I like to show a picture of my frantic self in a sinking boat on a river somewhere in the jungles of South America, trying to bail out the boat with a soup plate. “That’s what the producer’s job is,” I say. “You have to keep the boat afloat.” Producers of documentaries, in stark contrast to their cousins in the feature film world, are frequently tasked with the least-glamorous jobs on the set because somebody has to do it. It’s not a very good role for a narcissist.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, but I also believe the producer must ensure that everyone involved in the production – on either side of the camera – is happy. When filming in cultures very different from ours, nearly every encounter is fraught with potential misunderstanding and so, the producer needs to cultivate diplomatic skills. A strong stomach is a good idea, too; whereas in our culture refusing to eat something sketchy might be excused as “I’m on a diet” or “I’m a vegetarian” or “I’m allergic to gluten”, in many cultures a refusal to share food and drink is an explicit insult to the host and the host’s family.
I found myself in such a situation when I was filming in Ecuador during the ancient Inkan festival of the Sun, Inti Raymi. I had flown in ahead of the 2-person crew to meet the locals, coming direct from New York City to Quito, and the next day drove to a Ketchwa village in the mountains – elevation 13,000 feet. My head felt as if someone was trying to stuff a VW bus into it sideways. When the chief’s wife offered me a bowl of corn beer, I turned green and said no thank you, while my guides tried to explain the concept of altitude sickness. She turned away from me and the day grew cold. Permission to film in the village was withdrawn.
A few days later the crew arrived and I was feeling much better. We were filming an Inti Raymi celebration in a little town in the Andes, and it was a gloriously chaotic and colorful event of dancing, music, and singing, with men in masks and goat-fur chaps prancing wildly about. The cameraman was sweating nervously, unsure of what to capture in the crowded plaza, and the sound man with his boom was trying to stay upright. That’s when I spotted the guy in the Blue Meanie mask, making his way towards my crew with a couple of glasses and a bottle of clear liquid. Uh oh.
So I stepped in front of them with my arms outspread and loudly proclaimed in very bad Spanish that I was La Directora of the filmacion, and if my men had some drinks the filmacion would be all wiggly, at which point I did my best imitation of a drunken film strip. And then I chugged the two glasses of firewater meant for the crew, smiled, and asked for more. The entire party loved it. They left the guys alone to film the event, and dozens of times my performance of an inebriated film was replayed as if it was the best joke in the world. Of course, many more glasses of firewater were consumed, but the day’s shoot was saved in more ways than one.
By chance the chief’s wife from the first village, who I had so offended, happened to be at the party that day. She forgave me and christened me La Compañerita, “Little Friend”, and that became my new name in Ecuador. No matter where we went in Ecuador after that – village, town, or city – some stranger would call out “La Compañerita!” and act out a drunken film strip to a delighted audience. I of course would be the guest of honor at yet another round of firewater. Imaginations can fill in the toll that these celebrations took on my body, but somebody had to do it.