‘Is There Pasture on the Moon?’

The first time I ever camped outdoors; the first time I watched a fragile sheet of ice crack under my breath and slide down the wall of our tent, was right above Tinqi at 14,000 feet in the Andes beside the glaciers of Ausengate. Until then, I’d never lived out of stuff-sacks or burrowed into a sleeping bag at night; never considered bliss to be dry socks and warm feet; and never dreamed of living more than a few blocks away from a Chinese restaurant.

Peter and I were circumnavigating Ausengate – ‘doing anthropology,’ as he called it: trying to find people and a setting for our first documentary. A professional climbing guide, Peter carried both my pack and his on our first day out, and by the time we hiked a few hours from Tinqi to Upis – up from 12,000 feet to 14,500 – he had a headache; the first and only time he said, that altitude ever affected him. Upis consisted of vast fields of stubby-grass and frothy hot springs, carved up by rivers and boulders that leapfrogged skywards into vertical walls of snow. A few thatched houses and stone corrals popped out of the ground here and there, the only hint of human life.

No sooner had we pitched the yellow dome tent – I’d never snapped a tent pole into line or pounded a peg into the ground – and pumped the little kerosene stove – another first – than a small crowd of campesinos gathered round the open flap, hungrily. Women and girls dressed in black dirndl skirts with sweaters of neon pink gazed and giggled, holding their fists in front of their mouths and breaking into shy smiles whenever they caught my eye or Peter’s. They looked like they had lampshades over their heads: black, velvet pancakes with colourful tassels draped around the rim.

‘Why are they here?’ I asked Peter. I suddenly wanted privacy, to drink something hot and go to sleep.
‘Actually they’re asking the same question.’ Peter nursed his headache, stretching out on his mat near the opening of the tent while I stirred bricks of chocolate and powdered milk in a pot of water, waiting for the boil. Peter had worked in the Andes for three years, climbing mountains and doing fieldwork in anthropology, but this area was new to him. The setting sun warmed our nylon cocoon, golden and glittery in contrast to the chilling blues of dusk creeping over the distance.
‘We’re in their living room. We’ve pitched a tent in their living room,’ Peter said. I pictured my childhood home, a split-level house on the Southside of Chicago, filled with a small crowd of campesinos camped out on the carpet beside the sofas.
‘Well, we better give them something to eat.’
‘Right. But don’t just give it to them. It’s better to trade.’ Peter spoke to a man with a bundle on his back, dressed in synthetic pants and no shoes. Reaching for our food bag Peter said, ‘We’ll make them a pot of oatmeal right now and give them rice to take home. Tomorrow that man will bring some potatoes.’

That was how we met Cayetano – standing around our tent in his living room. Cayetano was different from other campesinos. He had a heart-shaped face and olive-black eyes that gleamed when he talked and revved with interest when he listened, as if to say, ‘Show me! Teach me! Take me! Bring me!’ Twenty-three years old with three tiny children and a wife who spoke only Quechua, Cayetano lived near his parents on the other side of Upis, half an hour’s walk away.

I spent my first two days in the mountains listening to Cayetano ask questions as though he were a prisoner from another century. How did Peter climb up peaks? (We showed him the ice axe). How did we get so much money? (We explained the world’s economy). What could he do, to be able to climb the mountain and have money too? (Peter offered to take him climbing, for a start.)

Ten years earlier Cayetano’s family lived and worked like serfs for the owners of their land. Overnight after a coup, haciendas became peasant cooperatives and Cayetano’s father, a respected elder named Julian, flew to the capital city of Lima to represent his people and their land interests. Until then Julian had rarely ridden a truck to Cusco or spent a night in a house with electric lights. Suddenly Cayetano’s childhood swung from one of little hope for change to a future filled with possibilities. As if hatching a scheme, Cayetano seized on us to form a relationship with him by inviting us to stay with his family when we finished our trek around the mountain.


If I didn’t have such a passion for making films; if I hadn’t planned so long to work with Peter in Peru, I’d have quit that trek around Ausengate and gone back to Chicago. Walking at high altitudes made me woozy; walking alone, defenseless. I couldn’t keep pace, couldn’t tell a ditch from a trail, couldn’t recognise the planet; and couldn’t interest Peter in slowing down enough to comprehend my response to the place he treated like his home-away-from-home.

Led by an arriero named Nasario who packed our gear on his horse, Peter wanted to keep Nasario happy (he knew the trails). Nasario wanted to keep the horse happy (by crossing grounds with plenty to graze and drink). And I didn’t think I could be happy until both of them stopped and spoke these words to me: ‘Princess! Princess from Chicago! Welcome to the Land of Ringing Ears! Hold hands now and don’t breathe too fast. Take it real, real slow.’

On the morning of our third sunny day of six hours of walking – just before climbing our second 17,000 foot pass – I sat down in a field overlooking a small lake and told Peter I simply couldn’t move. Nasario stopped nearby, examining the sole of his shoe.

‘I can’t go on. Not another day.’
‘What do you mean you can’t go on? You’re walking.’
‘It’s too beautiful. It’s going by too fast.’
‘We’ll slow down. I won’t go ahead where you can’t see me anymore. I promise.’
‘No. I’m missing everything.’
‘We’ll take more breaks.’
‘I can’t move.’
‘You mean physically?’
‘I just can’t move. I have to stay here. I have to see this.’

I pointed to the transparency a hundred meters below me, hypnotically-blue: a lake. It could have been stocked with colourful fish, tropical flowers and diamonds. Real pink flamingos lazed along the edges. I pointed to the horizon spreading in every direction with green meadows and grazing llamas, encircled by orange and brown dunes rolling like pastry cream into bedrock and glaciers; all blindingly clear and focused to infinity in the haze-free air, higher than anywhere on the continental U.S. My ears stung, probably from the pressure, and the veins in my temples throbbed, maybe from never having been anywhere that didn’t cut off my peripheral vision. I blamed the beauty for paralysing me and the air, burning hot and shivery to the bone. Stricken with quiet and radiance that beat palpably in my eyes and ears, I splayed my arms and legs across the ground. Even the horse quit grazing to look up at me.


Night skies in the Andes never sleep. Stars shoot sideways and drop, leaving trails. Sometimes the Big Dipper hangs so low on the horizon you want to jump back, in case it lands at your feet. And every night another planet bulges in a new shade of red or green. When Andean people look at the sky they don’t just trace lines from star to star. They watch the spaces in between, spaces made up of interstellar dust called dark clouds. Dark clouds are filled with information. They take the shape of condors, foxes, llamas or toads and change with the seasons, telling people when it’s time for a sacred ritual, or time to sow potatoes. That’s one of the ways Andean people see the world: they bring meaning to negative space.

While I could barely distinguish rocky pastures from potato fields, or stone boundaries from distant creeks, or the true dimensions of hillocks, boulders and fields of scree, people here not only understood the night sky, they had every corner of the land mapped out in their heads and named according to their sacred meaning. Mountain spirits known as Apus decided how much snow would fall in winter and how high the rivers would swell in spring. All year long the Apus talked to each other, plotting people’s fortunes; plotting the outcome of the harvest.

One night several weeks after our first trek around Ausengate, when we’d settled into the stone house where he stored potatoes, Cayetano, Peter and I stepped out into the freezing air. Our heads turned upwards and we stared. The sky exploded with constellations, galaxies and racing stars. I tried to imagine what Cayetano thought and saw when he looked at the stars, compared to how little or how much I knew.

‘Tell me Compadre,’ Cayetano broke the silence. ‘A man has walked on the moon, right?’ Peter answered affirmatively and we turned our eyes to the moon, bright but pockmarked like a chocolate chip cookie. I imagined Neil Armstrong walking up there, like balancing on a silver dollar.

‘Compadre,’ he said, shifting his feet from side to side, ‘Just tell me one more thing I want to know. Is there pasture on the moon?’

Epilogue: Fast forward since the 80s when we first met him and today Cayetano Crispin is known as a great guide around Ausengate. He has a small hotel in Tinqi and a vehicle. Findable on Google.

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Every Christmas from the time I turned eight my family took a Caribbean cruise, nine in total. The ocean air and hypnotic sea gave my father a much-needed rest. He ran a large allergy practise on the Southwest Side of Chicago and worked such long hours we didn’t see much of him for long stretches of time. The first few days as we sailed south from New York City in the freezing air, he talked to no one. He’d find a deck chair, wrap up in blankets and read a year’s backlog of medical journals.

For me the cruises were social adventures, not just for the escapades around the ship with other children but also for the exotic islands. There, we came face to face with naked boys with swollen bellies and blind, withering women shaking coins in tin cups. Passengers from luxury liners weren’t supposed to see these people. We were supposed to take the ship’s organized tours to rum taverns with calypso bands, and ocean-side resorts with aquamarine pools.

My father preferred to hire a private taxi on the dock. “Take us off the beaten path,” he always said to the driver as my mother, sister, brother and I piled into the back of a rattled Chevy. “I don’t want anything touristy.” We’d head up into the jungly hills and see shacks, shanties and stray dogs; women wrapped in mismatched clothes beating laundry on the rocks, while their babies crawled over palm leaves on the riverside. My father always fired questions at the driver about housing, water, jobs, hospitals and schools.

After a few years of this, my mother preferred to stay on the ship. But every time we sailed to Haiti, the islanders could not be ignored. We’d anchor after sunrise out at sea, half a mile from the island. From a distance in the harbor we’d spot slivers of brown wood with oars like toothpicks, dipping in and out of the ocean til they enlarged and multiplied into fifty or a hundred dinghies and rafts, bumping and bobbing in the shadows of our giant ship. Five stories above, passengers would gather on the Promenade Deck and peer over the salty rails to the ticky-tacky rafts, far below. There, boys with protruding bellies and spindly legs wobbled and seesawed on the edges of their boats. Some bailed water frantically; others patted their chests with flat hands, as if to say, “Me! Me!” Then their knees would bend like springs and they’d dive in little arcs, arms outstretched like daggers as they hit the sapphire sea, racing for whatever people threw.

In the first hour of the morning passengers tossed nickels, dimes and quarters. Ten or fifteen boys would splash in at once, chasing a single coin. My father and I watched as crowds swelled on the deck. We’d try to figure out which boys belonged to each other – who worked alone and who worked as siblings, cousins or friends. I wondered if they dived for fun or dived because they had to; if they kept the coins for themselves, or brought them home to their mothers.

This routine on deck followed a similar pattern year after year, with a mild flavor of group sport.  Men in Bermuda shorts and straw hats would single out a cluster of divers, saying, “Look at them leap! I’m aiming for that one.” After pockets emptied of coins, a husband or wife would have the idea of rolling a dollar into an empty perfume bottle. We’d hear people say, “Did you see that group when I threw that dollar? They all jumped on each other!” Someone would then think of throwing bread rolls and jam from the breakfast smorgasbord.

“What a great idea! They’re so hungry!” Wives would fetch bags to wrap the food while husbands waited, tossing more nickels and dimes. Then someone would say, “Why not give them soap from the stateroom?” There’d be discussion and some jokes over how to wrap the soap to protect it in the water. The boys’ diving always became more frantic when the soap bars appeared. So a passenger would say, “They don’t want our money, they want soap! They want to be clean! I’m gonna toss a comb!” Then, the grab bag would begin. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, sugar cubes, tea bags, aspirin tablets and pens flew off the side of our boat. By mid-morning, almost everyone on the ship – about five hundred passengers – would have paid a visit to the Promenade Deck. I could never really tell if the boys were laughing and diving, or if they were shoving and shouting at each other to be first to get the loot. We were too high up to know for sure. By the time the ferry was available to take us to the island after lunch, the boys and their watery dinghies had been cleared away.

Later that night, images of Haiti lingered over our shrimp cocktails and filet mignons. My mother said the hopelessness of the situation spoiled the spirit of cruising. I said the hopelessness gave us good reason to explore the island and find out more. My father’s opinion never wavered: Unless Haiti’s government changed, nothing would get better.

As we cruised from one port to the next – Panama, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Barbados – I imagined a map of the Caribbean, each island a theatre with a script all its own. I decided my own country was just another show. Looking down at the boys from the cruise rails, an image of myself – as one of the passengers throwing things – leapt from the dinghies straight back up at me. I wanted to shout down to those boys, “I’m not like these other passengers. I’m not one of them!” I conjured the message they might shout up to me: “We’re not as random as you think! We have names, histories, families.” Haiti made me a spectator and eventually a filmmaker. I disengaged from the theatre I was born to and the role I was meant to play.

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This gallery contains 14 photos.

Peter arrived in Quito after four months of guiding mountain climbers in Argentina, and with his return, sheer terror. We planned to head for the Andes Mountains of Peru to begin making our first documentary film but instead, we made … Continue reading

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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REVOLUTION? Corruption, Scandal, Concubines

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Shortly before my visit to the last Maoist stronghold in China, I went to the Dashanzi art district near the edges of Beijing, popularly known as Factory 798. Designed by the East Germans during the 1950s and paid for by … Continue reading

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PENGUIN COUNTERS: In the Wake of Shackleton’s Reunion

A few wet strides to the rocky shore and I am in an amphitheatre of penguins, screeching and lollygagging about; 60,000 to be exact. To one side, ice capped peaks pierce the sky. Anchored out at sea is a Soviet surveillance ship turned Canadian cruise liner – our home for three weeks.

This is the Salisbury Plain of South Georgia Island on the sixth day of my journey to make a film about five field biologists who count penguins for a living. Their simple, golf-ball sized tallying devices are the nursery food of modern science: soothing and wonderfully basic. This year’s population counts will be added to the data they have been tracking for over twenty years, for their ongoing analysis on what climate change is doing to the penguins, the Antarctic food chain – and subsequently to oceans around the world.

Salisbury Plain is unspeakably compelling. We are mobbed by flapping penguins and blubbery fur seals who lurch upward, bare their teeth and shriek. It feels personal; am I provoking them or are they just doing their seal thing?

It’s the long wait to reach the remote penguin colonies that pre-occupies the counters who are with me. They are virtual hitchhikers through Antarctica, sailing at the good graces of shipping lines, which provide crew quarters for two, three or four months at a time. Antarctic ships support the scientists. Grant money would barely cover the cost of subsistence down here. For their keep, the penguin counters mix with tourists at meals and in the bar.

“This cruise is our surreal bus ride to work,” said Stephen, whose first choice of a profession was to be an astronaut. “It’s days and days of sailing in some of the roughest seas in the world, just to reach the penguin colonies. And when we get there, we have no idea if the weather will let it happen.” Gale force white-outs can erupt without warning, so the counters are on edge. So much so, that they barely notice that a media mob is stealing their thunder; a revision to polar history unfolds before us.

On our ship are the ashes of a polar explorer, which were found in South Africa to be buried in South Georgia Island. They are the remains of Frank Wild – the closest explorer and confidant to Sir Ernest Shackleton, who consulted Wild on everything. Though he died in 1939, Wild’s ashes will be laid to rest where he wanted them: right beside his boss, who was buried in Grytviken in 1922 after a sudden heart attack. Shepherding his remains is Wild’s biographer, Angie Butler. After seven years of research in order to set the record straight – that Frank Wild was an extraordinary explorer and not a drunkard at the end of his life – Angie’s sixth sense led her to his ashes in Johannesburg.

“We are bringing Frank Wild back to where he always wanted to be,” Angie explains. “The Heroic Age of Exploration is being looked at much closer now, and it’s Shackleton and his team who are getting the attention, even though they never reached the South Pole.”

In the past twenty years, the polar story has shifted from emphasis on the goal post, to the journey. In 1916, after watching their ship, the Endurance, sink mercilessly into the ice, Shackleton appointed Frank Wild, a Yorkshireman, to take charge of 21 men on the shores of Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others embarked on a torturous, eight hundred mile voyage in an open boat. For five months Wild and his men survived on seal, penguin and seaweed, until Shackleton miraculously returned to rescue them. Their story of survival in the face of repeated catastrophes has eclipsed the success once lauded on Robert F. Scott, who died with his entire team soon after reaching the South Pole in January 1912.

With all the chatter, our ship begins to feel like the National Press Club. Corridors fill with tripods, lens cases and batteries. At Angie’s heels are a BBC producer, cameraman and presenter; a BBC Radio 4 reporter; a journalist for the Sunday Observer Magazine; and Britain’s 2011 Travel Photographer of the Year. To fill their frames are the Honorable Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton; a vicar from the Falkland Islands to lead the burial service; and four Australian descendants of Frank Wild, none of whom have the slightest inclination toward exploration or adventuring.

“Nobody paid much attention to those glass plates that were stored in the garage,” said one of the Wilds, in dry reference to the photographic archive of the Endurance expedition that the family handed down. “We broke a few glass plates playing around as kids, but back then nobody seemed to mind.” Fast-forward to Britain today, and those glass plates which documented the fate of the Endurance, suddenly matter.

“What I’m most proud of is that my grandfather chose to turn back within 90 miles of the South Pole,” said Alexandra Shackleton. “And as a result of that decision, all of his men survived.”

“All this just to celebrate failure,” a journalist commented offhand. “Americans don’t do failure, but we British know how to credit failure when it’s due.” Indeed. Conspicuously absent is any reporter from the United States, but this is primarily British business. They’re celebrating what’s left over after the empire shut down and the family silver was sold.

“This is all about leadership and character,” said Alexandra Shackleton with a firm blink and a nod.

A number of passengers wished the whole media circus would disappear, to make more room in the bar. Others were delighted to be part of this historic event. The penguin counters tolerated the hubbub as an inevitable part of the job.

On the morning of Day Seven, sixty tourists dressed in waterproofs shuffled into the old Norsk chapel in Grytviken – to hear poems, prayers and remembrances of Frank Wild. He tallied five Antarctic expeditions and earned a rare Polar Medal with four bars.

Carrying the ashes of her great uncle, Frank Wild’s niece led the procession to the graveyard, passing rogue seals, loitering penguins and the massive, rust-bucket remains of what Grytviken was originally built for: an industrial whaling station. Oversized barrels, gear wheels and storehouses stand in sharp contrast to the pristine surroundings, but their presence is no less haunting. What could the sound and stench of boiled blubber and seared flesh have been like, for those who lived here year round?

At the graveyard, more words, then drops of whiskey for the reunited friends.

Shortly after, another historic moment unfolds on the ship with the appearance of the great grandson of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole – a month ahead of Scott. Suddenly Antarctica feels less roomy. The young Norwegian is in the area to celebrate the centenary of his great grandfather’s achievement. His presence in the bar turns a cadre of tourists into a paparazzi brigade, snapping shots of this chance gathering among descendants of three great polar explorers: Shackleton, Wild and Amundsen.

Despite the hullabaloo, all this has little effect on the penguin counters. By the twelfth day, Paula’s colleagues have all boarded a fifty-foot yacht together with Ron Naveen, founder of the NGO Oceanites, which brings the counters to Antarctica every year. Weather permitting my husband Peter Getzels, together with Erik Osterholm will be able to film the counters reaching the more remote colonies over the next fourteen days, while I stay on the ship filming with Paula. Despite the seasickness Paula feels on days at sea, especially when the ship lurches and pitches across the dreaded Drake Passage; Despite the loneliness and the revolving crowds of tourists she’ll never meet again, Paula can’t shake the compulsion to return year after year.

“Welcome to the highest, driest, windiest, darkest, loneliest place on the planet,” says the cruise ship director each time the ship drops anchor in the Antarctic seas.

Compact and petite, she sludges across screefields, sinks waist-high in guano, and plods up the mountainsides in snowshoes, unphased by the biting winds.

“Something about this place gets inside you and you just want to be here as long as you can,” she says. “I can’t explain it.”

It is ten at night and Paula has been counting penguin nests for six hours. Kneeling on the floor of the Zodiac that will bring her back to the ship, her binoculars are fixed on the nearby coastline, in search of another colony. Skies are deep gray with clouds as smooth as pearls. Shards of ice glint like treasure chests. The water is uncharacteristically smooth, the icebergs tantalizing in their psychedelic shades of blue; or is it green?

The penguin counters have confirmed that the Adelie and Chinstrap colonies are in decline, while the Gentoo populations are soaring. With 300 square miles of ice breaking away to the west of here, the impact of climate change is palpable. The goal now is to figure out exactly why it’s all happening. Until then, Antarctica is one thing only; it’s all about the journey.

For further information please contact me: info@getzelsgordon.com

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This article also appears in Huffington Post

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The Verité of Reality Television

When I was asked by a documentary production company to make a sizzle reel to pitch a reality series about two gay men trying to live an ordinary family life with their three adopted black children in a posh white area of Washington DC, I couldn’t believe my luck. This was a subject I could believe in. On the back of Obama’s victory and all the hope for change he inspired, I felt sure this had a chance of becoming the definitive icon for the new, all-American family.

“Adopt local,” John said, holding baby Ella in his arms. Ella was the fifth newborn abandoned by her mother. “It’s better to buy food locally; why not adopt close to home?”

John’s partner Josh was a tall, Hugh Grant lookalike, with the demeanor of a 1930s movie star making courteous rounds at a cocktail party. John was rugged and earthy, with a passion for the outdoors and partying. I knew the minute I met these two that their lives, filled with plotlines and subplots, could drive a reality series for years to come. Their sprawling colonial house was not just home to John, Josh, Marcus (8), Noah (7) and Ella (6 months). Here in the nation’s capital amidst politicians, diplomats, lawmakers and judges, lived John’s geriatric monkey, two ostriches, a giant Schnauzer, a parrot, several ducks, doves, pigeons, rabbits and an exotic range of chickens. John’s idea of bliss was living a Dr. Doolittle kind of life. With business ventures ranging from antique shops to home makeovers to planning themed parties with surprise flourishes for embassies and politicians, his work-life alone was a reality producer’s dream. By contrast, Josh’s idea of bliss was spending an entire weekend in a white room.

“Let them all go to Maine,” he’d say about John’s annual summer trip where he’d show the boys how to jump off bridges and cliffs. “I love peace and quiet and I love peace of mind.” Josh ended every comment with a smile. But he claimed to have no interest in fostering John’s producers of stink, feathers, fur, tracks, vomit, pee and feces. All of these, he claimed, brought down the quality of his life.

Paradoxically, Josh’s livelihood revolved around other peoples’ pets. As the holder of five hundred keys for his high-end, dog-walking business called Puppy Love, Josh coped unflappably with pet dramas: dogs having nervous breakdowns; dog-walkers setting off burglar alarms; dogs convulsing with allergic reactions. While Josh walked his charges along Georgetown’s red brick streets with the straight-backed precision of Monsieur Hulot, John gave his beasts as much free reign as his neighbors would tolerate.

With plenty of engaging material, everyone deemed the promo a success. There was nothing left to do but wait while Phil, the Executive Producer who brought me in on the job, pitched it to various broadcasters. With the marriage of TLC’s ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ on the rocks, a fuzzy, family replacement show would definitely be needed.

“It’s about time reality television took on a controversial subject,” I said to John and Josh. But secretly, I knew reality television had no interest in promoting social awareness or adoption laws.

Three months later TLC greenlit the series. We were to call it ‘Dad and Pop’. We’d start with a pilot hour and if all went well on broadcast, we’d immediately roll it into the series. Never having done a reality series, I assumed my years of making provocative, verité-style documentaries about characters with compelling stories and unfolding dramas, would come in useful. But reality television pushed verité – which means truth – into a risk-averse zone. Production was overseen by efficiency experts whose job it seemed, was to take everything intuitive, natural, or imbued with narrative meaning and subject it to the production equivalent of a vegetable grinder.

“They loved the sizzle reel but they don’t know why,” I said to Phil, when we congratulated each other on our success. “It’s like taking all the freshest ingredients out of a recipe and replacing them with tinned or dried food.” In addition to Phil, the committee for Dad and Pop included two executive producers and one show-runner from the production company; and three Vice Presidents, two Executive Producers and the Development Producer from TLC. There were meetings with three categories of finance people. At the top of the food chain was TLC’s marketing department who invested in shows that promised to meet the sales quotas of Viagra, Caribbean cruise lines and debt relief schemes.

Instead of leaving room for spontaneity, the show runner and I plotted out each scene and what people would be expected to say as a pay off. For the animal theme, John would be filmed secretly buying a miniature horse. The payoff would be Josh’s horror and the kids’ enchantment. John planned to tattoo a wedding ring around his finger to celebrate a milestone in Ella’s upcoming adoption, and Josh promised access to an eye-popping pair of dogs who inexplicably leapt around in fits of psychotic madness. As for Noah and Marcus, they would be filmed on an all night camping trip in their backyard, staking out the predator who ate one of their bunnies. I called this scene their Big Safari Adventure.

At one point when I pulled up to the house to shoot a reconstruction of Josh on the phone with a cranky dog owner, I found John on the front lawn bathing the giant Schnauzer, tendrils of suds oozing down Bart’s coal black fur.  Our reality show had begun to resemble very little of the family’s real lives. Despite needing the phone scene with Josh, I told the cameraman to film John and Bart. Like the sizzle reel I’d made, this unscripted moment had an easy, compelling quality.  While John scrubbed, he opened up about how much Bart had brought them together, even though Josh wanted nothing to do with Bart from the moment he appeared on Valentine’s Day.

Two thirds through the filming an unexpected crisis arose that no one could resolve. TLC had a sudden gap in their broadcast schedule and insisted on moving the airdate for Dad and Pop forward by several months. When we reminded TLC that baby Ella’s face could not be shown on screen for nearly another year – until her adoption was finalized – the executive producers and vice presidents had a melt down. Apparently they’d forgotten this detail. Suddenly the consuming issue was not Noah and Marcus’s Big Safari Adventure. Instead, I was asked to phone the Attorney General and ask if they could make an exception to the law requiring Ella’s absent birth mother to consent to us using her baby’s image in public, prior to the adoption. I spoke to the office of the adoption judge who’d let me film Ella’s ongoing case in her courtroom, and outlined the problem to the Senior Attorney at the Children’s Law Center. Everyone agreed ‘Dad and Pop’ would cast a positive light on DC’s adoption laws, but no one had a solution on how to speed the process along in a way that made it work out for everyone involved.

Months passed. TLC replaced ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ with ‘Cake Boss’ and ‘Cupcake Wars.’

“I never believed this series would really happen,” said Josh after the production was finally cancelled.

“I definitely want to try again,” said John. “Even though I now know reality television couldn’t care less about adopting local.”

By now, the plotlines have multiplied. John gave in to Josh’s demands to get the animals away, and bought forty acres with a farmhouse in need of a total makeover. Consulting the ‘Dummies Guide to Farming,’ his animal world has expanded to include goats, sheep, horses, pigs and peacocks. He’s become an expert at neutering cows and capturing runaway ostriches with the help of local farmers.

“Sometimes I miss my old life of urban debauchery,” said John with a note of irony, “but I’m finally living my dream.” Every weekend Josh and the boys visit John and Ella who stay on the farm most weekdays.

The next series about John and Josh will be far from Obama’s stronghold. The story of this gay, mixed-race family living in rural West Virginia is better than any strand of reality invention. I’m sure ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ will be the first reality series that’s totally verité.


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Going to Antarctica!

G2 in Antarctica!

Peter, me and Erik Osterholm are joining Ron Naveen on his annual visit to Antarctica, leaving November 17. Ron has been monitoring climate change by charting the fertility of penguins for nearly twenty years. We all agree that it’s about time his work had a media blitz. Penguins are like the canaries in the mine shaft, when it comes to what they can tell us about climate change. Recently, ‘Naveen Cove’ was named to honor Ron and his work in Antarctica, which he has conducted through the NGO he started called Oceanites. Please stay tuned. Back in a few (wifi-less) weeks.

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TRIBUTE TO DAI VAUGHAN This was given to Dai at this years Film Festival of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London

Dai Vaughan has been described by the Review of Contemporary Fiction as "one of the most skilful writers of our age."

When we were still students at the National Film and Television School, we got our first commission from John Willis at Channel 4 to make ‘Mr. Mike is on the Mountain’, a kind of anthropological/verité documentary about the Sherpas’ viewpoint of a British climbing expedition. Rather than ask a young, aspiring editor and fellow student to complete the job, we turned – with uncharacteristic humility – to Dai Vaughan.

Dai periodically lectured and taught at the NFTS, and we were card-carrying members of his filmmaking tribe: no commentary, subtitles for foreign language speakers, let the intrinsic drama of characters and story play out. Aesthetic principles aside, we really didn’t have much choice but to work with Dai. As a young married couple, Peter and I knew we needed an agreed-upon authority figure: Someone with Zen-like qualities, who would act as both the jury and the judge before our marital bouquet of competing visions and diverging plotlines. The prospect of wreaking havoc in Dai’s presence was simply unthinkable. With the hum of operatic passages spilling out over the words and images he sliced and spliced, our idealistic, epiphanic moments of inspiration took a back seat to his wise, worldly ways. After Mr. Mike, we brought him every film we could, despite commissioning editors’ feigned surprise when we announced that we wanted Dai to be our editor: ‘Is he still around?’ they’d say. ‘I haven’t heard his name in ages.’

Renowned for his work on The World at War and on Roger Graef’s ground-breaking verité series, Dai’s cutting room was his sanctuary. Too cold or too hot with little more than a kettle for comfort, he kept his re-winds on the wall behind him, a six-plate on the wall in front of him, and didn’t seem to notice the step-aerobics we all performed to keep from bumping into one another when we stood up to leave, or came in and reached for the chairs. Both walls converged trapezoidally on a window overlooking Wardour Street, perfectly cramped to keep visitors out; just the way he liked it. Some visitors Dai didn’t mind. When our four year old was recovering from chicken pox, Dai had no problem letting her come in with us and stretch out across two chairs. During our edit of ‘The New Rasputin’ – a film about a notorious sex guru in Russia, who claimed to bring roomfuls of women to orgasm using telepathy alone – our Executive Producer, Udi Eichler, made it to the cutting room every single day.

Enemy lines were conceptual but clear. Dai viewed our commissioning editors with a bit of suspicion, and they viewed him just the same. He called commentary a virus. ‘Once infected with a single line, the entire film succumbs,’ he said, when we grappled with the pros and cons of recording a few lines of voice-over for our Cutting Edge film, ‘Summerhill at Seventy’. In all the years we worked with him, from the late eighties to the mid-nineties, Dai’s fashion sense never strayed beyond one pea-green jumper and black jeans. He was quick to laugh, and even quicker to stroke his beard when a serious thought took hold. Every day, rain or shine, Dai took a walk during lunch. It was hard not to imagine he’d rather be at home, writing his book.

Though very private, during a few long afternoons of reordering scenes – of Sherpas threatening to burn down basecamp, or students debating whether or not to reinstate bed times – Dai would talk about his past; what went right and what went wrong both personally and historically, when he joined trainloads of children leaving London for the countryside during World War II. He had a kind of philosophical resignation; a shrug of both surrender and defiance. But he never lacked warmth.

The tribal roots we shared with Dai embraced the observational, verité, guerrilla-style of filmmaking, which Colin Young and Herb DiGioia at the NFTS championed. If we had a choice back then, we would have been making anthropological documentaries. Instead, we had to settle for bringing anthropological film techniques to television. Rebels in training, we always hoped Dai’s experience and integrity would protect us from the commercial clutches of prime-time’s downwardly mobile tastes and trends. Squeezing a commissioning editor into the cutting room for a screening sometimes felt like an invasive species coming to roost. We would present what all of us believed to be our best and most perfect cut, and the commissioning editor would rapidly inject some new, disfiguring form of DNA into it; the future stem cells – unbeknownst to any of us at the time – of what would become reality television.

‘I’ve never worked for the same commissioning editor twice,’ Dai said now and again. In retrospect at the time, neither did we. But we always returned to Dai. He had to be the most interesting, serious and skilled editor anyone could ever hope to find in the UK.

Here is a link to Dai’s life as a writer


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