Thoughts and Reflections
I was the Field Producer for The Power of the Poor. As Field Producer it’s my job to make sure that everything is pre-arranged and goes smoothly before and during the shoot. This includes booking travel for the crew and talent, location scouting and negotiating, getting releases from all participants and locations, payments, meal planning, transportation etc. etc. The production locations for The Power of the Poor included several developing countries. Shooting in developing countries can be challenging and unpredictable so I did a fair amount of worrying about what to expect when we worked there. Fortunately, the ILD, Hernando de Soto’s organization, were located in Lima Peru and had some contacts in Tanzania and Albania so were able to help with access to locations there. Every place we went was memorable in its own way. Here’s the short version of my Field Producer observations in Tanzania, Albania, China, Japan and Peru...
Tanzania Biggest Challenge
: Getting into the country as a video crew. It took about 3 months to get Journalist Visas and we had to hire a local contact to continually appear at the Visa Office in Dar Es Salaam and prod the process along. And the visas were expensive. Things I Shouldn’t Have Worried About So Much Beforehand
: Working with the Maasai people to illustrate conflict resolution and “bottom-up” law. We connected with a group of Maasai elders through our ILD contact and explained what we wanted to do the same day we flew from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, in the north. The next day we were welcomed into a Boma (a small community of round, mud dwellings) and worked with an extended family of goat and cattle herders. They were fascinated with our equipment and more than willing to cooperate with us. Lifetime Memory
: Working with de Soto in a dry, hilltop town an hour from Dar es Salaam and seeing him connect with the local town officials who had designed their own property transfer documents. They were happy to share their original work with him and he was amazed by the official and legal authority of the contracts, originating from the people. He was comfortable and kind with these small town officials and made them feel proud of what they had accomplished.
Albania Biggest Challenge
: Finding a couple who were planning to marry the same week we were shooting and convincing them to allow an American documentary crew to attend and shoot the ceremony and reception. We met the groom at a café and had a lengthy, get-to-know-you chat before he talked to his fiancée about us and they agreed to it. Our scripted segment was built around a wedding. Things I Shouldn’t Have Worried About So Much Beforehand
: Getting into the country as a video crew. I called the Albanian consulate in the US repeatedly before we left to ask what kind of visa we would need to enter the country. They said we didn’t need a visa at all. I was skeptical. When we arrived, we walked into the airport without ever being stopped, without going through customs or even getting our passports stamped. Easiest entry into any country ever. Lifetime Memory:
Seeing that first, distant view of the amazing, Mediterranean coastline with no buildings or people in site for miles and miles. Imagining what it will become.
China Biggest Challenge
: Finding old China in Shanghai. The city is so modern and changing so fast that it was almost impossible to find “before” shots. When we found a few streets that were still unrenovated and began to shoot the people around the neighborhood, Jim (our DP) was detained by the police and questioned extensively before being released. He was politely told that it would be better not to use the footage in our program. Thing I Shouldn’t Have Worried About So Much Beforehand
: Walking around Shanghai with de Soto for on-camera, off the cuff commentary, without specific permission. We went to the most popular streets and shot with absolutely no interference from the authorities. After Jim’s experience, I was nervous. Lifetime Memory
: Driving around, looking for a small farm within half an hour of the Shanghai airport for Jeffrey Reidinger’s interview. He only had a couple of hours to spare before he was leaving China. We drove up to a small farm, met the family and were warmly welcomed to do anything we wanted on their property, including interview them. They were very open with us.
Japan Biggest Challenge
: Getting permission to shoot in General MacArthur’s office in the Dai Ichi Insurance building in Tokyo. It took a couple of months to convince them to allow it since nobody had been allowed to film there since 9/11. We were the first. Thing I Shouldn’t Have Worried About So Much Beforehand
: Shooting with de Soto on the famous Bullet Train in Tokyo. They made it very complicated and expensive to get permission and we only wanted a few, short comments about the Japanese economy. So we bought tickets and got on board with our small camera and shot Hernando in his seat after the conductor had come through to collect tickets. Lifetime Memory
: The size of the hotel room in Tokyo. It was so tiny that we had to remove the reading chair and climb over equipment cases to get to the bed. And the number of people on the sidewalks, 24 hours a day.
Peru Biggest Challenge
: Capturing the Peru experience in a way that communicates the profound desire of the poor to better their lives and those of their children. We got to know so many families and learn their stories and the obstacles they’ve faced. Lifetime Memory
: The joyful land titling ceremony and celebration in El Palomar was an amazing thing to witness. It was the realization of a dream for an entire village.
There are times in one’s life where, if you’re lucky, you are blessed with a true epiphany or two. On this project, I was constantly being buffeted by epiphanies. This entire project has given me a deeper, first person, slap-you-in-the-face regard for the overwhelming difficulties the majority of humanity face.
My first big realization came with the awareness that the great economic achievement in the US and the West is only a couple of hundred years old and was built on a foundation that is, to most of us, as invisible as air. The deeper I got into the project, the more the point was hammered home to me: our laws are not the same as in most countries, and that has made all the difference in the world. I mean, how many times a day do you ever think of things like limited liability, asset partitioning, or title repositories? You don’t, but they are greasing the wheels of commerce, and therefore productivity, for you every day.
Of course, science, technology, natural resources, and such are critical. But law is the sine qua non. The fact that our economic growth would have been impossible without law was a real eye-opener for me, as was learning that two thirds of the world’s people are poor and locked outside the legal system.
With every country we traveled to, these lessons were repeated and embellished. We saw case after case of intelligent, ambitious people who were hamstrung because of bureaucracy. They were often college graduates. All worked harder than I do—and I work pretty hard. If they were citizens of the US or European Union, for example, most would find it a lot easier to form businesses, own property, get credit, and most would not be having problems feeding their families today.
Making these two documentaries has also granted me a greater appreciation for how revolutionary the American founders were in their belief that all men should be able to own land.
Before them, only royalty and warlords held land. In 1800, three percent of the human race owned property. Even today, the majority of real estate on earth is held by just a few individuals. About 15 percent of humanity owns all of the land on earth, and they are mostly middle class inhabitants of the developed world. Only in the developed nations is private property — and a large middle class--widespread.
As I produced this project, I also saw just how truly revolutionary the 19th century was. That’s when the world’s economic boom started. Before that, people had basically the same standard of living that they’d had for the preceding two thousand years. Even Europe and the US were about as poor as developing nations are today.
Before the 19th century, the fastest a man could travel was only as fast as a Roman on horseback. It took Louis the XIV six weeks to get across France in a bumpy carriage ride.
But since 1800? Boom! The steam engine, railroad, the corporation, indoor plumbing, electricity, and other 19th century developments have all transformed our lives so much that it’s hard to conceive that the last two centuries have been a great exception rather than the rule for human living. The standard of living of the middle class in the developed world today is far better than the royalty of old. People take it for granted that the world today is pretty much as it was before, but that is so not true.
All my lessons weren’t just intellectual lessons. I met and became friends with many wonderful, smart, honorable people in Peru, Albania, China, and Tanzania.
In Albania, we worked with Robert Budina. He and his wife, Sabina, are highly skilled film and theatrical producers and live a solid middle class life. But every day they lose their electricity for several hours, due to the problems the electric company has with people that “borrow” electricity. That means they also lose water pressure, often right in the middle of shampooing their hair or cooking dinner.
At the wedding in Albania I was surprised to see how well everyone, young and old, danced. Not just waltzes or polkas, but fox trots, two steps, cha-cha, merengue, salsa, as well as traditional Albanian dancing, which is still popular, and more. At least the Stalinist dictators didn’t prohibit dancing. They brought in Cuban communists as advisors and the Cubans left them with a lot of good music and Latin dancing skills.
But in order to afford their wedding, the couple we followed had to work in Italy. In fact, Albania loses tens of thousands of its best and brightest every year, as they emigrate to greener pastures, to places where they can better prosper.
I was stunned by how beautiful Albania was. It is a relaxing place with a Mediterranean climate and a topology much like Croatia and Greece.
In Peru, I was amazed to learn how millions of people could live in a dry, dusty desert hills surrounding Lima, with no running water, no plumbing indoor or out, and no credit. Still, the houses we visited were all very clean, well swept, and organized.
The wide-open corruption and low level of economic ability in Tanzania surprised me as well. It was the first time that I had ever been in a nation with such a small manufacturing sector. It borders on being invisible. They cannot even make their own bicycles.
But Africans are strong. Everywhere we went, we saw people walking long distances, 10 or 20 miles, between towns (probably just as our forefathers did not 100 or more years ago). Maasai herders—often young boys—spend many hours on their feet taking care of their animals. They only eat when they return to home at night.
We were there during Ramadan and our driver, Hafidh, fasted the entire time we were there. He went many, long, hot, dusty days with no food or water from sunup to sundown.
Shanghai’s incredible energy and growth reminded me of my home town of Chicago. Shanghai, too, is a “city of big shoulders, stormy, husky, brawling.” A city, ruled by engineers, that works.
At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York and in a small mining town in Colorado I discovered how closely the United States of old resembles developing nations of today. We criticize the squatters of Brazil or Indonesia for destroying their forests to create farmland, but in the 19th century US, American squatters moved onto lands they didn’t own and cut down the forests, as well. That lumber built cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. We are horrified at the sweatshops in Indonesia, India, and elsewhere, but slums in 19th century New York City were packed with sweatshops.
With all the traveling we did on the project, some 30,000 thousand miles, including one around the world trip, I had the opportunity to spend hours peering down at the earth below. My father was a geologist and my mother a painter, and from the air they both come together. The earth is a beautiful place from 35,000 feet.
While I love traveling, I always enjoy coming home to Chicago. Yes, the American system could be better, but it works well for the vast majority of us. Our standard of living and quality of life is so much better than most of the world and most of human history. The fact that it is based on such an abstract, ephemeral foundation—property and business law — just blows my mind.
As a cinematographer, I’m drawn to images: a farmer working a field with a team of bulls and a simple plow—his wife pulling the weeds before the earth is turned over; a poor family struggling to survive on an impossibly steep hillside, living in a shack constructed of reeds and covered by a scavenged tin roof. I frame the entrepreneur setting up shop against incredible odds, scratching out a living in an inhospitable economic and political environment.
As I photograph the village elder of the tribal Maasai striding into a settlement, I think that this scene would have looked the same hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.
A Chinese woman tends her fishpond and feeds her pigs and chickens. We communicate with nods and smiles, gestures and pantomimes. All the while I struggle to frame the images to help portray the underlying truth of what I know to be these people’s reality.
Touring the world’s slums would seem to be a trying and difficult experience. So much poverty around. So many people living from meal to meal with very little in the way of personal comforts. Parents strive to give their families more and yet so many children are doomed to short and difficult lives. It sounds hopeless, depressing.
But in fact that is not what I experienced. Instead, I found people who are hardworking and resourceful. At every turn I met people who had hope for themselves and for their children’s futures—people who were willing to spend relatively huge sums to educate their sons and daughters. And perhaps most surprisingly, most of those people whose lives we captured for television are not depressed or downtrodden at all, but warm, friendly, smiling, curious and eager to join the rest of the world.
Working with Hernando de Soto and seeing the world through his lens, made me understand that the people I met could have the opportunity to realize their dreams. Given political, economic and personal freedoms, I believe they will stun us with their ability to change the world—even our world.