Blog - Smith & Lee Design

Sierra Leone Production Journal / Days 1 - 4


LA to Sierra Leone

September 17, 2012


Gareth calmly drove me to LAX on Sunday morning after I frantically packed my camera gear, shot list, storyboards, bug repellents, malaria pills, rain jacket, hat, and everything else I imagined I would need. In the car, I had him go over some of the tech specs again - which camera to shoot at which frame rate, when to shoot video vs. burst mode, etc. He had coached me on the specs and we had gone over the shots but now that I was actually going to Africa, I needed more reassurance. If I didn't get the shots we would need to make a 10 minute animated short, then I wasn't sure what we'd do. But most likely, we wouldn't be going back a second time for reshoots...

A few weeks ago when I said I would love to go to Sierra Leone with Richard (director of "Girl Rising") and Gina (producer), I didn't allow myself to worry too much about what exactly I'd be doing once we got there. It was a chance of a lifetime! A chance to be part of a major documentary about educating girls around the world and to work closely with some really smart and talented people.

I met a relaxed Richard at the airport. Traveling to Africa for a film shoot was not new or stressful for him. After all, he had been to numerous other countries as an ABC news journalist with Peter Jennings and as an independent filmmaker. We had a four hour flight to Chicago, then a seven hour flight to Brussels where we met up with Gina who was en route from Egypt where she had been producing another segment for "Girl Rising." It turned out that Gina was another seasoned world traveler. I was in great company. 

Many, many hours later, we landed in Sierra Leone at Lungi International airport. There was mild chaos as a crowd of porters, some self-appointed, eagerly assisted us with our bags and gear.

We squeezed into a van and drove over bumpy roads to get to the dock called Sea Change. We would need to take a ferry across the water to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

One of my favorite moments of the evening was when our driver was flagged down by two men and a woman all squeezed together onto a single motorbike. They were dressed up - the men in suits and the woman in a skirt suit and heels. Two of them were speaking into their cell phones while another told our driver that they had found a passport. They were frantically trying to return it. I loved the “urgency” of this moment, of people trying to help a stranger by doing a random, good deed.

At Sea Change we waited for the ferry to arrive as Freetown flickered in the distance. I later learned that most travelers to Freetown these days are employees of British mining companies, various international NGOs and missionaries, construction companies from China and other businesses that are invested in the development of Sierra Leone. It’s still one of the least touristy countries in Africa due to its 10-year civil war that ended in 2002.

When it was time to board the ferry, one of the Sea Change attendants held my arm and helped me walk across the very bouncy and bumpy gangplank. Bright orange life vests were handed out to wear over our clothes on the warm, tropical night as the boat chopped through the waves and sped us across the Atlantic Ocean.

Damon, a young Canadian freelance journalist, met us on the other side to escort us to our hotel. He and a Sierra Leonean woman named Michaella were to be our fixers (local production coordinators for foreign TV or film crews) during our time in the country.


Day 1

September 18, 2012 Tuesday

Today, we drove to the village to meet our star, Mariama, and to say hello to her mother, step-mother and step-father. I had seen photos and video footage of her taken by Gina from a previous scouting trip. In person, Mariama had a husky giggle that emerged with a shy smile. 

Aminatta Forna, the writer for the Sierra Leone chapter of “Girl Rising,” had met with lots of young girls months before. Out of all the girls, she selected Mariama and wrote a story based on her life. Aminatta was interested in Mariama’s universal teenage qualities - great curiosity and constant need to text her friends on her cell phone. She was also drawn to Mariama’s interest in science at school and her part-time job as a host on a teen radio program.

Luckily, Mariama spoke English, the official language of Sierra Leone. But most people speak Krio which is a blend of English and various African languages. Michaella was on hand to translate with Mariama’s family.

I asked Mariama if she could show us some of her clothes to use for the film shoot. We went into an unlit room of her two-room house where she held up different tops and dresses in the glow of Gina's iPhone. Because there was no electricity in the house, I snapped some options outside.


We went to her step-father's Fula bakery down the road to say hello and inquire if he could also be in our film. He said yes. Her step-father seemed like a nice gentleman.


Later, Mariama showed us around her school. We were granted permission from the head mistress at the school to film in an empty classroom later on.


Lastly, we went to one of the radio stations where Mariama had hosted a show for teens. A small portable radio tuned to Eagle Africa 91.3 was propped in the window as the baritone DJ broadcasted the show live from the other room.


We decided to shoot the actual radio station scenes at a different radio station so that we could have more space for different camera set-ups.


After we drove Mariama home, we dropped Michaella in town so that she could catch a "bike" (motorcycle taxi) home.


Day 2

September 19, 2012, Wednesday

The next morning, I was greeted by a huge African spider in my room. I didn't know what kind it was, but I reassured myself it was harmless.


We headed downtown to pick up some props, clothes, fabric and pipes for a makeshift dolly. Before coming to Freetown, we expected to be improvising all the props, locations, and even with finding actors for the film. 


Drivers in Freetown are not hesitant about using their horns. After awhile, I made up a game to see how many seconds of “quiet” time there was before someone honked. I usually got up to four or five seconds before I heard another beep. My theory is that the drivers weren’t honking from road-rage, but rather because they  wanted people to know that they were there. And maybe with a gentle, “Come on, let’s go.”

Downtown was a maze of cars, bikes, and poda-podas (small vans that are used as public transportation). Even through bustling traffic, people walked around selling items that they balanced on their heads: baskets of coal, cartons of eggs, small electronics, and more.


Some of the market stalls...


We picked up a few radios to use as props.


Gina getting us a good deal on some fabric.

The day before, we had abundant sunshine. But from this day forward, we experienced periodic rain for the rest of the trip until our last day. It was after all, the rainy season which is typically from May through October. Because of the unpredictable weather we had to be flexible and spontaneous about where and when we would shoot certain scenes. 

With our shopping finished, we picked up Mariama and brought her back to the hotel for our first shoot.


We started with some fun stuff, playing hip-hop on our laptop and getting shots of Mariama showing off her different outfits that's in the script. The pink headphones were a gift that Gina brought from the States. Mariama loved them. I think they worked out perfectly for the film!


The "bed" we created from the fabrics at the market. (In this scene, Mariama is supposed to be worried about her father.)


Mariama getting comfortable.


Before every scene, I always showed Mariama our rough storyboards so that she could get an idea for what we were trying to do. I explained that everything would be done out of order but that it would all come together in the end.

We ended our shoots with Mariama in the afternoon since we couldn’t shoot outdoors at night. We drove down to the beachside area (this might be Aberdeen?) to see if we could get some reference photos for post-production.


Day 3

September 20, 2012 Thursday

Living in sunny Los Angeles, I always long for rain. In Freetown, I got lots and lots of rain. That night, the rain came down so hard that I woke up wondering if the sky could unleash the rain with any more thunder and force than it seemed to be. Absolute torrential downpour. I loved it.

Unfortunately, it was not good for planning shots outdoors. We rescheduled with Mariama and told her we’d try later in the afternoon if it seemed like the weather would improve. In the meantime, we headed over to the Sierra Leone National Museum to do some research on the Fula people. (In Aminatta’s story, there was a section about Mariama’s family being descendants of the Fula people who came from an ancient kingdom called Futa Jallon near the Niger river. In post, we ended up having to remove that section due to limitations of time.)

I was so excited because we had to show the administrators at the museum my official press pass in order to be allowed to take photos inside. It was the first time I got to show off my foreign press ID. In another life, I would’ve been a photo journalist.


The quiet office of the museum.


Mariama helping me with my hair because I have to look good too.


The sun came out and we were able to get started. Gina, Richard and Damon setting  up the backdrop.


Off-camera: curious onlookers. Some of them eventually became extras in the film.


Michaella helping with translation.


Damon handling crowd control.


These kids were so excited to be on-camera! Luckily, we had a part for them: cheering children for the “celebration” section in the film.


Richard having a meeting and going over some shot ideas with the extras.


The kids approved. The meeting went very well.


This shot was for the intro shot that transitions from live-action to stop-motion animation. Gareth had a very clear idea for it but unfortunately, I was not so clear on it. Luckily, Richard let me use his phone to call Gareth in LA. It might have been around 5 a.m. over there. The connection was a bit spotty so there were awkward delays, but it was still helpful to speak to a groggy Gareth and clarify the shot.

We did a few takes right before the skies opened up again with a downpour. You can’t tell in the photo above, but it’s raining. The kids were troopers. I was also very impressed because every time we set up to do another take, the kids re-organized themselves into position as they had been standing before. If a random kid wandered into the shot, they shooed him away!


We dropped Michaella off in town after the shoot. Just as we were about to drive away, a female cop came over and asserted that Damon, as the front passenger, had not been wearing his seat belt. There was a brief back and forth of disagreement until finally, Damon offered to accompany her back to the police station with the hopes of placating her. Luckily, he didn't end up in jail or anything like that. I bring this up because the female cop who seemed like she wouldn’t give us a break, ended up being an unexpected ally later on.

Day 4

September 21, 2012 Friday

Today we had a 6:45 a.m. call time to drive around photographing streets, buildings, and city life. Sometimes people asked us aggressively, “Why you snap my picture?” What seemed at first like a menacing question usually segued into a friendly exchange. Or not. Sometimes they really didn’t want their picture taken. But for every, “don’t snap my picture,” there was another friendly face that would beckon, “Hey! Snap my picture!” Or when we asked if we could take their picture, they'd bestow on us a beautiful smile.


This gentleman was pleased to find out that I was Korean. He said that when he was in the navy as a young man, his ship had been stationed in Busan, South Korea. He said he had a lot of fond memories of being there.


The “Globe Cinema.” I wish I had gotten a better photo of the movie poster on the wall but I didn’t know until later that the poster with an all-female cast for an action film directed by a Sierra Leonean woman featured none other than our own Michaella. It turned out that she’s also an actress!

For our film, Michaella ended up playing a few different characters. She played “Isatu’s mom,” “radio enthusiast,” and two different “extras” in the opening street scene of Freetown. She’s also an illustrated audience member on Mariama’s future TV show.


Michaella’s awesome braids.


This was at Sky Radio station. To show Mariama talking and giving “advice” to callers, we had Gina pretend to call in and ask for advice. When you see Mariama talking in these scenes, she’s really giving Gina some profound advice on love, life, and career.


Lunch break with Damon and Gina.

Coming soon, Production Journal / Days 5 - 9! 

Thanks for reading!

(All photos by: Jenny Lee, Gina Nemirofsky, Richard E. Robbins, Damon Van Der Linde)