My Gaffer of Choice

Brickaville, Madagascar
March 30, 2001

We are driving to Brickaville, a small village up the mountains, by the river. The trip took around an hour and with spectacular scenery. It’s a scene from Chow Yun Fat’s last Hong Kong flick “Peace Hotel” with all the rough looking extras. It has a very frontier flavour. But instead of challenging us to a gunfight, the town folks are friendly and invite us into their homes for drinks instead.

Cheuk and I spot a familiar little old Chinese lady filling a liquor bottle. Homemade moonshine seems to be a popular business here. We recognize the Lai’s from a Hong Kong TV Doc “Stories From Afar”.

They invite us into their home for tea and homemade moon cake. Once inside, I’m transplanted back to China. The dated décor of Chinese posters and artifacts bring me back to my ancestral village in Toishan. The only give away is the Malagasy servants who still iron clothes in the adjacent shack using museum artifact coal heated irons. But they have two modern refrigerators and TV. So there is electricity. Go figure?

Kwoi cleaning camera at Yan Yan
Kwoi cleaning camera at Yan Yan

I hate to say impossible. It makes me feel like a quitter. But there are certain situations that we just cannot shoot. The streets here are pitch black at night. The only illumination comes from the headlights of infrequent vehicles whizzing by. I guess the infrastructure doesn’t make allowances for extras like street lighting. I’m maxing out the gain so much that I’m crushing the blacks in my DV signal.

A gaffer once commented that I have an anti lighting style. Oh well…blame it on budget, location, Dogme and cinema verité! I think “style” is really about “choice” rather than “concept”. It should really be “organic” instead of “imposed”.

We had an interview set up with this eccentric old guy Roger Leung who hangs out at Hotel Joffre. He stood us up but caught up with us at the airport lounge later on. We had checked my Steadicam, lighting and audio gear on board by then. Cheuk and I took him out to the runway. You can still get away with shit like that in Third World airports but you cannot retrieve your gear once it’s checked in.

I was stuck on this imaginary, unmotivated “line of light” to suggest the old man’s passage of time in exile. I would have needed Arcs or Par lights for that kind of effect even in this feeble, fading, magic hour light. I had no choice but to flare the lens on purpose.

A stretch of open run way… as my human Steadicam parries around the old man… magic hour light flickers through his silhouette… flaring the lens… with a little help from God, my Gaffer of Choice. I stay a beat before chancing the limits a little more… EUREKA! The old man picks up on my lead and follows through the move to gaze enigmatically into the setting sun… He’s over exposed for a few seconds… Just as I’m about to crank down the iris, my Gaffer of Choice comes through once more with the sun dropping under the horizon.

It looks great on my LCD. It’s the beginning of a beautiful partnership as my Gaffer and I fly off into the sunset. My reading material on this flight was ironically Douglas Copland’s LIFE AFTER GOD!