Chapter 3: X-Rays & Muggings

Marie Laure Babouram
Marie, Chamberlin (now our husband and wife production manager team) plus Jon and I flew a few days ahead of the others, to sort out what we could, and to purchase some key props and line up all other matters including accommodation, customs clearance etc.
Getting the film stock through without being x-rayed wasn’t the most comfortable of tasks and this is one of few occasions where I envied the lives of our digital filmmaking friends.
Basically, you can’t put motion picture film stock into the ‘check in’ with your luggage as the x-rays these go through are likely to damage your film stock or even wipe it completely. 
So, we had to hand carry everything and ensure it did not go through even the hand x-ray. These days, you hardly seem to get through airport security with your pants on, let alone asking them not to x-ray a whole load of metal cans with something unknown in them.
 
DIGITAL DEMO
One interesting fact I can tell you about, on the subject of shooting digital, happened at a demonstration for a big name brand’s new digital format a couple of years back. I approached the smartly dressed gentleman after yet another demo of this new digital technology in London and asked him if I could operate the digital camera he was demonstrating.
He agreed. His demonstration had consisted of a number of locked-off angles (no camera movement) which I have to agree didn’t look bad. In between these, the camera was panned very gently around and although a little stark, it just about held up some half descent images. But I couldn’t think of one contemporary movie that would be shot like this. So I politely asked him to look at the monitor and to imagine these shots were for some sort of thriller that required action of some kind.
I panned and tilted the camera back and fourth and it couldn’t deal with the fast movement. It ‘ghosted’ in a manner reminiscent of a cheap soap opera and the same happened when waving my hand in front of the lens as if to represent an actor’s sudden movement. It looked horrible and furthermore the sheer clarity of the format when pointed at anyone’s face showed up even the subtlest blemish. What he said next finally made me understand the whole basis of this digital propaganda.
After all his enthusiasm for the technology during the demo he looked around to make sure no one else was in ear shot then whispered to me ‘Look, I agree with you, I think its s**t, I love film, but I’m paid over 40k to stand here in a suit and tell people how great it is and I’ve got kids to feed, so what am I going to do?’ I suddenly understood what it was all about… Like most things in this world; Money.
When carrying film stock through airports, we always bring a light tight ‘changing bag’ and offer the airport security the option of opening each and every one in the bag if they want. It really depends who you get on duty. Sometimes they will open them all, sometimes a select few and every now and then, they just use a swab that detects the smallest amount of gunpowder so they can be sure there is nothing dodgy in them. After some debate we were lucky enough to get this option, at least on the London side.
Sadly the only way to get to Ouagadougou from London was via Tripoli. This was unfortunate for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they have two separate x-ray procedures, one as you get off the plane, the other as you get on again for the rest of the journey. Secondly the airport waiting area in Tripoli is one of the smelliest places you could ever wish to be. The first thing to hit you is the insane amount of cigarette smoke. It appears that the locals smoke so much you see some lighting up before the first one has reached the butt.
More importantly NEVER use the toilet there. For those in parts of the world used to the toilet paper procedure, you might find a nasty surprise here, hopefully not before that point of no return. There is nothing resembling paper or soap in sight, instead each cubicle which has a hole in the ground pre-splattered with a cocktail of gut rot, also has a small hose with a little tap at the base.  This hose, if you dare touch it or the little tap, which clearly had a history I didn’t much care to be a part of, is there for washing you down afterwards. I can only guess that’s it’s a drip-dry affair from that point onwards and fingers crossed you don’t meet anyone you want to impress between there and a new pair of underwear.  Maybe this reaction was just our naivety of the tap/hose system and somewhere out there is a book detailing the horrors of the paper/flush + soap experience but unless you are able to urinate into a cubicle from ten paces I would recommend staying well away.
We had managed to get through the first x-ray by a really sneaky, pass the bag round while the guy wasn’t looking technique but, the second x-ray would not be so easy. Here they insisted on x-raying all the film or opening all the cans and physically having a look. We politely explained that would be the end of our creative endeavour and produced all sorts of paperwork but it was not happening. We were kept from boarding until last by which time various other large security type folk had gotten wind of the tension and had arrived as back up. These looked like serious guys. We were then told we either did one of these two things or we didn’t board the plane. Another tricky dilemma had occurred and we would lose either way, if we had x-rayed the film we might have gone through the whole production for no reason and if we didn’t board we would be stuck in Tripoli and not only would we not get to our location in the first place but it would be the tap/hose system for the lot of us.
We happened to know from past experience that it’s a lot of hassle for airlines to not let you board. Mainly because they have to find your checked in bags first and that’s not an easy task with the amount of passengers on board. By now we had already delayed it and the passengers who were in the waiting room were understandably agitated.   Finally the pressure of this situation resulted in a compromise. They would let us on board after opening one of the cans, then our film would have to be taken down to the hold along with our camera and lenses that we were hand carrying to avoid damage. They agreed to let us do this personally so we could be sure it was not thrown on. Then they would arrange for us to collect it the other side so it did not get thrown on the conveyer belt the other side. We agreed and thanked them for their compromise.
It turned out to be a lie just to get us on board and as soon as the others had boarded, they then said we couldn’t stand on the tarmac so someone else had to take it on.
Not only that, but when we disembarked the other end the ground staff had ‘no knowledge’ of us apparently being allowed to take some luggage off and our insisting was met with aggression. It felt like we were going to get shot by the armed police that gathered around us. We were physically manhandled onto a bus and the equipment, including loose film lenses with nothing but a layer of bubble wrap between them, were doomed to come in via the usual method of some disgruntled employees throwing them onto a conveyer belt.
We would spent the rest of the trip unsure how bashed around the camera and lenses had been with no way of testing it. We also knew that Anne and Vanessa were soon to be coming in with more stock and they would go through the same issues. We would have to find an alternative route.
 
MUGGINGS:
Not long after our arrival, I was a short distance along the street from my hotel in the centre of Ougadogou when suddenly I was grabbed from behind and a large jagged combat style knife was held against my stomach and a gravelly voice muttered something aggressive in my ear. I didn’t know what he said but I can only assume it went along the lines of ‘give me all your money or I’ll kill you’.
I could actually feel the tip of the blade digging into my stomach just to the right of my belly button, perhaps nicely inline with my intestines and I didn’t much fancy them exiting my body at this point, as the ground beneath my feet was not oozing cleanliness by any means. It would have taken a lot more than the little bottle of hand sanitizer I was carrying in my pocket to put it right.
Suddenly another smaller knife came at me from the front; this one was placed in the upright position and would have gone nicely up behind my ribcage.
Very quickly, hands were thrust in and out of my pockets and I watched my wallet, both my UK and my new local phone, my drivers licence my credit and debit cards, my Euro’s, Dollars and local currency disappear in rapid succession.
The most remarkable thing about this mugging was the fact that it was done so openly. It was not an isolated area it was the main drag. People were everywhere. In fact some passers by started to look over and point to others with an expression that said ‘Look there’s a guy getting mugged’.
That was when things took a turn for the worse. Some security guys guarding a bank opposite, with best intentions, approached the muggers wielding clubs. At this point, harsh words were exchanged between them and the muggers retreated behind me with a tighter grip. I guess I was going to be used as a sort of human shield if things got messy.
I decided my best bet was to keep a close eye on the big combat knife and not make any sudden moves. I calculated that the other knife, which was only about 4 inches in length, might have been survivable but not the big jagged one. That would have been game over.  So I watched it carefully. I didn’t want to make a sudden move straight away, but if I thought that knife was going to lunge, I would grab it as fast as I could.
It was strange, but for a moment, while these guys were shouting at each other in local language, all of that drowned-out and I started to think how what I was doing, somehow compared to a ‘test your reflexes’ game I had played some years back in a pub, where you put a coin in and waited for a red dot or something to appear before pressing a button and it would measure how fast your reaction was. I was relieved to recall I had been quite good at this game and perhaps my experiences in playing it would now emerge as the very thing that saved my life, as I grabbed his arm the moment I sensed his muscles tensing to do so.
But it wasn’t to be. Instead, one of the security guys lunged forward with an extendable cosh and the muggers simply fled. Then ensued a minor chase sequence with very little panache, in which the muggers got away on a small moped.
I was left in the street with a few concerned local folk who seemed to sympathise with my plight, but without speaking the same language all I could do was an over exaggerated impression that demonstrated I now had very empty pockets.
In fact, I couldn’t help being slightly impressed with how the muggers had managed to literally remove every little item I had on me. My room key and even a spare sim card I had, everything was gone.  As far as muggings go that was probably quite a good one. I imagined that by now they were celebrating back at their mugging headquarters trying to figure out if my hand sanitizer had any street value.
I had heard about instances where shock comes on later after a ‘traumatic event’ but it never did. I simply appreciated still being alive. In any case, to me, this mugging didn’t even compare to the violation I had felt over our equipment not being shipped.
I went back to the hotel and, apart from some hassle at reception because I had no identification to prove who I was and get a new key to my room, I actually had one of the best night’s sleep I would get the whole trip.
Little did I know that the repercussions of this incident would come somewhat later.
 
NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING
I know one thing for sure and that’s that no one knows anything. Including me. No one truly knows what will make a film successful. Some films seem to have all the right ingredients but still don’t work and then there’s an unexpected hit that doesn’t sound like much on paper but somehow becomes far greater than the apparent sum of it’s parts and rises up to become a success.  No one really knows. That’s all I really know for sure.
The rest of the cast and crew would soon arrive and I decided it was best not to tell them about the knifepoint incident. They already had their own worries about leaving their lives to come to Africa without something else to get concerned over. In any case, I genuinely felt I was to blame for the incident as I was walking alone at night and we all know you shouldn’t do that.
So after some arduous days buying props such as the old car that appears in the film, and having things like the ‘necklace of hope’ that has its own role to play specifically carved, which took numerous discussions, everyone else arrived at our meeting point in Ouagadougou before our internal flight the next morning for our coastal shoot in Accra, Ghana.
The ship would come in the next day, with the one vehicle that did make it on the boat – the old Land Rover that, had the overspill of a few props and special effects materials on it. Most importantly, it contained our guns, two replica AK 47’s and about four blank firing guns that would appear in the film on a daily basis.
We had learnt from our previous recce trip that you couldn’t just go and buy something like this in Africa. You seem to have to meet the person’s relatives and cousins first, followed normally by a chief, in some sort of hierarchy approval process and, if you veer from its natural and extremely time consuming course, you will bitterly offend someone and no longer be able to purchase the required item. This had been particularly evident in the five days it had taken us to buy our prop car, which would have been laughed out of the scrap yard back home.
We knew we could not go ahead with the shoot without at least the Land Rover and the items within that were due to arrive the next morning. We were by now resigned to the fact the that the van with the lions share of the equipment would not arrive for another month but, hell, we were going to make the best of our few days in Ghana and shoot a cracking scene on the coast: Murphy being washed up on shore on the crate.
We only had one minor blip on the way to Accra, which involved the entire crew accidentally disembarking the plane in the wrong country. We had thought we were on a direct flight from Ouagadougou to Accra and simply got off eagerly as soon as it landed only to realise once inside the airport that we were actually in Senegal. Some of us actually got as far as filling out immigration cards prior to a sprint back to the plane just before it left.
Once we got to the right country we met up with Barbara, our good friend from Lowe Lintas, the advertising agency we had shot commercials for many times in the past. She had always been an upbeat and kind hearted spirit so we felt sure we were in good hands.

Prince on location
We were also finally able to meet Prince David Osei, the co-star of the movie who was also an amazing discovery. We had considered flying an African actor out from UK or America but that would not have given us the true local flavour we were after so we put out the word for local talent to audition in Nigeria, Ghana & Burkina Faso and in walks Prince to an audition with Barbara at Lintas Ghana and he just nails it from a cold read. (His original audition footage appears on the UK DVD as a special feature). He oozed everything we wanted in that character and was incredibly talented. His presence physically was right and he had a dignity that we really wanted. He now turns out to be a lovely guy too, which was a real bonus.
Barbara had already lined up people to help make the import of the Land Rover smooth and had found a mini bus for us, which would replace the void that the van had created, for storing our luggage and the overspill of crew. She had also arranged for one of the company’s drivers Amuda, whom we had met and liked on previous shoots.
He would drive the 25 hour drive with us back to Burkina Faso after the beach shoot, then drive the mini bus 25 hours back again to collect the van when it eventually arrived at the port. He would then drive it 25 hours all the way back to us in Burkina, then take the bus 25 hours again back home. He didn’t even flinch at the thought. This man was a godsend.
So, full of optimism we sent the clearing agents ahead with some cash to get the Land Rover out from the port while we checked out the beach location. Barbara, as requested, had then gathered a number of people that would play our Zombies and we auditioned them to be sure they could do the Zombie walk and would be ok about wearing the white contact lenses. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, us foreigners coming in and asking these people to act like Zombies for us. I was braced for an uproar but it never came, so far so good.
We had also broached the subject with Barbara about the possibility of employing the services of amputees. We wanted Murphy’s arrival at shore to have some dramatic impact and the more alarming our Zombies appeared the better. We had talked to Max our special effects make up artist, about making an arm and a leg stump look like a fresh wound, if we found some suitable candidates and that was fine with him. He would just need to inspect the selected persons limbs so he could make a suitable latex appliance.

Max and his head
We had also noticed from our previous trips so Ghana that when you stopped at a traffic light in town, you would often receive a knock on the window and be confronted by an unfortunate fellow with a disability of some kind. Ranging from a blind person with a youngster in tow who would collect the coins, to someone with a missing limb or sometimes a disability so bad they would have tied the equivalent of a skateboard underneath what remained of their body so they could pull themselves along. It was very sad but this was the reality.
We were not here to save the world, I had tried that on previous trips and it doesn’t work. We were here to make a Zombie movie and, as unorthodox as it may sound, for a brief moment these traffic lights became our casting couch.
Pretty soon we had a bunch of guys in the meeting room back at Barbara’s office with various limbs missing and it would naturally be my job to explain to them that we wanted to asses their potential as Zombies, for a film in which we would make their disabilities look like fresh injuries, cover them in blood, get them to wear white contact lenses and ask them to crawl down the beach with a view towards eating a white man who would be acting terrified of them. Following this, they would be shot at point blank range in the head and we would have to rig a special effects appliance to make this happen.
It would clearly be an awkward pitch and I was starting to realise the insanity of what we had taken on but there was no time to waste, we had to get these guys on board so I explained to them, as frankly as I could, and assured them they would be safe and treated respectfully. I also made sure they got some money there and then for their time in coming in, and that seemed to secure things. Max took his measurements and that was it. They would turn up at the beach at 6am the next day, along with our previously cast Zombies, plus some other local assistance we had pulled in to keep us safe on the beach, and we would have our scene.
Everything in place, we raced off to the Port of Tema to pick up the Land Rover, but that’s when we hit our next brick wall. There was a delay in getting it out. We could literally see it there in the compound behind a fence but there was just a little issue with the paperwork.
We just needed to pay a few hundred more dollars then we were told absolutely ‘no problem’ we would have the Land Rover out the next morning. It seemed a genuinely realistic ‘no problem’ so, of course, my hand went in my pocked and out came the required money.
I quickly hatched out a new plan that some of us would go to the port at 9am, pick up the Land Rover as agreed, then nip to the beach location where certain elements would already be set up and we would still manage to get our scene as we had another day after that. Cutting down the shoot time was far from ideal. It would compromise the scene but at least we’d have a scene.
So there we were again at 9am at the noisy, smelly and bustling port of Tema. Bad news. There was another problem, but this was a very small one and there would be ‘no problem’ overcoming it. They would definitely have the car out in the afternoon, we just needed to pay a couple of hundred more for some sort of clearance. Ok, so I paid and just asked that whatever it is it be done as swiftly as possible so we could get to the shoot where people were waiting.
I felt for the disabled guys and the rest of the folks who had been given 6am as a call time. We would clearly not be there for many hours after. Calls were made to those that had mobiles and someone would go and advise the others of our delay.
Hours passed and, no matter how much we tried, that Land Rover did not leave the port. Not only that, but the customs guy had now declared it’s value as $60,000 US Dollars (at the time about £40,000 pounds) on which they would calculate import duty.
We were stunned. This was a 1982 Land Rover with a zillion miles on the clock, it was quite shabby and we had paid 500 pounds on eBay for it. We had bought a cheap one as we knew it would get knackered quickly. It was quite literally daylight robbery and there was not a thing we could do.
By now another day had gone by and we were due to leave the next day for Burkina Faso. More crew would be arriving for the second leg of the shoot, 25 hours drive away, and we would not even be there to meet them. We had to extend our trip in Ghana and get someone else to meet our crew and take them the 5 hour journey from the airport to the apartment Marie and Chamberlin had found for us.
We came back to the port the next day, begrudgingly handed over the money and expected to get the hell out of that rip-off place and start rolling some film.
It was now a Friday and the port would be closed for the weekend so, whilst we waited for the car to be released, we made the ten or so calls necessary to re schedule things and our plan would be to shoot over the weekend and leave first thing on Monday.
Things were getting a little awkward by now and our phone calls had become overly apologetic at the fact we kept cancelling and re arranging. We were starting to appear like time wasters.
Having done that, hours went by as we were kept waiting in the heat until they came back to us with yet another ‘problem’. The car was now not going to be allowed out until Monday morning. We were incensed and felt sure we were being fleeced. I started to learn that ‘no problem’ actually meant ‘there is going to be a major problem but its not in my best interest to tell you that at this juncture’
To this day, I still can't believe how they sustained it, but we endured another ten days at that hellhole of a port. They were so convincing when they told us, definitely, 100%, ‘no problem’, we just need a little more to pay for the ‘release fee’, the ‘gate charge’ the ‘filing fee’ the ‘exit stamp’ or whatever. Each one would be the last thing we needed to do. You would have to have been there to believe it.
By this time, we had created a huge hotel bill and food expenses in Accra and another one was mounting up in Burkina Faso with the rest of the crew who were sitting there doing nothing. Not only that, but morale was getting really low and it would now be difficult to convince anyone to turn up even when we did get the vehicle out.
We had not rolled a frame of film and we were exhausted.
On top of this, the crew who were waiting in Burkina Faso were running out of cash and were low on food and water. I managed to get a call through to Lucy, our Focus Puller, after many attempts on what was an incredibly poor network. Lucy had been a great asset on many of our commercial shoots and she had flown down from Manchester to London, from London To Tripoli, Tripoli to Ouagadougou and then took a 5 hour bus ride to the apartment we had hired. She had cancelled another shoot and a holiday to be there on our word that she would have a ‘great adventure’. She had been in Burkina Faso for over a week with people she had never met.  It was a little after 3pm and she had not eaten the entire day. I had to get pretty good at the apology call.
Amir had been getting my frustrated texts and calls regarding the fact that we had not been able to get started and to please ‘send more money’ as quickly as possible. I was wondering if he was having second thoughts about becoming our executive producer but he tried to remain upbeat. He had made two bank transfers to Marie’s local account, one of which was over ten days prior, and it had still not arrived. I no longer had any bankcards since my mugging and I would have to wait for my bank to send them to my home address and for them to be sent on to me.
Jon, who had never been known for his patience, had been growing increasingly frustrated at the port. Perhaps it was the heat, the noise, the smell, the huge room full of people that barged past you as they all tried to shout the loudest to get their shipment out. Or perhaps it was the fact that he was witnessing his dream project going nowhere fast, but he just lost the plot.
He couldn’t contain his anger anymore and started pacing back and fourth shouting every swearword he could conjure. He was also lashing out, bashing his fists into his hands verbalising what he would like to do to the people putting us through this and how he would like to ‘burn this place to a cinder with every official inside’. I had to get him out of there fast before we were lynched.

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