We Done Goof’d - Found Footage
With the stereo projecting the strangely calming voice of Carl Kasell singing Golden Slumbers between his hypnotic ramblings, my mind is now dwelling on a more unsettling experience that has been brought up twice in recent days after spending much time in the back of my mind. On March 5th of 2012, while shooting a documentary in Nicaragua, my team and I were temporarily detained by the military. At the time, we weren’t sure whether or not we’d be taken in for a more permanent stay—or worse—so I shot insurance footage in the moments following the encounter to act as our voice in case our voices were silenced. (I’ll be posting excerpts at the end of the story.) Just last week, I found that footage and viewed it for the first time since the incident, and though said footage and scattered notes I plan on reliving the experience from the comfort of my home with the aid of a pack of Winston’s and Carl Kasell. I’ll save the whiskey for this last coming week in Cheyenne.
The scene in Managua, the capitol city of Nicaragua, is one of melancholic serenity. A picturesque tropical paradise juxtaposed to the vast human suffering enveloped in the unregulated emissions and unfortunate upkeep of the third world. The country has seen its fair share of civil war and bloodshed in recent history, including the infamous Iran-Contra affair waged by President Reagan in the 80’s. While in past years there has been compromise and a relative “peace” in the region, the recent election stolen by the corrupt Sandinista President Daniel Ortega has stoked the flames of bitterness inside the hearts of the Contra. Citizens show their discontent by blocking city streets with burning tires while the Government continues to abuse imminent domain to stifle those who they feel are a threat to their movement. We were Americans conducting business inside a very volatile political climate where anything could happen. While it was an incredible thrill and privilege, the threat of our situation was very real.
We had the luxury of spending our time working in the heat of spring without the burden of the bugs and heavy humidity of summer as we bounced around the countryside collecting our interviews and b-roll. The reward for a long day’s work could be found in the sweet embrace of the patio hammock, gently swaying to the tempo of the cool evening breeze with a nice glass of Flor de Caña rum resting on the table and the song of tropical birds serenading the air. The temporary sanctuary was used to quietly recap the chaos of the day inside the safety of our quaint compound before the next day of action. The job was an absolute dream—but that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
The day prior to the disaster, the team and I were driving through the neighborhood of President Ortega. Evidence of his unpopularity and paranoia of the new generation of rebels was apparent with the numerous militants patrolling on every corner, armed with AK-47s and pineapples—keeping the “peace.” From the back of the bus, one of the producers suggested we get some shots of the guards, as our film was heavy with military content and such b-roll would prove useful. I declined the task, mentioning that as a bus full of white people filming inside the country under false pretenses to begin with, the last thing we wanted to do is draw attention from the crooked military to our presence. I wasn’t exactly sure they grasped the reality of where we were and what could happen. The conversation didn’t end there, however.
Our security guard, José-Luis, overheard our discussion and claimed that he knew a place where we could get what we needed. He had a contact who worked at a military base just a short way through the mountains. The team liked the plan, and we decided we’d go check out the place the next morning. While the idea of a supposed “in” for the location was somewhat reassuring, I still had a bad feeling about the whole idea.
The following morning, after a peaceful drive overlooking the impossibly green landscape and the postcard worthy waterfront, we arrived to a military compound in the middle of a dry, barren land. With the assurance of José-Luis, the director Dan and I exited the safety of our bus and ventured out into the wild with our cameras into the streets outside of the base. We then proceeded to, as most people with cameras do, get the shots. No questions, no hesitation, just a mission to get as much footage possible so we could get the hell out of there. A grand archway proudly praising the “Sandinista” army, parked tanks on display from the Contra-Sandinista conflict, and patrolling grunts wandering around the grounds scattered the desolate stage. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, so we went at it.
When filming in extreme situations, your mind and ego are erased; replaced by only the most basic of instincts, a healthy shot of adrenaline and the eye of the camera to guide you through the moment. This heightened sense awareness is somewhat similar to a ‘combat high’ that infantry experience in fierce fire fights. The ramifications and risk of your actions are second only to the importance of doing what you set out to do the best you can do it. It can be a dangerous phenomenon, and will one day probably be the end of me, but it’s an absolutely essential skill to have in this field. This high dulled me to the first armed Sandinista walking our way. It wasn’t until the second guard in our vicinity that I was jarred from my tranced state. Before I knew it, we were surrounded by a handful of AKs and militants representing a ruthless dictator of a third world hell hole. That’s when I began to get a little bit concerned.
It was now Dan, our Puerto Rican audio specialist Marco, José-Luis and myself surrounded by military police with our driver and producers still on the bus. The two in our group that spoke Spanish began explaining ourselves as a sixth soldier approached the group, who was dressed differently than the others. It was the commanding officer, and the gravity of our predicament truly manifested itself when he arrived on the scene as he forced his way through the five other soldiers who were containing the situation. The man was only in the area of five foot tall, but his presence was stifling with a telling gut and physique of a privileged lifestyle that stuffed his decorated dark green fatigues and a face that radiated with the air of a Bond villain. With a thick, jet black mustache that matched the midnight pitch of his sunglasses, the entire presentation was complete with a golden canine tooth hanging in his mouth that spoke with a slow, commanding voice as he interrogated Marco. While they were dealing with us, with one guard snapping photos with a small digital camera, two of the other MPs let themselves into our bus where they proceeded to interrogate the producers of their side of the story. We now had the potential to get our stories mixed up, which would not be a good thing.
While the militants backed off for a moment in a huddle, I slowly shuffled over to ask Marco what story he had given them. His answer was that we were filming the history of Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, hence our presence at the base. It was a good enough answer that was spoken just in time as the officer made his return to our group and began collecting passports. I was last in line when Señor Sadam approached me in a fashion that would make Lyndon Johnson proud,
My physical passport was stored on the bus, but I had a photocopy in my camera bag that I handed over to him. He laughed.
“This is not passport!”
I explained my situation and was allowed to get on the bus to acquire my papers. It was now just the ladies in the vehicle, and during my brief window of opportunity I asked them what story they gave the soldiers. They said their story was that we were filming for a church group to get more people to come and help out their cause. My stomach dropped to my feet. Our stories didn’t match up. We were doomed. Hopefully we’d have a nice story for the producers at Locked Up Abroad to pursue.
I returned to the dire heat of the sun and the unfortunate situation and handed over my passport. His eyes slowly scanned back and forth from my photo to my face. He finally spoke, “Are you afraid?”
“No.” I replied with a stone cold expression and a boldfaced lie. It took everything I had to keep from succumbing to the doomed situation; the potential of being imprisoned abroad in a place where Americans are despised, the idea of never seeing my friends and family again, the fear of the unknown boundaries of a third world dictatorship. My brain was bleeding and my legs struggled to stand, feeling powerless in the situation. After having our footage forcibly wiped and an excruciating 15 minutes of listening to foreign tongues deciding our fate, we were all allowed to get back on the bus.
After another moment of uncertainty and suspense waiting for their huddle to break, the officer finally climbed aboard the bus with one other soldier at his side. He spoke slowly and imposingly in broken English with a peculiar grin that revealed his golden tooth and eyes hidden by darkness.
“We are sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. We welcome you to our country and want you to enjoy your stay in Nicaragua. You are free to go now.”
His tone was hard to read because of his inflection. Was he being sincere? Or was this a Bond villain setting us up for a later arrest after they had researched our names and the Twitter trail of our project? We drove off and made it back to our home where we assessed the situation. The rest of the day had an ominous vibe hanging over it, and it took a second glass of rum to get the hammock as comfortable as it should have been. But the night came and passed and there weren’t any raids on the compound, and the next day was business as usual. The nightmare had ended, and it was smooth sailing the rest of the trip.
It’s hard to say how close we actually were to a disaster scenario. With the arrest and imprisonment of the main subject of the documentary for supposedly false pretenses in the months that followed, one can only speculate whether or not that came about by our folly. And you can bet your ass that our passports will be flagged in future visits to the country. But we made it and I only lost one good pair of underwear on the trip. It was a wild ride, one that I’m thankful of making it out of.
[Here] is a clip from just moments after leaving the scene.