Recently, No Film School accompanied former Army Ranger and current activist, consultant, and filmmaker Ford Sypher, along with a small crew, on a 19-hour drive (through what could be described, charitably, as 'inclement weather,' or, less charitably, as a hellish and terrifying ice storm) from NYC to Lawrence, Kansas. Sypher is in preproduction on a documentary shooting later this year in the Upper Yagua in Peru, a region currently experiencing an unprecedented boom in coca production, making it one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. In Kansas, Sypher and crew interviewed Bartholomew Dean, a renowned anthropologist and professor at the University Of Kansas, and also paid a visit to the William S. Burroughs house, where the iconic writer spent the last two decades of his life.
Heading to Kansas
Last year, we covered Anchor Me Here, a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, directed by Laura Egan and produced by Ford Sypher (and a finalist in the Abel Cine-sponsored Phantom Miro High-Speed Inspiration Challenge). Sypher, a Kansas native, spent time after high school in the jungles of Peru with Professor Bartholomew Dean, Oxford and Harvard-educated professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. A former Army Ranger who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sypher participated in relief after Hurricane Sandy as a member of Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization composed of veterans, which is how he became involved in Egan's film.
Because of Sypher's Lawrence, Kansas connections, we also stayed at the home of the late William S. Burroughs, writer and cultural icon, probably most famous as the author of Naked Lunch (one of the best and most controversial novels of the 20th century). A 1991 movie adaptation of the book was one of the odder (and that's saying a lot) entries in David Cronenberg's filmography. This year, the writer would have turned 100 years old, and events around Lawrence are celebrating his life and work:
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtflS5wCbjw
Famous for his charming and chemically laconic manner, Burroughs was also an occasional actor, appearing most notably in Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant's 1989 classic about addicts in the Pacific Northwest (no hats on the bed!):
Interview with Ford Sypher
Back in New York, NFS sat down with Ford Sypher about the project.
NFS: First off, how did you get interested in film, and did any of your military skill set transfer to documentary filmmaking?
Ford Sypher: I've had an interest in filmmaking from a young age, and my military experience and the ability to orchestrate multiple agendas within a time-constrained environment was definitely a plus. It certainly helps with logistics! Also, I was inspired by working with Carlos Beltran [ed. note: not the outfielder for the NY Yankees], a Venezuelan filmmaker who is doing important work in Venezuela and Colombia.
(In this unsubtitled, harrowing video, shot by Beltran in 2012, gang members in Caracas, Venezuela, discuss their guns, the hopelessness of the situation in the country, and the endemic violence and corruption):
NFS: You've mentioned that you think there's a need for a different kind of video journalism. Could you elaborate?
FS: I think there's a gap that's not being filled. Right now, there's a need for high-quality, professional documentary pieces that are indexical and shot at the site where the conflict is taking place. There's clearly a lack of academically supported work within the alternative channels that are available, and which are the best way to reach the youth demographic, who are not engaged by traditional news media. Right now, there seems to be a voyeuristic, almost hedonistic trend in video journalism, and I think young people are smarter than that and will respond to intelligent, thoughtful pieces. Young Americans know there's a big world out there, and I think smart content that doesn't condescend will get through to them. Cynicism is not what's called for here.
NFS: What sort of film crew are you envisioning taking to these zones? I know you're planning on going to Peru and the Middle East, and these can be some pretty dangerous places.
FS: We're going to be in war zones and conflict zones, places where there's a bit more tumult than your average day, and that's going to lead, by necessity, to some improvised problem solving. I think that the right kind of young indie filmmakers are going to be ideally suited to this kind of work, because they bring a certain aesthetic sense that a lot of journalism lacks and which, quite frankly, is a necessity for getting through to young people, who are hungry for this type of content but who have also grown up on beautiful images. As far as crew size, it depends on the situation; as a rule, though, I'm a proponent of the concept of only being able to manage three people at once. If you're going to a war zone, you're obviously not going to bring a big production crew, you're not going to have production assistants handing out iced coffee. Being able to manage a small crew as a self-contained team, mostly freelancers at this point in time, is really what we're looking to do.
NFS: So I imagine you'd make sure they're physically fit?
FS: Oh, that's a requirement. You may have to rely upon someone to help you over a wall, and you can bring out what you bring in. What I mean by that is, you need to be able to carry the weight you brought with you--you need to be able to carry your bags, your equipment, and not rely on someone else to do it for you.
NFS: What stories do you have coming up, and what do you hope to accomplish?
FS: We have a few stories on deck right now. Right now we're working on the piece in Peru: we'll be covering the boom in one of the highest coca producing regions in the world, where there's tremendous violence, illegal mineral extraction and ecological destruction, and a fight for the preservation of indigenous rights, among other things. Among the groups I'll be covering will be Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group who are branching into narco-terrorism because of the tremendous money involved, whereas before they would never have been involved in drugs for ideological reasons, though they've always been tremendously violent. And we're developing a couple of pieces in Africa, as well as a piece in the Middle East, but we're watching as those situations unfold.
NFS: We have a large readership: are you looking for crew people, editors, that sort of thing?
FS: I think we're always looking to meet good people who do good work; this is not a snarky endeavour and we appreciate working with individuals who produce high-level content and have interest in international affairs and human rights.
NFS: Finally, what do you see as the main difference between fighting in a war versus reporting on one?
FS: I've shot in South Sudan, and I've shot in Caracas when there were more homicides there than in Baghdad, and I'd been in Iraq and Afghanistan the previous years. For me, you're a social participant, whether you're holding a camera or you're holding a weapon, and there's a false objectivity that people sometimes try to claim when they bring a camera into these situations which is dangerous in and of itself, because to be unbiased isn't human and I think we need to resolve ourselves to the fact that we come with our past experiences when we come through the door and take that photo. I can't necessarily divorce myself from that, but you do have a different position and are a different type of social actor. (Ford Sypher can be contacted at f.sypher [at] gmail.com)
The footage in Kansas was shot by Brooklyn-based DP Ryan DeFranco, who was also the DP on Anchor Me Here, which is how he met Sypher; he can be contacted through his Twitter, or at ryan.defranco [at] gmail.com. Ryan shoots, color grades and edits with his partner Sanja, and rents out "a slew of Arri, OConnor, Cooke and all sorts of support equipment to anyone with a story." For the shoot, he used an Ikonoskop and a set of tiny Switar primes: a 10mm, a 16mm, a 25mm, and a 50mm Macro. He rented a little CCTV zoom lens for the interviews, which malfunctioned in the blizzard temperatures of Kansas. Of the rig, he says:
Sometimes it's nice to shoot an interview with a prime. A tiny camera follows the subject around, moves in close when appropriate, gives distance when it's needed. Instead of trying to get the subject so bored by the camera they relax, you make the camera a tiny exciting little extension of your eye and move with them. This is what the Ikonoskop was pretty much made to do. We carried half a terabyte worth of solid state media, four 1 terabyte USB-3 drives, and a Macbook Retina. On set we used Shotput Pro to download, then ran the footage through Resolve to verify, marry sound and picture, and set a best-light color grade.
Sypher hopes to have the piece finished by the summer, and NFS will be sure to keep you updated.
Additional production assistance was provided by Greg Finch and Elliot Ikheloa.
And, just because, here is a collaboration Burroughs did with Kurt Cobain, who was in some band:
Be sure to check out more at the links below.