Lights! Camera! Chickens?
(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)
It’s still dark outside when my phone alarm goes off at 5 AM. I hear Dr. Ross sit up on the side of his bed. “Is it seriously time to get up?” I mutter into my pillow.
“It’s your own fault.” Dr. Ross says, rubbing his eyes. “I’m blaming you for having to get up this early.” I start to laugh.
“Oh please. My fault?”
“Yeah, you had to go and write all those stories. Now we had to come and make a commercial and get up at 5 AM to do it.”
“Oh, yeah right! Well I wouldn’t have even written those stories if you hadn’t insisted that I come down here in the first place. This is totally your fault.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, Jeff is ridiculous. This was his idea wasn’t it? To be in the barrio by six in the morning?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I agree, sitting up in bed. “So is he insane or what?”
“I think he might be.” Jeff had insisted at the production meeting last night that we be out the door in time to be at the location by 6 AM. After walking all over the barrio on Monday, Jeff had finally settled on his choice for the scrim shot, an avenue of the neighborhood that would give him enough “expanse” for the big reveal shot of the commercial. The major concern though was getting the key shot before the sun rose too high. If the light became too harsh, he wouldn’t get the shot he wanted. So to beat the sun, we had to start setting up by 6 AM. This would be the earliest that Dr. Ross and I had ever been in the barrio. And we aren’t too keen on the idea.
Thankfully, there is no rain falling this morning. The weather has been one of the major concerns with filming outdoors here in Managua during the rainy season. It’s rained each day we’ve been here, but the precipitation arrives like clockwork each afternoon between three and four. It pours for half an hour or so and then stops. Hopefully, our luck will hold out today, too.
Rush hour in Managua clogs the streets by seven o’clock, but right now, they remain fairly empty. I went without breakfast this morning, feeling more nervous today that I have at any point during the trip. With the amount of preparation needed to get this complex shot, we will most likely only get one shot at making it happen. I try to block out the calculations going on in my head about how much the university is spending to get all of us down here. There will be any number of variables that could inhibit our success, and I really don’t want to be one of them. Before this morning, I always thought it would be cool to spend a day in Tom Hank’s shoes. Not today. With this kind of stress, Hanks can keep his dumb shoes.
The crew is all dressed in the vibrant red production t-shirts that Kyle has provided for them. They have the Change A Life logo across the front, and on the back, the titles and locations of each commercial shoot is listed. Ours runs across the bottom: “Nicaragua Trumpet” it’s called. In addition to the shirts, we’ve also been given all-access passes to wear on the set that read “RMU Road Crew.” Kyle has certainly spared no expense in making us al feel professional and important. I’m not sure what kind of special access this pass gives me, but it still feels neat to wear.
Don Pedro takes us directly to the spot where we will be shooting. After unloading the equipment, the prep work begins. Anita, Jeff, and Adam begin by laying out a black tarp on the dirt road before laying out the skeleton for the scrim. It’s important that the red fabric stay as clean as possible. Dino calls me over to strap on the wretched microphone belt before I start to perspire too much. Doc is sent to wake David, who has been allowed to sleep in because he had to work at the Claro call center until midnight. Ray wanted him to be able to rest as long as possible. Lucky duck.
Once I’ve been wired for sound, I walk over to Larkin and Doug. They both seem to be deep in artistic thought. “What do you think, Doug?” I ask. “Are we in the right spot?”
“I think so, yeah. I guess we’ll find out soon, huh?” Ray walks over to us, grips my shoulder, and extends his trademark handshake.
“The best advice I can give you, Lee,” he said. “Just try not to think about the fact that everything depends on you right now.”
“Yeah, Lee, no pressure at all.” Larkin kids. “Just don’t mess this up.” These guys are brutal.
The camera has been set up next to a giant pile of dark gravel, facing down the street toward the intersection where the sewage canal begins. About twenty yards from the scrim site, the road starts to move uphill, a dimensional feature that Jeff was looking for. A few other qualities make this a great spot. There’s a giant pile of truck tires spilling into the road. On the other side sits a giant rusty septic tank. Near the drainage ditch, a grey horse is standing guard over a giant mud puddle, hitched to a wooden cart. The poor animal looks pretty depressed to me. When I frame the whole shot with my hands from the spot of the camera, the scene does seem to sum up the essence of the barrio environment nicely. Jeff knows what he’s doing.
In addition to everything that already in place, however, there are few small adjustments that the art crew wants to make. This they call “tweeking the set”. We certainly don’t want to create a scene that is fake, but we do want the viewer to see as much of the barrio life as possible during the five seconds over which this final scene will play. Jeff has made a wish list of little things he’d like to have in the shot. A smoking fire, a children’s soccer game, a cluster of feeding chickens: all of them sights that are seen quite frequently throughout this neighborhood. The task of making all of this happen is delegated to Kyle and the translators. Our PR professional has already grabbed Marcela and taken off for the market to see how many chickens can be purchased for fifty dollars. All of the craziest tasks seem to fall on Kyle, but she’s determined to do whatever it takes to make this production happen.
Meanwhile, my only job so far has been to stay out of the sun and well hydrated. This only serves to make me more nervous. The guys carry over the constructed scrim to the spot where it will stand, and they go to work covering the back of it with the tarp so the sun won’t reveal the scaffolding. The crowd of curious onlookers quickly grows as the set starts to take shape. It’s not every day that an American film crew sets up shop in their backyard. In fact, this is probably the very first time that anything like has ever happened here.
David appears around the corner with Dr. Ross, waving to everyone. The two of us have some time to hang out, and we pass out candy to the kids and kick the soccer ball around. The sun continues to rise higher, and its rays are growing hot. I really hope we are getting close to rolling tape, because it’s starting to feel very late in the morning. Ray seems to share that sentiment. I ask him how he’s feeling. “Oh, this is always the hardest part for me,” he says. “You just want the director to start filming something. But he has to be comfortable first. Everything has to be just right before he pulls that trigger.” He is right about that. Jeff has been at the camera for an hour now, looking through the lens, then calling out adjustments, then checking again.
The white van appears down the road again, carrying our chicken negotiating team. Everyone is curious to see how the chicken mission went. When the women hop out, Kyle is triumphantly holding a giant garbage bag. “We got eleven!” she exclaims. “Eleven chickens for fifty bucks! What a deal!” Anita has also purchased several new soccer balls, and she dispenses one to the care of our eager extras. They are instructed to begin playing gently on the side of the road. Then Anita starts to sprinkle feed across the ground to keep our fowl interested in our little film for a while. “Where do you want your chickens, Jeff?”
“Right there in front of the camera would be great,” he says casually. I lean over to Doug.
“Did we seriously just buy our own chickens to insert into the scene?” I ask.
“Yup. We are totally going to break the two golden rules of filmmaking today,” he replies.
“Two golden rules?”
“Yeah. Never work with children, and never work with animals,” he says, laughing. “This should be interesting all right.”
“The real question,” adds Larkin, “is whether or not we will be eating those chickens later tonight.”
Our translators have both sprung into action to get Jeff everything he wanted. While Marcela helps free the chickens from their nets, Edgar is busy starting a fire. The local residents have loaned us their small fire pit to burn some green branches, enough to create a small plume of smoke behind the scrim. Jeff also asks Dr. Ross to walk down the road and ask the owners of the horse to lead their sad animal forward a few strides. At long last, after nearly four hours of preparation, Jeff is finally ready for the two Davids.
“Okay, guys, let’s get you in front of the scrim.” David and I step in front of the big red square, me in my blue RMU scrubs and David in his new gray shirt. He’s got his trumpet and I have my stethoscope. Jeff calls us into our first acting huddle. “All right, both of you take a deep breath. This is going to be easy.” I groan inwardly. He is just saying that. Jeff goes on to explain what the viewer will see and what exactly he needs us to do when we receive our cue. For our first several takes, I will deliver the tail end of my final line: But he’s the one who is unforgettable. This line refers to David, of course, and once I deliver that line, David is to nudge me from the side and “make me aware” of his presence. By this point, Jeff will have zoomed out from my face to reveal the chaotic activity going on around David and me. Jeff reassures us once more not to be nervous, then jogs back to the camera. I look at David. Compared to yesterday, he doesn’t seem nervous at all. He must be getting used to this.
“You understand what he wants you to do?” I ask.
“I think so. Take one, yes?”
“Yup, take one. The first of many, I’m betting.”
“Okay! Here we go, everyone!” Anita calls out. She has two young girls standing by her side, extras that she will send walking in front of the camera when Jeff gives the nod. Once they cross the camera, David and I have our cue. I take a deep breath and take a look around. The crowd behind the camera is all smiles. Eleven chickens are pecking happily at their feed. The smoke rises behind us, and the depressed horse stares glibly at its reflection in the mud puddle. This is totally insane, I think to myself. How in the world did they talk me into this? All of a sudden, Jeff nods. The girls cross the camera. My one line evaporates from my mind. Then a split second later, it’s back.
“But he’s the one that’s unforgettable,” I blurt out. I wait for David to nudge me. He doesn’t. I look over and he’s standing there, staring at me.
“What do I do now?” he asks. The expression on his face is hysterical. I burst out laughing.
“Okay, take two, everybody!” I shout to the barrio.
It’s going to be a long day.
It seems like the day has stretched on forever since we arrived in the barrio. David and I acted out the final scene of the commercial over and over and over again, so many times that we began to feel stupid about ourselves. Jeff kept telling us just to hang loose and act natural, but neither David nor I felt anything close to loose and natural in front of a rolling camera and several dozen onlookers. Finally, though, Jeff was satisfied with our work and we closed up shop on the crucial last shot. Duane organized everyone who had come out to watch us into one giant group photo, capturing many smiling faces of all shapes and sizes. The surrounding neighbors had been so helpful throughout the morning. Anita and Dr. Ross did their best to compensate each and every one of them to show our appreciation for tolerating our brief invasion. Then it was off to the clinic for lunch and several more hours of shooting. Supplementary footage was filmed of me triaging patients in the clinic, Dr. Ross treating them in his exam room, and both of us discussing cases during a post-conference. Then David and I were positioned out onto the veranda of the clinic to film a scene of us talking about the day he received his trumpet. By the time we moved up to David’s house, it was clear that everyone was on the tail end of their energy reserves.
“Adelante! Adelante! Bienvenido! Bienvenido!” David’s mother throws open the front door to the house to me and the film crew. Before I can climb the porch steps to greet her, I am caught by Judith, David’s 13-year-old sister. Judith is the tightest hugger I know, and she loves to surprise me with them. Since arriving back in the barrio on Monday, each time she has seen me, the young teen has latched onto my waist and tried to squeeze all the breath from my lungs. Judith bears a strong resemblance to her older brother, flashing the same broad grin to everyone she meets. David’s other sister, 17-year-old Laurita, has a rounder face, but the same long black hair as Judith and beautiful eyes. She’s a bit shyer than the exuberant Judith, but every bit as hospitable. It’s David’s mother, however, who beams the brightest. She kisses me on the cheek and wraps her arms around my neck. “Has vuelto!” she laughs, squeezing me even harder than Judith.
“Si, has vuelto! I’m back!”I laugh with her. She pulls back from me and studies my face carefully as if checking me over for scratches or dents. I have only met this woman once before, during my November trip, but she has heard much about me from her son, and she welcomes me home as family. I scan the front room of David’s house. The Espinozas are able to live in an actual house, a much more stable and spacious structure than most of the surrounding dwellings of the barrio. And it is immaculately clean. I can tell Mrs. Espinoza has been expecting us. The framed photos of David and me that I gave him on my last trip are proudly displayed in the center of the family table. There is music playing from the stereo along the wall. It’s a wonderful reassurance to see that my Nicaraguan friend has four solid walls around him and his family at night. That’s more than most people here have.
While we are talking, the film guys call David outside in the street. They’ve set up the scrim in the street and they want to get one final shot before the rain starts falling. The shot will be easy. All Jeff wants David to do is stand in front of the red square and play the trumpet for a few minutes. Judith and Laurita have put on their best outfits to welcome us. Larkin, who has proven to be keenly sensitive to our influence on the people here, asks Jeff to incorporate them into the shot as well. Everyone agrees, and the girls are placed on camera as onlookers. They are thrilled. Soon, David’s house is empty except for me and Marsela and Mrs. Espinoza. She insists that we both sit down in her rocking chairs. She pulls out chilled cans of apple juice from the fridge and serves them to us, then sits next to me and asks about my family back home.
“Oh, please tell her that they are all doing well!” I ask Marcela. “And I gave David a photo of my whole family this time, too.” She relays the message. “Would you mind if I asked her a few questions about David and his sisters?”
“Absolutely,” Marcela says. “What do you want me to ask her?”
“Well, please compliment her on David first of all, and the girls. They are amazing kids. My classmates and I have been so blessed by David. Maybe you could ask her how she managed to raise three kids so well here in the barrio?” Marcela translates my message and David’s mom nods eagerly. She begins to speak, and for several minutes, she and Marcela discuss back and forth as I sip my apple juice. Marcela grows quiet and listens intently. Finally, she turns back to me.
“Lee, this woman is incredible,” she tells me. “It seems like David’s father has been out of the picture since he was one year old, and she says he has never wanted any part of raising him or his sisters. So she’s been raising these kids all by herself since then. She says she works hard to provide the best life she can for them, and she has sacrificed everything in order for them to attend a private school. I asked her why and she said that the government schools don’t teach the kids anything but how to get into trouble. She didn’t want her children to go down that path, so she invested in their education. She is very proud of David, too. He doesn’t smoke or drink or hang around with the gangs. He sticks up for his sisters and helps his neighbors. She says he has worked since he was fourteen and takes his role as man of the house very seriously. She was crushed when his trumpet was stolen, and now, not only to have one again, but also to to have all of these exciting things with RMU happen to him, she is just happier than can express.”
It shouldn’t surprise me to hear all of this, knowing what I know about David, but yet it does. I had no idea that I had so much in common with this kid. My father never abandoned me at any point in life, but I know very well what both my parents gave up in order for me to have a private Christian education. They kept me from a public education for the very same reasons, wanting to be able to raise me with the morals and values that would guide me away from the social dangers I could easily stumble into. I just never anticipated I would find David’s mother to possess the same force of determination as my own mom. It’s difficult enough to raise physically healthy children in Nicaragua. Raising them to live their lives with responsibility and morals is even harder. But David’s mother made up her mind to do just that, right here in one of the most dangerous and impoverished areas of the city. And she has succeeded in an incredible way.
Outside, we can hear the notes of David’s trumpet rising over the approaching thunder. It’s about to rain. Sure enough, moments later, the daily downpour begins and our day of shooting takes an early wrap. The video crew comes pouring into the house, seeking shelter for themselves and the equipment. But all the wet heads wear bright smiles. Somehow, we’ve managed to get the bulk of all the needed footage in one long day of hard work. It’s been a great day. There’s just one last thing to do that can be done right here in the Espinoza family home. Dino sets up the sound equipment to record David reading voiceover lines that may be used in the commercial. Anita ushers everyone but David, Ray, and Dino out on to the gated porch. They need the room as quiet as possible.
Outside, I hop up on the hood of the rusty, broken down shell of car that hasn’t run a long time, one of the luxuries that Mrs. Espinoza gave up for her three kids many years ago. For me, this moment in the middle of the rain moves me deeply. For six months, I’ve lost sleep over this whole idea, remaining skeptical about the purpose of this commercial. I’ve questioned my motives. I’ve doubted the people in charge. I’ve prayed over and over again that this project would not result in any harm to David or his family, and that we wouldn’t be seen as taking advantage of their difficult situation. But when I look over at this boy’s proud mother, sitting in her chair, flanked by her two daughters, I feel at peace about the Change A Life campaign for the very first time. She rocks back and forth gently with her eyes closed, a huge smile spread across her face. Everything she gave up over the past nineteen years for her children must seem so trivial in this moment of maternal pride. All of her sweat and all of her tears can wash away with the rain today. Someone from the world outside the barrio finally discovered the amazing qualities that her son possesses, ones that she always knew were there. And now there is a film crew in her house, here to take his story home to America to inspire others. Yes, it was worth it all right. Some moments in life are simply so special you want them to stretch on forever.
This is one of those moments.