Shooting In Mali - Africa
Published : 17th May 2005
I'm a steadicam-operator/cameraman from Germany and have a shoot in Mali coming up.
I have never worked in Africa and would be glad to get some advice what I have to watch out for. We are shooting BetaSP, possible with Pro35.
Are there any hazards I have to look for? (Dust / Humidity / Heat)? Will a TFT-Monitor from my Steadicam work normally in conditions like this? What about Batteries?
Any Info on shooting Video in very hot conditions would be really great!
Thank you all!
Sebastian, I've shot in Mali and have a shoot there later this year.
Mali is hot, very hot. Especially right now. Temperatures are often 130 degrees Fahrenheit there in April and May. June cools off a bit. That's not a typo, it really is that hot. And when the Harmattan, the desert wind from the Sahara blows, you will get sand in everything, even under the LCD display of a cell phone if you're not extremely vigilant in your sand proofing.
If you've shot in an American desert or the American South, you're 80% of the way ready to shoot in Mali. Culture is different - don't wear shorts, for example. Always long pants and/or sleeves, especially in the villages, regardless of temperature.
You don't say where you're shooting in Mali. I've shot in Bamako, the capitol city. I've also shot in the Sikasso region and in Timbuktu - spelled "Tombouctou" in Mali. When we were in Timbuktu, it was around 115 Fahrenheit (44 or so Celsius, I think) and that wasn't a very hot day for them.
Heat - expect plenty of it. This time of year it is mostly a dry heat. In the rainy season - August and September, it is miserably humid. I grew up in the American South, so humid heat is familiar to me.
Mali has three bio-regional zones. The open Sahara in the north. The Sahel is a semi-arid zone between the Niger River and the open Sahara. Bamako and points north are Sahel. Below the Niger, toward Sikasso and the border with Cote D'Ivoire, is a fairly lush green belt of agriculture.
I carry a few heat/dust tools from shooting in the Mojave here in California - Oversized zip lock bags, 2 inch paint brush in its own snap-closure plastic bag, space blankets, a motorcycle helmet bag with a draw-string closure that has a reflective silver surface. (Helps me keep the heat off the camera and dust out of it as well. Disposable shower caps from your hotel stays are good for covering lenses and keeping dust out of the barrels.
I also carry a "cat hair sponge" which is a sponge coated with an adhesive that leaves no residue. I use it at home to clean lamp shades and to remove cat hair from furniture. Leaves no residue, is dry to the touch, cheap, packs well. The dust is so fine you do not want to blow it inside your camera's delicate moving parts with something forceful like canned air. A still photography blower brush is also useful.
Google Sean Fairburn to see some of his tips for dusty shooting he used while shooting HD in Iraq. If you can tape seal a lot of your camera, it's advisable. Might not be possible - and don't block the cooling fans if shooting video - but it will go a long way toward keeping your gear alive, especially tape transports.
Even in a major city like Bamako, expect dust and debris, constantly. If, for example, a street is four lanes wide, in Bamako, there are another two lanes in each direction that are made of dirt. There are literally thousands of small motorcycles, 125CC engines and smaller, kicking up dust in these lanes and belching oil into the air - they're all 2-stroke engines.
The dust is red in the Sahel and towards Sikasso, more beige as you approach the Sahara.
In Bamako, there is a Sofitel. Hotel Salaam looks nice and Le Gran Hotel (where I stayed) is quite nice. For restaurant dining, try San Toro on the Kouikoro road. It's not too far from Relax, a Lebanese-run place that is frequented by ex-pats. If you want to starve in Mali, order chicken. There's very little meat on the bone - they're not pumped full of hormones and steroids. In Timbuktu, we stayed in Hotel Colombe II (the new one, I think) and in Sikasso, we stayed at Hotel Zanga.
(Usual disclaimers - own no stock, don't know who owns 'em, just stayed there and found them to be liveable)
Rental cars there are not cheap. About $60 a day, U.S. The Euro will help you because it is more accepted there and well, it's stronger at the moment. Expect to hire a driver.
If you have to shoot sunsets or sun rises, get there early. Check Sunpath - the sun rockets up into the air very fast at dawn and dusk, climbs something like 80 degrees (F) from the horizon between 6 and 9 a.m. and again between 5 and 7 p.m. Compared with the northern latitudes of Europe, the sun sets early in Mali.
Don't expect to drive at night. There are very few street lights, especially in rural areas. Small town set up their own roadblocks near roadside markets to keep pedestrian casualties to a minimum.
Expect to wait, often. There is a polite see with Malians that if you have time, is charming. You never roll up to a street corner and say "Hey, how do you find Traore Street?" Everything in Mali is done with an introduction. If you're going to shoot the Minister of Solar Energy, for example, you will have to meet his Department of Energy boss first. It's just how things are done.
To put Mali in perspective for you - it's ranked 171 on the U.N. Human Development Index. One of the 4 poorest nations on the planet. It's landlocked, is twice the size of Texas, has 11 million people and there is only one ATM in the entire country and that only takes VISA. You can change money at the airport from the sidewalk vendors and at street changers in Bamako, but know the exchange rate first.
The bottom line, though, Mali is a wonderful, wonderful place. Brilliant music, good food in the better restaurants like San Toro, very warm and friendly people. Great art there, too.
There is a man named Youchaou Traore in Bamako who runs a school for interpreters. He speaks a multitude of languages and is a thoughtful, intelligent man who regularly works with NGO's and filmmakers. He made our life there a lot better than it would have been. We found out how it could have been the one day we shot without him and without our film/travel permits. We got arrested and marched off down the train tracks to have a chat with the "special police."
Oh, permits - make sure you have them. Whenever you visit a village, visit the gendarmes to have your papers stamped and to meet the village elders. It's only polite. It's Mali. It's how things are done.
Anyway, enjoy your shoot. Mali is a wonderful place and I can not wait to go back.
Director of Photography
Thank You so much for this great reply !
I did not expect to get this much information and I believe You saved my life.
The Information about the dust and how to prevent it is just so important, especially with a steadicam with lots of possibilities to be damaged by sand/dust.
Surely they will want me to film sunsets or sunrises, so that information was vital too. I already learned so much about Mali and its people from your mail, that I feel much safer now.
I donâ€™t know when and where exactly we are shooting, but I will keep You informed and probably ask You some more questions, if that is okay for You.
What do You think of the idea to get a small battery-driven vacuum-cleaner to get rid of the dust ?
So, thank You again!
All the best to You
Sebastian Matthias wrote :
>What do You think of the idea to get a small battery-driven vacuum->cleaner to get rid of the dust?
I have used such vacuum cleaners and they work fine on small areas (e.g. on a lens barrel, or inside the transport compartment of a film camera etc). To remove extremely fine dust, be prepared to use a chamois cloth, or an old lens cloth that won't be used on lenses again. Back at the hotel after working in dusty conditions, I regularly stripped matteboxes, and other accessories down to their component parts to clean under screws and joining surfaces. This means even more work for the assistant, so I'm sure help from other crew members would be appreciated.
Christopher Lockett's tip on "cat hair sponge" sounds interesting - and shower caps are a must in any assistant's kit. A white towel also works well as a cover for the camera when working under the sun. A towel won't make rustling noises in wind and is comfortable for the operator - if you take one from the hotel, don't forget to return it when you leave.
European based Cameraman / Assistant
Glad you guys found the Mali info useful. CML has saved me several times. Happy to offer something of use.
Couple of other things I should mention about shooting in Mali...
Electricity is 220V and uses the French wall plugs. Mali is a former French colony. Video standard is SECAM.
I don't know about other hotels, but Le Gran Hotel in Bamako has internet service in the business centre. There are some internet cafes in Bamako and Sikasso as well.
CESPA is a video instruction and production centre in Bamako, the capitol city. They have a Final Cut Pro system and some limited gear. Very nice folks there, too. We rented/borrowed a windscreen for a mic when we were there. You can Google them. That's how I found them.
An item I didn't bring last trip that I will bring next time is a power inverter with a cigarette lighter adapter. We had several drives of 7+ hours and I could have used that time to charge batteries. Instead, I wound up swapping out batteries on chargers in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping.
Mosquitoes - definitely bring some sort of DEET or similar bug spray. Mosquitoes are a problem in Mali. As a result, Malaria is the #1 killer of children under 5 years of age.
Clothing - loose fitting cotton is a great fabric in dry heat. Keeps some moisture on your skin for evaporative cooling effect. In humid heat, however, it keeps you soggy and uncomfortable. I've had good luck with synthetic wicking fabrics in both wet and dry heat.
A couple of other things to consider bringing :
Bambara phrase book - Bamabara is the primary language of Mali other than it's official language of French. "Toubab" or "Toubabou" in plural is the Bambara phrase for "white person." You will hear this often, especially from village children. It is not generally meant as an offence. Just a way to say "hey look, these guys are different."
Small LED lights - key chain lights for looking inside bags, etc. I keep them clipped to the outside of bags.
Business cards - I handed them out more often than I ever expected.
I carry a small book of still photos I've shot of various people in other countries. When the language gap is too great, I show people the photos. Usually they figure out that I'm there to photograph them with some respect. Once though, a woman told me "Oh, you're a professional, you'll definitely have to pay me money to photograph me." If you've never shot in the developing world, being asked for money to photograph people is fairly common. Often, it is done jokingly, but it can sometimes get hairy. I turn off the front tally lights on any cameras I use - that flashing red light doesn't make a camera look any friendlier to someone who's leery of it in the first place.
Islam - Mali is predominantly a Muslim nation, but it's is also Africa, so it's a relaxed sort of Islam. I was warmly welcomed inside the 14th Century mosque in Timbuktu and could have shot there for a small donation. In the early 90's, some fashion magazine photographer started snapping shots of models inside the Grand Mosque in Djenne without permission and there has been a ban on non-Muslims entering that mosque ever since. The Grand Mosque at Djenne is the biggest and best known example of Sudanese mud building architecture. However, there are several small mosques throughout the countryside that welcome photography as long as it is respectful. A small donation for upkeep doesn't hurt either.
Expect to be approached by vendors, kids selling phone cards, etc. every time your car stops. The nightly fee for the hotel you're staying in is probably the equivalent of two months income for many Malians. In their eyes, you're loaded with money.
The hotels I mentioned, Salaam, Sofitel and Le Gran Hotel, all take credit cards, I believe. Check that first, though. Very few places in Mali take credit cards. If you're changing Euros to CFA (Central Franc of Africa), the wait at the cental bank in Bamako can take a few hours.
Our crew's mantra while in Mali: "Now is the time in Mali...when we wait."
Kola nuts are a traditional snack to hand out as an icebreaker when meeting new people. They have a mild stimulant in them, kind of like coffee. Old men are especially fond of them, especially in the Dogon region of the Bandigara Escarpment. You can buy them at local markets.
Sebastian mentioned Steadicam work. Bamako has something like 17 FM radio stations. We didn't find any RF interference with our audio signal, but with the Steadicam transmitter, it might be an issue.
Music says a lot about a place. Some Malian music you might want to check out, just for research and to get you in the mood of the place :
The Rail Band
Ali Farka Toure
Mali left a huge impression on me and I could write for days about the place.
Oh, one last thought - at Le Gran Hotel Bamako, we found that there was a huge price difference between booking a ride with the cabbies who operated from the hotel parking lot and the cabbies who were on the street in front of the hotel. The street cabs were much cheaper.
Oh yeah, I also misspelled a road name in my previous post. It's Koulikoro Road where San Toro and Relax are, not Kouikoro.
When we were there, he had just spent a month with a Finnish TV crew, so crews are nothing new to him. He handed out a "what you need to know about Mali," info sheet when we arrived. Things like "never take or accept anything with your left hand." That's the hand you conclude your bathroom business with.
And if your teeth crunch on something while eating bread in Timbuktu, don't worry, that's just sand. It's everywhere.
Director of Photography
My name is Dognon Dorothee from Benin near to Mali. Iâ€™m cinematographer.
As African (Benin) and cinematographer, I can give you any information you want about M, so please contact me.
mobile phone: +(86) 13683007181
Christopher Lockett wrote :
>And if your teeth crunch on something while eating bread in Timbuktu, >don't worry, that's just sand. It's everywhere.
When I spent a few months in The Gambia (another West African nation), they told us that Toubabs went through four phases of dealing with bugs - there are alot of bugs in Africa!
1) You find a bug in your drink, then toss the drink.
2) You find a bug in your drink, fish it out, then keep drinking.
3) You notice a bug in your drink, but don't bother fishing it out...
4) You notice there isn't a bug in your drink, and can't drink any more until you find a bug.
Casual Dog Productions
Sorry folks, forgot to mention Vaccinations!
I don't know if it's different for folks travelling from the E.U., but for American citizens, we needed to show proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination before we could enter Mali.
U.S. citizens are also required to have a Visa to enter Mali.
Director of Photography
Christopher Lockett wrote :
>Sorry folks, forgot to mention Vaccinations! I don't know if it's different for >folks travelling from the E.U., but for American citizens
Yellow fever makes no difference in nationality.The central region of Africa is a yellow-fever risk area...vaccination is necessary. But some people can't take it!
See for more :
Maastricht, the Netherlands
Sebastian Matthias wrote :
> If they are very dark black, would it help to raise the black levels to get
> a bit more details ? (We are shooting video ,so IÂ´m a bit concerned
> about a burn-out sky.)
I worked two years in sao tome island and we installed betacam sp cameras for documentary films with the television people of sao tome.what was very successful was not to raise the black level, but to work on the black gamma. we raised it quite to the max. this extends the color resolution of black skin and gives something to work on color correction. in the same time, we also reduced detail quite a bit and this gave a very filmic texture.
Skin tones in Mali are generally dark, but I saw more Albinos there in three weeks than I've seen in my life. Some of the skin tone issues will be decided by where you are in Mali. If in the North, expect to photograph Tuaregs, who are lighter skinned.
Expect darker skin tones, but anticipate the whole gamut of skin tones and know that the sun will be a high, hard top light. Tough combination on video. The dust and smog (aerial diffusion to be polite) of Bamako will soften the sun for you, but don't expect to count on that in villages. If you're in the Sahel or towards the Sahara, the dust and sand in the air might help you out a bit. The soil in the North is beige-ish. Reddish in the South and West. Where there is reddish soil, enjoy a very warm bounce.
Also, Malian women know how to dress. Especially in Bamako. Matching dresses and he adwraps in wonderful colors. Usually vibrant colors, nothing dour or boring.
I made frequent use of ND grads to expose for skin tones and hold some detail in the sky.
Director of Photography