‘The Last Safari‘ follows the story of a photojournalist’s quest for meaning through the unforgiving landscape of remote Kenya as she sets out in search of the tribes-people she documented a decade earlier, dodging everything from bullets and floods, to heat strokes along the way.
Elizabeth L. Gilbert began her career as a war photographer in the 1990’s, covering some of the most tragic events in human history such as the Rwandan genocide and civil war in Somalia. After years of conflict, a disillusioned Gilbert set out to point her cameras at the disappearing vestiges of traditional Africa. She succeeded at capturing some of the very last photographs of a vanishing world. One decade and two books later, Gilbert has assembled an unlikely team of safari first-timers to accompany her return as she brings them her books and presents cinema slide shows to the most remote villages in Kenya. For most audiences, this will be the first time to see a cinema projection as well as photographs of themselves and their sacred ceremonies. Together, she and the crew learn some hard lessons about a rapidly changing Africa.
Anticipating ‘The Last Safari‘ WORLD PREMIERE at the 2013 Hamptons Internation Film Festival on Sunday, October 13, 2013 we spoke with the films director Matt Goldman and photojournalist Elizabeth L Gilbert on a variety of topics pertaining to thecontinent, the nature of journalism, the practicals in filming ‘The Last Safari’ and much more.
Find Tickets & More Information on ‘The Last Safari’ Hamptons International Film Festival – HERE
Elizabeth, how did you originally develop an interest in photojournalism?
Elizabeth L Gilbert: I knew from the time I was 6 years old I wanted to be a journalist. I originally thought I would be a reporter, but my performance in school informed my ultimate decision to pursue photography. I studied photography in college with the view I would get a Masters in Journalism. On that end, I went to Somalia as soon as I received my Bachelor’s and a month later I was living my dreams. At the same time I had gotten accepted to Columbia in the journalism program, but at that point I was working for Time Magazine and was on the biggest news story in the world. It made no sense to go back to school as photography became my career.
How did you make that jump from college to picking up and going to Africa?
ELG: I had had a short period of time between graduating and when I left where I worked for a photo news agency. This afforded me a view of how the industry worked and how people operated as freelance photographers. As a freelancer your agenda is to get to these places and to offer support for those involved. I understood that. I had an invitation to come out to Nairobi, which was close to a lot of news I was interested in. I got on a cargo plane, lied and said I was big reporter for Reuters, and went to Somalia. When I got back I ended up going straight to Reuters and sold them my pictures.
Did you put together a portfolio of photos you had done up to that point or, how exactly does this work from a practical point of view?
ELG: Isn’t that interesting! I thought I should and I wasted a lot of time trying to put something like that together. When I look back I realize there is only one thing important to an editor and it is that you are there at the right time. This is relative to news, though. If you want to sell yourself as a photographer for a greater feature work, you would need the portfolio for sure. Any editor would tell you they wanted to see it because it is comfortable. The fact is, in Somalia you would be the only person there and when something you will get the gig. You are the only person anyone wants to talk to at the moment. If you are the kind of person who is willing to take that risk, both personally and financially, you can write your own ticket, or at least you could then. These days digitization may have changed things a little. In those days we shot film and shipped it to New York. Can you imagine? Only the news agencies scanned prints, but you still had to process it in a dark room you would make in the bathroom.
Matt, how did your interest in filmmaking begin? How did it take you to this documentary?
MG: I got into film after college and entered that world during a time when people were still shooting on super 16mm. I have always approached filmmaking from a guerilla standpoint. The nature of the guerilla film always changes however. I had done some short films about a decade ago, which found some success so afterwards I started taking work as a filmmaker. This led me to a lot of edit work. I started editing professionally for almost a decade on top of directing.
I was directing everything that came way and it was across the board. It is hard for me to answer a question like “what kind of films do you make?” due to this. I have done childrens TV, short comedies, surrealist films; I have really run the gamut. When I met Liz, I was doing a childrens TV pilot in Kenya. She was friends with the producer and when she started telling me her story I was immediately drawn to it. When she said her dream would be to do this slide show under the stars I wanted to be involved. I had seen her books and was really amazed by her photography. When she mentioned she was looking for a filmmaker to come with her on this journey (on a shoestring budget) I immediately saw an opportunity to do something special. It was a while since I had made a film of my own and this would be a feature length documentary (a first).
From a filmmaking point of view, in order to make this particular film, what was your day-to day technical setup?
MG: I insisted on bringing this little jib arm, but other than that the whole thing was run and gun. Documentary filmmaking has changed to much, so I was looking at this as a verite experience. I had to capture what is happening every day. Liz had to be the central character of the movie, even though she did not necessarily want to be…
ELG:…I wanted the slideshow to be the character, as well as the people. I saw myself as maybe being a narrator, but never on camera.
MG: That was my contribution. Liz was a white lady in Africa with a specific mission so she had to be a central character. So, aside from following her around verite style, my mind was also on how to make the project cinematic. For me, the word documentary carries a stigma on how it informs, educates and changes the world. A film does this too, so I wanted to make a cinematic experience, not change the world per se.
It turned into something of a comedy in balancing the two aspects of the project. On one hand we were focused on documenting the real life important aspect, but also to make something that looks good.
How do you approach this conversation, though? I know I have had conversations with producers as to the importance of a cinematic feel, especially to documentaries, but with subject matter like this it may be viewed as unimportant or even superficial.
MG: We were debating it a lot along the way. As you know, Liz comes from a news background; her background mentality is “get in there and get it”. We also butt heads because she is a photographer and, to be honest, a better one than I could ever hope to be. When looking through the dailies you would see her pointing out scenes we may had been missing. It was really a struggle and a lot of times I had to throw the aesthetic to the wayside in order to tell the story. We were also under serious time constraints. Someone told me it felt like the film depicted a year or so, but it was actually under a month.
ELG: I was laughing because I had never heard of a jib before in my life. Matt arrived in Africa and I had this idea that it was about the photography. We had all these ideas on how we were going to film everything on the ground. We had a few arguments actually; where I just wanted him to go out and get the shot, leaving the equipment behind. By the end of the safari, I was screaming at him to get the jib!
MG: There was a couple of shots in there that the jib really came in handy.
What was your initial interest in traveling to Africa?
ELG: Have you ever been?
I have not
ELG: It is a place that speaks to people. It is a place where people arrive and develop an immediate connection. People speak of India in the same way…
…I was actually born in India…
ELG: So you know that resonance that can occur. For me, I got off the plane and the minute my foot hit the tarmac I felt it was a place I belonged. I wanted to live there for the rest of my life. It is a bit like falling in love. You cannot quite put your finger on it. Also, to see what was going on in the continent was very profound. Especially as a photographer or journalist where you cannot help but want to document that. I believed, at the time, journalism was a powerful way to create conversations amongst people.
What was your personal approach to portrait photography, especially in relation to your original photography in Kenya?
ELG: Initially a lot were practical documentary. As I was shifting in my roll as news photographer into art-like journalism, I was thinking much more practically in terms of what would still exist in the future. Later, as my heart was swept away by the majesty of this way of life, I wanted to convey that. There is romanticism in my images and I intend for it to be. I think of it in terms of getting ones picture taken for a school class photo. On that day, you comb your hair, put on the cool shirt and try to create a moment you will be remembered in your best light. I remembered that when doing so for people who had no capacity to do this. I wanted to present an image of them they would have wanted to have taken. To me, the images are very beautiful. Even if the somber portraits they have a dignity that, I hope, will speak over time.
In the film, you mention how many Western photographers come to Africa once and never return. What drives this philosophy on their part? Does it come from a selfish place, where it is known that content could be collected in Africa and that is where the relation to the continent stops?
ELG: When I think of this I think of the dynamic of tourism. I myself am guilty of it, where we go somewhere on holiday, being wowed by the new surroundings and wanting to record that for your own memories. One rarely thinks on the affect that has on the pope on the other side. Particularly in Africa, villages become tourist destinations and the waters get pretty muddy. People step into this dynamic and its difficult to get away.
Matt, what was your initial interest in travelling to Africa?
MG: At first I was working and did not, necessarily, have an interest in going. I did not know much about Kenya; I could barely point out Nairobi on a map. I felt like I had got conked over the head as within a week of meeting Liz it changed my life. Part of my motivation was, aside from wanting to tell her story, I wanted to go back and I needed a reason. This was a real opportunity for me to get back to a place that started to haunt me.
Kenya is a place that is incredibly diverse. I did not see the horrifying tragedies of Africa. Instead, I saw the very beautiful aspects to it. I knew I was going to make a film that did not have that Sally Struthers effect, where we are focusing solely on the negative, as well as in a sensationalized way. There are moments in the film that hints on it, but it is a POV issue. These kids living there want to get on with it. They want to make an action film or something, whereas first world people come and all we can see is suffering. I hope that amongst the landscape of films on Africa, ‘The Last Safari’ can be that breath of fresh air. Lets look at parts of the continent that very few people are talking about and not make another charity fundraising video.
ELG: I like it when Matt describes the film as a love letter because I really feel it is what it is. It is a love letter to Africa and to a bygone era.
Was there any moment you can pin point where your focus shifted from documenting the tough life of Africa to this new focus?
ELG: I was in Zaire and some friends were killed. In over a year I had lost about 5 or 6 good friends to different incidents across the continent; I was in a plane crash; A number of things happened. There was a moment in time over one year where I felt I was pushing my luck. It led me to reassess what I was doing and what was I focusing on. I really wanted to heal in a way.
What are some of your personal favorite, or go to, documents of the continent?
MG: I would say Peter Beard would be a good person to cite.
ELG: That is a question for Matt to answer. As an American filmmaker he brought that sensibility to Afrcia. I like how he had no point of reference. It was not until after we finished ‘The Last Safari’ that he watched ‘Out of Africa’ even. Matt did something with this film I could never have imagined, because I had too many points of reference. I think that is why the film is what it is. It is not as serious as something I would have done. Matt was ready to dance with the whole thing and not try and plug it into anything that would be overly influenced.
MG: It is a very esoteric subject matter. It is not an easy sell. I took this as a challenge. Rather than saying I will make this slow moving film very few people would have seen, I wanted to approach it commercially regardless of their own frame of reference.
Now, what is your approach to getting the film out to as wide an audience as you can?
MG: It is a funny landscape out there right now. We are lucky enough to screen at a few festivals coming up. From there, we hope we get invitations to more. I would love attract a distributor/aggregator and if we could get a small theatrical release it would be great. To be honest, I want it out on the digital world. The goal is to get it out to the widest audience possible and that is the best way to do so.
– Interview Conducted, Transcribed & Edited (On-Site) by Steve Rickinson