and danced around carrying their gifts – and these are not little envelopes containing checks, I’m talking about people dancing around for twenty minutes lifting refrigerators, dressers, and ovens over their shoulders. After the gifts came the beer – there must have been several hundred cases of 40 oz bottles, each of which was paraded around. The people drink communally, pouring themselves a shot of beer and then passing the bottle and plastic cup onto the next guest. They drink in circles of five to ten, dancing the whole time. Now, in my dancing days, I’ve made an impression on quite a few people with my natural dancing skills – I’m self-taught. The people of Antuyo are no exception. Behind the bride and groom, I was the most popular guy at the party, dancing with everyone (most of them laughing at me and mocking my moves – I actually got a hilarious shot of two old women, decked out in full Andean costumes, imitating my unique breed of dancing). Things got dangerous as people got drunker. One woman came up to me, grabbed me by the ear and tried to force me to marry her daughter. I managed to free myself from her strong grip and flee only to run into her an hour later, having to go through the whole ordeal again.

The party ended around midnight, and by 9 am the next day, all of the guests were up in Antuyo at the groom’s house dancing to the same music with the same band, drinking case after case of beer and eating all of the leftovers. This went on until midnight.

Creating the DVD turned out to be a much bigger deal than I thought it’d be. From the moment the party ended I was asked when it would be ready. I tried to explain that I needed some time to edit everything together; that these things take time and I’d need to wait until the following weekend when I went to the city for a few days. When I went into the city of Huancayo the following weekend for two days of much needed rest and running water, I spent hours editing the four hours of footage into a tight, hour-long video. I came back on Sunday, feeling generous and excited to show my work to the family. They liked it but were perplexed….what happened to all the rest? Why would I edit it down? They wanted EVERYTHING. Accepting the fact that I’d wasted a whole day editing, I gave them all four hours of footage on two DVDs. They couldn’t have been happier – the DVD became legendary around the town with people constantly asking where they could get a copy. It was practically on repeat from the moment I gave it to them until the time I left. They’re probably watching it right now.

WEBlog 2: Arriving & Eating in Antuyo

I arrived in Antuyo on Monday morning, September 21st, unsure exactly how long I’d be staying. My arrival by car disrupted the class as all ten students ran outside to see what was up. They all instantly recognized me and, having recently edited all of the footage I had previously shot at the school, I felt like I’d already spent a full week with all of them. The shouts of “Michael” began here and continued for a full three weeks. After school, the teacher lead me to the top of the mountain to Yanet’s house so that I could speak with her parents about the possibility of my staying there. They were delighted by the prospect and offered me a room to take as my own – everyone else shared a room (and things got a bit more crowded because of my presence). They refused to take money from me, nothing for rent nor for the food they generously “forced” on me three times a day (more on this later). The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t an issue of me staying with Yanet’s family. The problem, from the perspective of the rest of the community, would be if I only stayed at Yanet’s house, as many families wanted the opportunity to host me. I was flattered but recognized this insistence as an obstacle to my filming. My hope in living in the town was to come to know a family intimately and not divide my time between many households only getting a superficial view of their life. I explained to the family (and the teacher who was facilitating the discussion) that for my purposes, since my time was limited, it was better that I stay with families who have children in the school and have the chance to get to know one or two families well as opposed to having a brief visit with so many. This discussion would come up several more times during my three week stay, but in the end I prevailed and ended up splitting my time between just two families: Yanet’s family who lived way up at the top of the hill (the furthest house from the school) and Bernardo’s family, who lived rather close to the school. Bernardo is 12-years old and is the furthest along in the class – meaning he’s the only sixth grader in a class that spans pre-school to sixth grade. In March, he’ll begin at the high school, which means he’ll have to walk about forty-five minutes down the mountain into Ahuac each morning and over an hour back (the trip is a lot longer when you’re walking uphill). Along with Bernardo is his five-year old brother, Roy, who provided much needed comic relief throughout my stay.

Both houses were pretty full. At Yanet’s I lived among her parents, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, two cows, a bull, three donkeys, two pigs, thirty-five sheep, a dog, a cat, and a number of guinea pig that roamed freely around the kitchen until their day of reckoning (Guinea Pig is considered a delicacy in the mountains). At the beginning of my stay, there was a chicken running around the house, but one night we ate well and thereafter there was no more chicken. Eating in general was a bit of an issue. Meat is a luxury (as is most protein) and is rarely eaten. The favored food group is starch – potatoes, rice, spaghetti. Most meals would start with an appetizer of raw potatoes, along with two local potato-like crops – Mashua and Oca – which would be followed by a big plate of sliced potatoes (sometimes fried, other times boiled or with a sauce) with heaping portions of rice and spaghetti. Sometimes this would be put into a soup and, if I was lucky a newly produced egg would be placed on top. Now, as you probably know by now, I love to eat. I’m rarely too full for another serving and love trying all sorts of foods. In terms of my culinary life, Antuyo was rock bottom. I simply can not eat that many potatoes. Fortunately, the appetizer of raw potatoes was served in a communal bowl and so I could fake how much of it I actually ate. The main course was a different story all together. As the guest I was given the most and as a guest, it was considered rude if I didn’t eat all that was offered to me. That didn’t mean just finishing what was on my plate. I quickly learned that I was expected to ask for and enjoy seconds. In fact, Yanet’s father usually seemed perturbed that I didn’t want thirds. When I explained that I already had two full plates, he’d always respond with, “I’ve had three plates.” “You’re bigger than me,” I’d tell him. This would make him laugh and the suggestion of thirds would be forgotten – worked like a charm every time. But I hope I’m not minimizing the challenge I faced three times a day – two heaping plates of potato, rice and spaghetti (which was served, for breakfast lunch and dinner) is no easy task. I often found myself playing the eating-encouragement game usually relegated to little kids…”Come on, Mike, just two more ‘big boy’ bites and you’ll be finished.” Drinks came in two forms: hot water with sugar or a tea-like drink that was made with water, sugar, and sliced apples. It was actually pretty delicious. All drinks were hot. On more than one occasion, after an afternoon of particularly laborious work in the hot sun, I decided it was worth the forty-five minute walk to buy a Coke in Ahuac. These brief visits into “civilization” would indeed sustain me over the course of what proved to be three difficult weeks of potatoes, cold nights, few showers, and toilet-less bathrooms.

I did have occasion to have meat a few times, however. About half-way through my stay I was sitting in the kitchen with Bernardo’s family after dinner, telling them about my own city. Everyone I spoke to about New York had very similar questions that clearly demonstrate how foreign our two worlds are: “What do you grow there?” was undoubtedly the first question anyone would ask. I’d have to explain that I lived in a city, that they we didn’t grow anything and that all of our food we bought in markets or at restaurants. “So what kind of animals do you have?” Dogs, cats, squirrels. “And what do you eat?” See, if you’re from Antuyo, that question can be answered very easily: “we eat potatoes.” I tried to explain that in my city there were people from all over the world, and so we ate, literally everything.

Well, not everything it turns out. It came out shortly after I made that comment that I had never eaten Guinea Pig. The mother seemed pleased at this prospect – “I will make it for you on Monday.” That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, I returned to Yanet’s house for several nights. In the afternoon, we were having a similar conversation which again resulted in the same discovery but now with an added caveat: “I’ve never eaten guinea pig, but Bernardo’s mother is going to make it for me on Monday.” Not wanting to be shown up by another host family, Yanet’s mother decided she’d beat them to the task and prepare guinea pig – Cuy (pronounced Coo-ey) – that night. The preparation of Cuy is a long and rather explicit process. First several Cuys are picked out of the bunch, based on size – the whole pack shrieks as it loses three of its brethren. The unfortunate few are taken outside where there necks are promptly slit and their blood drained. The Cuy is then sliced down the middle, its guts removed, tossed into a bowl and fed to the dog (who up until this point is watching along expectantly). The Cuy are then boiled, their fur removed and then sliced up, covered with some flour and fried. I was given a plate of two Cuy legs covered in a delicious, thick, red pepper sauce with potatoes on the side. I’ve gotta say, it really wasn’t that bad – a good taste and the consistency of dark meat chicken. I could however, have done without the dessert that was given to me – the much coveted jaw of Cuy. When I ate the same meal on Monday night with Bernardo’s family, Roy beat me to the task of finishing off the face. Can’t say I was upset.

It was a tough decision, but I’d have to say in the first annual Cuy making competition of Antuyo, Bernardo’s family takes the prize – the sauce was a little bit better and, as I said, I didn’t have to eat the face, which definitely made for a better experience.

WEBlog 1: A Michael Heads to the Andes

Growing up with a name like Michael can, at times, be frustrating. In elementary school there was bound to be at least one other Michael in my class and usually two others. This meant that either we’d each have to take on a derivative of the name as our own – one of us Michael, another Mike, and the third, least fortunate of us, Mikey – or, even worse we’d have to use the initial system and I’d end up being Michael K. for the whole year. The frustrations of the initial system came to an ultimate low in fourth grade during a trip to the water fountain. It was probably after gym class or recess and I along with a small group of classmates, was waiting on line. It was during this time – I think I had actually just finished my turn at the water fountain – that Roshini came up to me with some sort of important news: “Michael K., did you hear about such and such?!” Now granted, Roshini, we can’t all be blessed with such a distinct and uncommon name like yours, but for fuck’s sake, I’m the only Michael around right now! Is the “K” really necessary? It’s not that I didn’t like my name – quite the opposite, I think it’s a great one – I just wished there weren’t so many of us.

Well, in the small town of Antuyo, situated deep within the Andes Mountains, I at last got to experience the thrills and popularity that come with being the only Michael. The town consists of approximately 17 families and about 100 people, none of them named Michael. (more…)