Africa in the Hamster Ball

I’m writing this while waiting to board a delayed flight out of Cape Town and reflecting on two weeks of preparing, casting, location scouting and the infinite details that go into shooting a 22 scene web film in three days. But that’s for a later article.

It starts with the production company that wanted to take on our script for a hilariously meagre budget. Atomik Pictures, I tip my hat and remaining hair to you. You were all in for the job. No bullshit, no compromises. But today allow me talk about a line item in the budget known as the Chaperone.

I live in a suburb that is also the small town that my wife and I grew up in. It’s where we’re raising our kids. Sure we’ve travelled but I wouldn’t characterize myself as worldly and certainly not adventurous. I have ridden the New York, Paris and London subway systems. I know my way around Amsterdam on a bicycle. But as most of you readers can attest, South Africa is a rich source of hysterical, “I know a guy who knows a couple who” violent crime anecdotes.

Johannesburg Airport did little to soothe the itchy little worries that I had developed in the weeks leading up to this trip. Let’s start with a detour into a machine gun armed customs inspection and move on to a shakedown from an overly aggressive porter followed by a row of baggage transfer desks, three clerks, one sleeping, one reading a book and one playing a glowering game of confuse the hapless line of travelers.

Enter Cape Town arrivals and Michael White, chaperone and hamster ball driver extraordinaire. Ted Herman, our wizardly producer and I arrived to his soothing handshake with heads full of jet lag and paranoia. Then it was into the nice big comfy van (they call them “combis” here) and off to the hotel. Michael, clearly an expert in foreigner fear removal explained to us in his always calm voice that indeed we had entered a beautiful and wondrous

place that for all its hotels, cell phones and ice buckets, is a third world country.

In the last two weeks I attended a U2 Concert under a full moon in the freshly minted and confusingly labelled World Cup stadium, skipped nightclub lineups, sat at great tables on jaw droppingbeaches and of course, scouted, tech recce’d and shot at locations from the side of Table Mountain to a cemetery in Plumbstead. At every moment my fellow travelers and I had our every fussy need attended to from clean laundry to local cell phones to Imodium (you can ask James about that one). I’ve jogged up the hill to Cape Point lighthouse, cracked crayfish on the Indian Ocean and drunk too much wine in a vineyard that I can’t pronounce. I’ve been bit by a penguin. All without so much as a hailed cab, or a need to figure out the currency. I have been picked up and driven from set to Hotel from location to location. I haven’t walked a single block that would worry my wife.

Did I enjoy myself? Oh yeah. This job was a sheer joy. Not to say it didn’t have it’s moments, like when a storm hit while shooting a pivotal scene on the side of Table Mountain and had to rewrite and shoot it all in the last ten minutes of daylight. Then there was the five AM agency call when poor old Ted told me that our key actor had thrown his back out. Thrilling shit.

Did I really go to Africa? No not really. I got in the hamster ball and Michael (and Jonathan) rolled me from place to place. I got out at those places where all arrangements had been made. I was rolled back to my nice Westin Hotel hamster cage and fed top-notch hamster food. It was great. But it wasn’t going to Africa. Not even Cape Town – a little slice of Europe behind walls and electric fences on the bogglingly beautiful Cape of Good Hope.

We were all spoiled rotten here. And like so many travelers who have the good fortune and means to travel in such a manner, we travelled but we never really got there.

So here’s to those who stay with the backpackers, those who go to a country to meet its people where they live and work, laugh and worry. They go to a country to live it. The rest of us just go to see it.

My advice to you, and to me, is when you go anywhere ask yourself what will ring in your memory of that place. I’m guessing

that it will be when you step out of your own hamster ball and go free range.

I can’t leave this writing without expressing my profound gratitude to our Chaperones, Michael and Jonathan. This is their job until they acheive the great things that they will with the guts and sincerity that so many South Africans of all colour and background have. I write a big hug to Liz and Keah and everyone at Atomik Pictures Africa. I send a “you’re amaaaaazzzzing man” to my new best friend Director, Charley Stadler, another big hug to the mystaccly mellow and ever calming Ted Herman AKA “Doctor Schwartz” and to the client with the biggest strongest balls on earth, I say,thanks for letting us do “This is Your Time.”


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