Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sup 'n Me

A friend returned to town this week. Like many men here, he had gone to El Norte in search of work, and had been away for four months. One of the first things he asked me was about my time spent with the Zapatistas last May. "Jesus, dude, it's all been on the stupid blog," I started to say, and then I realized, well, no it hadn't. Somehow, while wasting valuable internet space bitching about my overzealous cleaning lady or posting goofy pictures of the dog, I never managed to get around to writing up my experience with the compañeros. Burro Hall - we're all about priorities. So, since August is typically a slow news month...

How does a gringo who’s been in the country less than a year wind up passing an evening with Marcos? (El Sup to his pals...though to be clear, if I were to show up unannounced tomorrow, I'd probably be shot.) I'm not at liberty to say! Specifically, because the whole thing was set up through channels I had nothing to do with. Marcos had agreed to the interview before I ever got involved. So what did they need me for, you ask? Good question! Everyone knows that 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters could produce a tv show every bit as good as a human could, and at a fraction of the cost - but have you ever smelled 1,000 monkeys? If you’re not prepared to clean all those cages and maintain all those typewriters, you call me. I’m the next best choice. (Assuming the first five guys you call are busy, I mean.)

Usually, as a producer, I would play a pretty significant role in conceiving the story, doing the preliminary reporting, coming up with a general outline and, most importantly, prepping the correspondent for the interview. Except that in this case I had never spoken to Marcos, would not have the chance to before the interview, and had no idea what he wanted to talk about or what he might say in response to any of the questions we might think up. On top of it all, Marcos wanted to do the interview in English. This sounds like good news, but the only recording I could find of him was, to put it kindly, not very promising. You can always dub or subtitle over Spanish, but garbled English is a big problem.

Also, owing to the EZLN’s almost paranoiac security-consciousness, we wouldn’t be told where or when the interview would be until shortly before it was to take place.

So that's what I signed up for: to spend tens of thousands of someone else’s dollars bringing a jet-lagged, poorly-briefed correspondent together with a man I had never met, who is cryptic and often unintelligible in his own language and would be speaking broken English through a balaclava. I had no clear idea what we were going to talk about, or whether a band of masked guerrillas could be counted on to provide me with an interview location that would satisfy the particular sound, light and space requirements of Hi-Def television. We also didn’t know how long we’d have to sit around, with over half a dozen people on the clock, waiting for this interview to happen or, once it did, how long it would actually last. An hour? Ten minutes?

That this would be a disaster was pretty much a foregone conclusion; it was the potential scale of the disaster that intrigued me. I mean, if you're going to completely implode your own career, you might as well have a pair of $85,000 HDV cameras there to capture the moment, right? So off we went to Mexico City, with me technically in charge of a shoot over which I had virtually no control.

I should probably mention that the Zapatistas had absolutely no editorial control or input whatsoever (in fact, a DVD of the finished piece was only delivered to them a few weeks ago, and I have yet to hear a reaction). What they did have was logistical control. They even asked for my resume. (I'm guessing the Queen Latifah profile sealed the deal.) I wanted to use at least one Mexican crew, to cut down on travel costs, but they nixed it, saying they didn't want any Mexicans involved. Foriegner are more or less all the same to them, but Mexicans...that's a little more complicated, and you never know who might have loyalties or connections they'd prefer to avoid. (And yet, when we discovered that the Mexico City crew we wanted were actually foreign-born, they were approved, even though they'd lived in Mexico for many years.) Obviously, they would pick the interview location in Mexico City (Marcos was expected to be there, not in Chiapas around the proposed interview date.) In Chiapas, our drivers, who would take us into EZLN-controlled territory, would be approved by them. Annoyingly, my request that our cameraman be allowed to ride with Marcos to and from his rallies in Mexico City was turned down because of "security concerns." So the Zapatistas were worried that we might be Mexican intelligence agents, while I was worried that the actual Mexican intelligence agents who always follow these guys around would think we were Zapatistas. (The Mexican Constitution is pretty clear that "Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country," and I've paid a good chunk of my rent here in advance.) Multi-layered paranoia was the order of the day.

And...Wow, this is rambling on, no? I suppose we'll just have to do this is serial form. Let's end here by saying the final element over which I had no control was that all this happened on or around May 5, which happens to be when Cinco de Mayo was held this year. I'd always assumed this was a fake holiday invented by the Corona-USA Marketing Dept., and that actual Mexicans had never even heard of it. In fact, there would be a two-day party raging in the overpriced hotel we were supposed to be sleeping in - while, outside my window, 18,000 people would be milling around naked, as part of a Spencer Tunick photo shoot. And this was probably the least-weird part of the whole weekend.


Anonymous said...

About that necklace with the beaded medallion he is wearing -- they used to sell them at Teepee Town. You may not have known that you could buy them there. You're not alone. Al Sharpton didn't either.

Burro Hall said...

Ah, the White Man! No wonder they Indians love them so. Actually, it was a gift from the Cucapás, in Baja California, who have been fighting a losing battle against the Mexican gov't for the right to keep fishing in the same waters they've been using for 9,000 years, give or take. But you knew that.