Shooting internationally can be an incredible experience. Over the years, our team at Cooke Media Group has produced programming in more than 60 countries around the world, and we’ve only experienced a handful of bad incidents. That’s not to say things haven’t been difficult – like when we did an interview with a Brazilian drug dealer while his gang held a gun on our cameraman, or when my crew was arrested at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, or when we got caught up in a military coup.
There’s been more, but you get the picture. During it all, we’ve learned a few things about how to keep those incidents to a minimum, so the next time you produce an overseas project, maybe this list will help:
1) Be infinitely flexible. The only thing you can depend on internationally is that you can’t depend on anything. Don’t get frustrated or angry. Assume things will go wrong, and you’ll be ready. (That’s a good rule for any location.)
2) Be respectful of local cultures. Shooting in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem recently, we connected with a friend who arranged for us to shoot from his grandmother’s roof. The shot was amazing, but afterwards his grandmother asked us to stay for tea. Even though we were on a tight schedule, of course we did it. To refuse would have been impolite, especially after she opened her roof to us. Now, we have a long term relationship with a new friend.
3) Don’t bring your country’s sensibilities into a international situation. I’m impatient, hate to wait, and want to move. But in at least one country, it’s customary to buy the film crew a full breakfast before you start shooting. Trust me – waiting until they’ve eaten is worth it. By respecting their rules and customs, they’ll work much harder.
4) There’s your time and international time. Know how punctual people are wherever you shoot, and then plan with that in mind. They’re not going to change cultural habits that have been in place thousands of years for your documentary schedule.
5) Have an in-country insider who can help you navigate. I won’t shoot in Israel without Eitan Alon, our long time Israeli producer. He knows the ropes, knows who to talk to, when we need permits, where to get good deals, where the hospitals are, how (and if) we need the police, etc. I have someone similar in other countries as well. If at all possible, know someone on the inside of the country you can trust with your life. Sure you should do your own homework, but you’ll never know a country like someone who lives there.
6) Don’t assume because someone doesn’t speak your language that they’re not intelligent. That shouldn’t need explaining.
7) Become local. When you’re working in-country, eat the food, drink the local drinks, adapt to their schedule, and become one of them. Don’t be a tourist. You’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll learn when you experience it first hand.
8) If you’re ever in a volatile situation or a situation that could become volatile, keep a cool head. Losing control doesn’t help – ever.
9) Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the local culture. Learn to say thank you in the local language. Knowing simple things like the fact that it’s not appropriate for a man to shake hands with a devout Muslim woman can save you a lot of grief.
10) Money matters. Know exchange rates, and where to get the best prices. In most places, ATM’s have the best exchange rate. If you’re going to be there a long time with a big budget, develop a relationship with a bank.
11) Know the differences between respect and offense. For instance, in some cultures, tipping is a public matter, and others, a private one. Without knowing the difference, your “tip” may be considered a bribe. In one Middle Eastern country, we tipped a gentleman for helping us get permission to film by quietly slipping the money in his pocket.
12) When you land in a foreign country, go to the official taxi stand, and not one of the more aggressive guys offering you a ride. (That’s good advice anywhere.)
13) Security matters. Use the in-room safe if you have one. Put on the do not disturb sign when you’re not in the room. Make duplicate hard drive copies of your work and give to people traveling differently. If you’re in a sketchy place – tape over expensive looking equipment logos, don’t flash money, watch out for crew members. Beware of pickpockets and scam artists. When someone asks for help, chances are they don’t need it – they’re a scam artist. Learn to ignore crazy people. The less distracted you are, the more you can focus on your safety and security.
I could go on, but this is a good start. For those of you who spend a lot of time shooting internationally, do you have any other important suggestions to add?