Production in War Zones
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Years ago I was employed with a company that provided audio, lighting, projection, set design, carpentry and video production services on all sorts of events. During this period I mostly worked as a Video Director although at times I would also go out with video production packages as a systems tech (or the broadcast TV title would be “Engineer in Charge”) especially when a client had their own director.
I had been on a much needed vacation when my pager started buzzing (yes, this story occurred long enough ago before everyone had cell phones). I called the office and was routed to our Production Manager. Without saying hello, he asked, “Is your passport current?”
“Yes” I replied, “why?” “We have a job about to take place in El Salvador…” He conveniently failed to mention El Salvador was on the tail end of a civil war.
He explained, “We were going to send Pedro (his named changed to protect the innocent) as engineer because he speaks Spanish but we just learned that Pedro’s wife is pregnant and may give birth before he would return to the U.S..”
“So we want to know if you cut your vacation short – go and cover in El Salvador so Pedro can be home for the birth?”
“When would I leave?” I asked. “Tomorrow” he replied.
I agreed to cut my vacation short, pack my bags and head to El Salvador on one of the first flights. The gear had been shipped to Central America the week before and was supposedly waiting for me with a freight forwarding company in-country. Id’e be travelling by myself and I would be the only representative from my company on this shoot. On the plane ride down I was more nervous about not speaking Spanish than I was about heading to a potential war zone.
I should mention the on-site end-client (my client’s-client) was Chinese. He didn’t speak English or Spanish. Our cameramen would be El Salvadorian locals, who spoke Spanish but not Chinese or English. And I (the guy that was supposed to make it all work from a technical perspective) spoke neither Chinese or Spanish. What could go wrong?
I was given instructions to travel to El Salvador, go to a particular hotel and meet our direct-client who was to be waiting for me there. When I landed in El Salvador I got a cab, asked the cabbie (in English) to take me to the hotel so-and-so and then trusted that I would wind up at the right place (the cabbie never responded, I was not sure he understood me). Along the way I saw that the country was still very much in a state of unrest. Pick-up trucks packed with young men wearing civilian clothing holding automatic weapons between their knees would speed by our taxi. Other vehicles had passengers with rifles or shot guns. Some of the people walking down the street had rifles, pistols or machetes. It seemed everyone around me was armed … that was, except me. I wondered, “will I ever make it to the hotel?” If I were kidnapped, how much ransom would my captors ask for? One’s self-esteem is never calculated as carefully as when pondering your own ransom amount.
I arrived at the hotel and was thankful to discover the staff there spoke perfect English. At the Front Desk I attempted to check in, but there was no reservation under my name. There was no reservation for me under Pedro’s name, my company name or the client’s name either. I asked the clerk to call the client’s hotel room. The clerk responded, “he was here, but he checked out two days ago. He left no forwarding address. We do not know how to contact him.”
Having nowhere to go and no way to contact the client, I plopped down my credit card on the desk and begged the clerk to supply me with a room until I could get the matter straightened out. When I got to my hotel room I left messages for the Production Manager in New York that things were not starting off well and he needed to find the client for me “rapido!”
I then took a walk to check out the neighborhood. The hotel was in an affluent section of the city. The contrast between this area and the barrios we traveled through coming from the airport was striking. Surrounding the hotel were expensive private villas. Each villa consisted of a secured compound surrounded by a tall wall circumventing the property. On top of each wall was either barbed wire, broken glass embedded into cement, or both. The corners of perimeter walls sometimes had elevated guard towers. Some of these towers had gun ports allowing the person inside a protected firing position against any who approached the property. Some of the exterior walls had pock marks or gouges. I imagined this was from gun fire on the streets.
The next morning my hotel room phone rang. It was the client! He told me to pack-up and he would pick me up and get me a room over at his new hotel. I was relieved! After checking-in at the second hotel we met up with the Freight Forwarder to collect the video carrypack cases that had been shipped from the U.S. the week prior. After retrieving the cases I was pleased to find no damage … but I also did not find one cable. Not one BNC cable. Not one XLR cable. No camera cables. No AC extensions. No waber strips. Nothing!
I asked the Freight Forwarder to check his case count to see if we were missing any boxes. He said, everything shipped was present and accounted for.
Back at the hotel I called the NY office. Furious I said, “I am in a foreign country, sent here on one day’s notice into a war zone, I don’t speak the language and I have a carrypack system that appears to have been not only prepped but shipped from the United States with NO CABLES!”
After a few moments of silence the Production Manager said, “you are supposed to be live on the air transmitting to China tomorrow. Even if we sent you cable right now it would never be in El Salvador by tomorrow morning. Sorry, but you need to find another way.”
I grabbed our local security detachment (four El Salvadorian body guards that were hired to follow us around and keep us from getting ourselves killed) and had them call every local TV station in the city to see if I could borrow, buy, barter or steal any cable. No luck. I did get a lead on a vendor to buy cable and connectors from however. $2,000 USD later I had a pick-up truck’s worth of coax, connectors, crimpers, XLR, 12/3 SJO power cable and soldering irons. No sleep for me that night. We had a international live-shot in a few hours. One of the clients and I stayed up all night and assembled cables until sunrise.
The next morning we loaded our carry pack into the back of our “TV Truck,” which up until hours before had been used exclusively to haul coffee beans. Well, production-truck and produce-truck start with the same few letters. It would have to do.
That day we did three different shoots at three different locations around the city. At the first location I extended out my first AC cable, handed it to the local El Salvadorian electrician (who was running a local generator) and told him, “ocho amps.” He nodded and ran off with the male end of the cable. When he returned I handed him my second AC cable, “cinco amps.” Again, he nodded and ran off with the male end. When he returned I handed him my third AC cable, “ocho amps” and so it went until all the racks were wired for power. As we were behind schedule, instead of metering the power I just started throwing power switches but as quickly as things powered up they all went dark.
Jumping out of the back of the coffee bean TV truck I followed my AC cables to the generator. Peering down I saw that our electrician had all thirty amps load of my cables plugged into one flimsy plastic waber power strip which had popped after about 15 amps of draw. I nick-named the electrician Chispear, which our body guards told me was an passable Spanish translation for the term “Sparky.”
After redistributing the electrical load at the generator I returned to the coffee bean truck and turned everything on. The Spanish camera operators quickly congregated at the back of the truck and excitedly tried to tell me something. Boy they were talking fast! I couldn’t understand them. One kept using the word “morir,” another kept saying “lastimar.”
I left to get one of the body guards who was especially good at translating well. I had nick-named this guard “Barney Fife” after the character on the old Andy Griffith TV show as I imagined this guard’s boss, like Andy, only allowed the guard to carry one bullet and even then only if he carried the bullet safely tucked away in his breast pocket.
“Barney” was just about to translate for the camera operators when one camera-op (who would have made an excellent partner if we were playing charades) acted out an epileptic seizure. “A Ha!” he was using the internationally recognized sign for “we are getting shocked!”
I followed the cameramen over to the cameras and sure enough there was voltage on the side of the camera body! Sparky was nowhere to be found so I decide to trouble-shoot the grounding problem myself. At the generator I followed the green wire about ten meters off the street into the shrubs and trees (to me, an El Salvadorian rain forest). When I got to the end of the cable I saw that Chispear had stripped back about six inches of bare wire on the ground cable, then wrapped the wire loosely around his screw driver and jammed the screw driver into the dirt. (Hmmm, I don’t think OSHA would approve).
The body guards found Chispear for me and translated my request for a one meter long copper rod and some copper clamps. An hour later, the cameramen were much happier.
After the shoot we struck the gear and I realized that the quality of the video cables and connectors I spend $2,000 USD on yesterday was so bad (or miss-matched in sizes) that the cables were slipping right out of the connectors with just one use. There was no way that these cables would last another few days of multiple set-ups and strikes. For the rest of the week we didn’t get much sleep. Each night back at the hotel we re-tested, re-crimped and re-tested cable.
The next day we surveyed the El Salvadorian Presidential Palace. We were told that we needed to park our TV produce – production truck in a lot on one side of a street, but the cameras would need to be on the other side of the street. Oh, and all the cables needed to be flown overhead so that military vehicles could drive by the palace and not over the cables, and oh, if we were going to fly the cables the lowest part of the cable needed to be at least 15 feet off the ground so the tops of military vehicles didn’t snag the cables! Oh and there were no telephone or light poles nearby for us to fly the cables from!
We took off into the city and found a construction company that was willing to rent us their scaffolding towers. But the scaffold had cement, dirt and who knows what else crusted on them. So again, we stayed up all night this time painting the scaffolding white so it would look presentable in front of the El Salvador’s President’s palace. When we loaded in at the Palace however staffers changed the location for our truck. The rental of the scaffolding, the purchase of paint and our sleepless night painting scaffold in the dark, making construction site truss look pretty was now no longer needed.
By this time we were all physically and emotionally wiped out. Except for my first night in-country we had spent every other night either making cables or painting scaffolding. Our days consisted of setting up, filming and then striking the carrypack coffee bean TV truck multiple times a day. There was also the stress of working in a war zone – approaching check-points with soldiers suspiciously pointing their rifles directly at us, or wondering if a pick-up truck of militia passing us on a roadway were friendly or not?
The next morning someone reported to me we were having problems with our transmission. The original transmission plan was that wherever we originating from in the city we would microwave our signal to a geographic high point (a dormant volcano) and then re-transmit back down from the volcano to the roof of our hotel building where we had a C-band satellite uplink dish set-up for the international hop to China. This planning would allow us to go anywhere in the city without needing to lug the C band dish and transmitter around with us.
I found Barney and told him, “we need to go to the volcano.” Barney said, “no.”
“I am serious,” I replied “we have to go to the volcano, there is a problem with the microwave.” Barney again said, “no.”
Now angry, I asked “why?”
Barney said, “there are banditos on the volcano. If we go there they will kill you!”
Frustrated I was being overruled by security I decided to go up to the roof of the hotel to blow off steam. I climbed the stairs, got out on the roof and checked our satellite dish. It all looked fine. The hotel was pretty tall compared to the surrounding buildings so I could see pretty far while on the roof. I walked over to the edge so I could peer over the side down onto the neighborhood surrounding us.
The edge of the roof had no safety wall surrounding the building. It was just a flat roof and then a 100 ft (or so) drop straight down to the ground. I cautiously approached the edge and peeked over. As I did, looking down onto the surrounding villas, I heard…
I reacted instinctively. I was being shot at! I jumped down laying flat on the roof of hotel and tried to make myself as small as possible (by the way, I am not small). I didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from and there was no cover, so I commando-belly-crawled the thirty feet back to the stairwell. Once at the stairs I ran inside as fast as I could and proceeded to leap down the flights of stairs until I got to our floor. Once there I ran into the room occupied by our body guards. They were all watching TV, their feet up on the coffee table.
Out of breath I did my best to talk while gasping for air, “I was on the roof…” “I was on the roof … and someone shot at me!” Barney, unimpressed never took his eyes off the TV. He just muttered in English, “no they didn’t.”
Adrenalin pumping and now furious at him I said, “I was on the roof and they shot at me! Aren’t you going to do anything?” Barney’s eyes still glued to the TV said, “no they didn’t.”
I screamed back, “what do you mean?” “How do you know?” “I’m telling you what happened!” Now Barney turned and looked over at me and said, “El Salvador just won a soccer game, people are celebrating. They aren’t shooting at YOU!”
After calling off my vacation, travelling to a war zone, not speaking the local language, hunting down the client, not having supplies needed to do my job, buying and making cable, painting scaffolding, going multiple days without sleep … I had concluded that someone was trying to harm me. And although things on this trip were certainly not easy and potentially unsafe, I had come to the conclusion that everything and everyone on this trip was conspiring against me. In reality I could have realized, “we’re doing ok. We’ve faced every obstacle so far and have done fine. We’ve gotten on the air when we were supposed to every day. We’re successfully making TV happen despite our problems.”
Maybe you too, at your own church have been faced with similar situations? No, I don’t mean being shot at. I mean thinking you’re entering a war zone? Maybe you are having to make do without the right gear or needed supplies? Maybe you are fixing your gear after each use? Maybe you are staying up all night doing what you are told only to find out your work is not needed and won’t be used? Maybe when all these factors are added up in your mind you too think someone is out to get you when in fact the people around you mean you no intentional harm?
Paul in the Bible went through much worse than you or I. After his conversion he went through a time losing his eyesight. He left behind his life as a prominent defender of the Jewish religious establishment. Undoubtedly he lost some friends when word got out about his religious conversion. The Bible says his former friends REALLY tried to KILL him! When people were not trying to kill him he was being kicked out of cities. People lied about him. His enemies attempted to stone him. He was beaten with rods.
God was using Paul to heal others yet Paul had his own physical ailments which were never treated successfully by doctors or healed by God. Paul was even shipwrecked at sea and thrown in prison in Rome.
Through all those trials do you think Paul ever thought, “why is God allowing all these things to happen to me?” Paul after all was just trying to do God’s will as he understood it. Don’t you think that while he was imprisoned, chained night and day to a guard that he didn’t wonder, “If I weren’t here in prison I would be able to preach and see more people come to faith in Jesus!” “I could plant another church!” Now Paul was limited. Limited to just writing letters and talking to people in prison.
Paul’s limitation, what I would have viewed as the circumstance keeping me from God’s real will in my life, in reality became the writings that were not only the vital encouragement to the churches of Paul’s day, but then went on to become a large portion of the New Testament. For two thousand years, countless thousands of people have been blessed as a result of the limitation God allowed in Paul’s life!
What trial or limitation is God allowing in your life? Maybe there is no one shooting at you after all? Maybe the trial or limitation you feel has hampered you will be turned into a blessing for thousands of others.
While in prison, here are some of the things Paul wrote to the churches,
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God (Eph 4:1). Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people (Eph 6:7).
And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News (Phl 1:12). Do everything without complaining and arguing (Phl 2:14).
Whatever happens, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith (Phl 3:1).
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done (Phl 4:6). … for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have (Phl 4:11).
I’ve heard my pastor say, “you can let trials make you bitter, or make you better.”
Which will you do?
Title photo attribution: Cenz
Tom D’Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.