Q & A with Heidi Ewing, Oscar-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker
Heidi Ewing has produced and directed documentaries for The Discovery Channel, Britain’s Channel 4, the BBC, A&E Network and Arte. Previously, Heidi produced and co-directed a one-hour film for the Discovery Channel on the ancient origins of tribal and religious body modification, a documentary shot on location in Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.
More recently, Heidi and her Loki Films partner Rachel Grady were aboard an early morning United flight from NYC to Santa Barbara when the captain announced that their documentary film Jesus Camp was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. The entire plane went crazy with applause. I caught up with Heidi in between Oscar-nominee lunches and meetings to glean her perspective on seeing the world through the eyes of a filmmaker.
Q. You’ve traveled all over the world for your documentaries. How do you research each destination?
I have been to Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Kenya for my work in the last few years and I have to say I troll for information in several ways, through random Internet sites and friends who may have traveled or lived in the country. Or friends of their friends, whoever will talk to me. Like most people I try to avoid sites and books that seem too popular for fear I’ll end up in some gringo colony or hotel. The one guide I do use with consistency is the MOON handbook. A South African friend of mine turned me onto the Moon Guides on a trip to Cuba several years back, and I have never used anything else for the destinations they serve. They feel incredibly well researched by people who clearly are madly in love with the country they are writing about. There is lots of wry commentary, cautionary tales and just good writing along the way, and you feel like you are part of some inside track. Sadly, I still don’t think they cover Africa, so they better get with it!!
Q. A few years ago, you made a film in Cuba. Can you tell us what it was like to travel there as an American?
I have made a few films in Cuba, one in the open (about the famed Tropicana nightclub) and one clandestinely (about dissident Oswaldo Paya) and have traveled there over 20 times since 1996. Cuba is a country full of wild contradictions and it is VERY hard to get a handle on the place as an American just visiting. I cringe when I see foreigners milling in old Havana or the La Bodeguita del Medio looking for signs of Hemmingway’s romantic island. It’s there, but one has to get on a train or in a car and get the hell outta Havana to feel it.
I found for the most part Cubans like Americans and most have a relative living there they may want to tell you about. They are curious about the world and hungry for information and vibrant discussions and debates. It is a poor country that is also highly educated and intellectual, one of the few real victories of the Revolution. These days Americans visiting should expect spirited conversation about Bush, the war and Guantanamo, as the Cubans have a lot of questions and fears about the USA right now.
The combination of Caribbean people and Communist ideology have created a very complex culture, and to understand it I think a grasp of Spanish and several visits allow one to crack the surface. But, for starters think that travelers should leave Havana ‘till the end and take the 9-hour train to Santiago de Cuba and travel around the Oriente (Eastern part of the Island) for a while. I think staying with a family (posadas) and eating in the home restaurants (paladares) is a good way to meet and talk to Cubans in a more intimate way. And please don’t go to Varadero Beach, it’s only for foreigners and most Cubans are not allowed to even go to the beach there! Same goes for the fancy hotels in Havana.
Q. Has becoming a documentary filmmaker changed the way you travel and experience new places?
I think my job as a documentary filmmaker has made it really hard for me to even go on vacation and travel like a regular tourist. I am always anxious to wander down some dusty alley, get lost in a strange city and strike up a conversation with the dude driving the bus and hope he will invite me and my traveling companion to a fun, divey secret spot that nobody’s ever heard of. This summer my boyfriend and I went to Brazil and felt a bit ho hum about Rio and Bahia as we kept running into lots of foreigners (AND we showed up in Brazil the day they lost to France in the World Cup). We decided to change course and headed up to Fortaleza in the Northeast and took a long and grueling 10-hour bus to Jericuaquara, otherwise known as a giant sand dune located in The Middle of Nowhere. That’s more like it, I thought. NOW we were off the beaten path and could meet Brazilians and have our very own, special trip.
Q. Can you tell us a particularly adventurous story from your travels?
Well I had a terrible scare in an airport in Pakistan on my way to Colombo but let’s tell a fun travel story instead. Several years ago I joined six friends from college on a trip to Egypt, including Antoine, who grew up in Egypt and spoke Arabic. It was before they were so strict about foreigners traveling without a government caravan to protect them and we were on our own for much of the time. After New Year’s in Cairo and a trip up the Nile, we headed out to visit Abu Simbel, to see the famed two temples. We agreed to take a local bus for about $1.00 for the four-hour trip from the town of Aswan The visit and the site was spectacular and when it was twilight we got back on the bus (our group and the rest, Egyptians) and headed back to Aswan. About two hours into our trip a piece of the engine went flying into the street and the bus broke down. We all got out, men and women, little kids, some chickens, and tried pushing the old creaky bus to get it started again (which strangely actually worked for a few miles) but we were basically stuck in the desert. It got cold, and dark, and a full moon rose, and no one came to get us. We sat in a circle with our new friends and learned new Arabic words, shared figs and many laughs. Some of the women, very modestly dressed and until now, silent, began singing Egyptian lullabies. This went on all night until a few cars finally passed by and began to pick us up and take us back to Aswan. All of us were relieved to get out of the cold desert air, but I think each one of us felt a sadness, too, as we had enjoyed one another so much but knew that we would never meet again.
Q. Do you have any travel tips to share?
Pack light! Actually, pack almost nothing and bring local things back with you. Don’t stay in big chain hotels if you don’t have to, you can do that in Houston. Get to know the local public transportation system, it will save you money, and I bet you’ll meet someone interesting along the way. And that’s the whole point, right?
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