In seventh grade, my class was given a reading assignment about a tribe in Uganda entitled "The Iks". Their depravity was so comically extreme that I saved the article for many years. After completing my first film, I showed the paper to another filmmaker, who insisted that it was a joke. The essay failed to identify the anthropologist who studied the Ik, or the book he wrote, so the story seemed like an allegorical comment on the nature of people and nations. At the time, I couldn't find anything more about the Ik and it wasn't until years later that I finally discovered they were real.
When that happened, I put the word out that I wanted to film in Uganda. Through a series of friends I was introduced to Nichole Smaglick who did cultural tours in Africa. I gave her the task of finding a cameraman familiar with the terrain. She approached National Geographic, who informed her of a production filming in southern Uganda. Most of the crew members were happy to be offered another job but, because of the dangers involved, no one was willing to travel north to film the Ik, except for David Pluth.
Our plan was to begin in April, but Pluth was attacked by an elephant and needed extensive surgery and a knee replacement. By July, he was sufficiently recuperated and still eager to go. I informed Nichole of my intention to stage a theatrical performance with the Ik. She was accommodating, but David was apprehensive. If meeting the Ik weren't such a rare possibility, I suspect he would have backed out.
When the GOP held their convention in New York City, I opened my apartment to a number of out-of-town protesters who needed a place to stay. Fanny Walker was one of these people. She was a drama instructor who I'd kept in touch with sporadically after the convention. When I realized I'd need help teaching performance to a culture with no knowledge of theater, I asked her to join my expedition. Given the paucity of information I was able to provide, I was amazed she agreed.
For me, the hardest part of going away for so long was leaving behind my cat, Dr. Claw. I couldn't communicate to him how long I'd be gone, or when I would return. I don't think we'd ever been apart for more than a week.
Fanny and I flew to Kilimanjaro where we had a layover. It was my first time in Africa, and the beauty and majesty was marred by the fact that I couldn't get Toto's song “Africa” out of my head. Arriving in Uganda the following day was creepy, because Entebbe airport looked unchanged since the 1970s when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a plane flying from Tel Aviv. I imagined I might have spotted unrepaired bullet holes had I searched closely enough.
Our driver took us to the hotel Fang Fang where we met Nichole, and I was formally introduced to David Pluth. Lawrence Owongo was also there. He was one of those rare people who you immediately feel close to. Lawrence was our film crew, driver, security specialist, translator, and companion. He had saved David's life on at least one occasion by running back to rescue him while gunmen raided a village and opened fire at everyone they saw. I also met Israel, who would be supervising our porters, and Qasim, who'd be cooking our food.
That day, Kampala - and all of Uganda - was abuzz with the news that Sudanese Vice President John Garang had died in a helicopter crash just after a meeting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. While the mission was designed to promote peace, Garang's death put both countries on high alert, and tension in Kampala was palpable. The following day, I took what would be my last shower for almost two months. Hours into our drive northward, we were arrested by the Ugandan Army while crossing the Nile. Because of tensions with Sudan, they were worried that we might be spies. We were detained and eventually released, but only after they either confiscated or destroyed all of the footage we had shot up until that point.
We crossed into the Luwero district, where there is no government presence to speak of, and where ghastly atrocities were committed by the LRA. I spent the remainder of the journey fearing for my life. Whenever I thought I could cope with the horror of a particular threat, the following day would present something new and even more terrifying. After lions encircled our campsite until dawn, the exuberance over having survived was unsurprisingly brief. Deprived of sleep, we packed up our gear and came across a herd of elephants. Despite being portrayed as gentle creatures, they are in fact among the world's most dangerous animals, and can even kill rhinoceroses. They trumpeted and raged at our presence, gesturing as if they were about to charge and trample us. At that moment, I realized I had to let go of the notion that my life was precious, for the sake of my sanity.
This revelation resulted in our production developing a new direction. Rather than cowering during gun fire, our new approach became to reach for our cameras. David's knowledge of terrain, wildlife, and people was a tremendous asset, for which I quickly developed a deep respect. The success of the Ik performance of "A Christmas Carol" in terms of acting quality, as well as how much it meant for the village, thrilled David earned me his respect as well.
While none of the Ik knew the content of Turnbull's book, they were aware that he'd spread malicious lies about them to the rest of the world. They were understandably upset about this, and had good reasons to be guarded in the presence of strangers. Documenting them as they truly are was simply a matter of righting a wrong. Contributing to their artistic vocabulary was conceived altruistically.