From a Reporter's Notebook
August 2003

by Ron Steinman

I was a very young television journalist working on a show broadcast weekly Friday nights for a half hour on NBC called "Chet Huntley Reports." To get needed experience, I let the producers know I would go anywhere and do anything always for the sake of a good story, and, yes, partly for a good time. Usually the show used one story that ran about twenty minutes, a small documentary feature that did not include commercials, teases, the open, close, and credits. What we put on the air always depended on breaking news, but the news did not always break in our favor. Prepared stories were available on the shelf, but there were never enough of them and often the producers lost interest the longer they stayed unused. I learned early that we were dealing with time sensitive material. Of course, the mood of the producer in charge determined how, when and where a story played. Still in my twenties, I found myself producing stories for television, but I never thought of myself as a filmmaker, which I was, but which, then, made no difference to my life or career. I did not realize it, but documentary filmmaking is about ideas, or, more specifically presenting the idea you have from your point of view. There is no such thing as objectivity in making a documentary film. However, you must learn to be fair. That also describes reporting. Edit as you go, add or drop, as you get closer to what you perceive as truth. Do not lie or make up facts. Never confuse truth for fancy.7/18/03

In1962, the White House floated an idea to the networks to cover one of President John F Kennedy's pet projects, the Alliance for Progress, his effort to bring economic and social progress to parts of Latin America, desperately in need. NBC News agreed to cover the story, but as cheaply as possible. The show's staff decided to send me to Northeast Brazil with a crew of one, meaning only a cameraman. The region, victim to a long drought, had had no rain for years in some parts, and little rain in other areas. The cameraman would shoot with a 16mm film Bell &Howell filmo, our standard silent camera, which held 100 feet of film, or approximately three minutes of material. It was his only camera. There would be no backup. If it failed, so would the project. The cameraman loaded the film by hand through a series of gates. The camera had three lenses that the cameraman moved manually clockwise when he had to change his lens. Using a handle on one side, the camerman wound the mechanism, something he had to do frequently while shooting to keep the film taut as it made its way through the gate, the only way to advance the film and get it exposed.

We were to produce a pure film piece, meaning a documentary with no interviews that would run about twenty minutes with only voiceover. I would run sound, after a manner of speaking, using a cassette tape recorder that had no controls other than the on and off switch and volume. We knew the sound would not be very good, but that was the price for covering the story on a very small budget. There would only be pictures, the hoped for natural sound I recorded, and a script I would write for Chet Huntley, our anchor, when I returned to New York.

After our arrival, we filmed at a farm, a cattle ranch and inside classrooms where the peasants learned the latest techniques to get the most from their land. We shot many pictures of dry riverbeds, dust-covered fields, dry, caked land where grains and vegetables once grew. All the animals were thin and unhealthy looking. The farmers, the peasants, the people in the towns and villages looked like Americans from the darkest days of the Great Depression in the 1930's. They reminded me of Walker Evan's stark photographs from that time. We decided to take a day off and catch our breath while waiting for official permission to cover a few additional things we needed during what was originally to be a trip of one week. We had two days left before we had to depart.

While waiting, we decided to get more shots of village life for our story. Suddenly a few battered jeeps each with four heavily armed men drove into the village square and surrounded us. They took our equipment, hustled us into the back of one of the jeeps, and signaled our driver to follow. They drove us to the local police station, a low-slung building of yellow adobe, a tin roof, and bars on the windows. These men were soldiers in the regular army. They had been following us because we asked directions to an Indian village outside the city. We made our way to this village because it looked right for our purposes. Once there, a bottle of warm Coke in hand, we started filming. We made a big mistake. We did not know the ruling governor of that state and his circle kept their mistresses in small estates outside just that village. Military mistresses were not on our agenda. We could care less. We spoke no Portuguese. They spoke no English. We knew we were in for a long day. We hoped it would not be too long.

These many years later after the arrest, I remember we sat in a sweltering bandbox room no more than ten by ten. The cameraman and I watched the eyes and fingers of soldiers who were probably only sixteen, as they cradled their submachine guns, the safety off, smiling, almost hoping we would do something stupid, which we did not. Not only did they not speak any Portuguese, but they only spoke an Indian dialect. Their stubby fingers stayed stiffly poised on the hair triggers of their machine guns. Their ill-fitting uniforms looked like old United States Army issue. Everywhere in Latin America, very young men, often in their teens, dominated the soldier class of the military. It was their way out of the laborious life of a peasant and an empty future. Their fear was our fear, their fright, obvious. After holding us in the main military prison for four hours, and never asking us one question, they finally let us go out for a few cases of warm beer which we were able to buy for them at the local saloon. It was frightening that we could have lost our lives for nothing. Later that day, happy to be free and safe, we had too much to drink, ate too many freshly roasted cashew nuts and then laughed on our way back to the hotel as the driver, frightened as much as we, weaved his way on the nearly empty, badly paved road.

We woke the next morning to black skies. Huge thunderclouds emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and just like that, in a matter of hours, heavy, steady rains came. They fell for three days. The drought broke with ferocity, and the airport flooded, as did everything in the storm's wake. I called New York to change the focus of our story. They agreed and we stayed for two additional weeks because we could rarely film, let alone travel anywhere during the days when it rained. Rivers overflowed. Heavy flooding swamped northeastern Brazil. Our story now became how the local population, suddenly blessed with much needed rain, barely managed to handle its newfound riches.

Ground transportation vanished because of the rain, the roads were thick with mud. We needed a plane and a pilot to get us to the furthest reaches of Northeast Brazil to see the effects of the flooding. The pilot should have been in the movies. Despite his speaking only Portuguese, and I only English, somehow, we understood each other. He looked like a flying cliché, serious to the core, with deep blue eyes etched in their corners with heavy lines that only come with experience. His hair was long and gray, his mustache gray and full. He walked with a pleasant swagger, probably from the success of never succumbing to the defeat of a failed airplane or uncontrollable weather. He flew with no maps, using rivers and riverbeds, scrub hamlets and the odd tree as his guide. I trusted him. Just our luck, he had mechanical failure and we crashed, but surprisingly gently in our small plane about 60 miles outside Recife. We landed in a once dry riverbed now filling with about six inches of water and mud. We bumped and bounced. We slid in the muddy water and then skidded out of the riverbed onto the adjacent highway where we finally stopped. There would be more. One tire burst upon hitting the sharp-edged, once parched rocks. The plane almost toppled over. Fortunately, the plane was nearly empty of fuel, otherwise we may have blown up. But exuding confidence, he landed safely. He was a hell of a pilot, but he was not a very good tour guide. Sixty miles from Recife was the same as three hundred or three thousand miles from Manhattan.

Nothing existed except peasants' shacks, an occasional manor house, a lonely tree, and a gas station with two pumps. In front sat a large bathtub-sized Coca Cola box filled with thick glass bottles of soda and very little ice. It was getting dark and we had to find a place to spend the night. We did not want to sleep on the rough desert floor. There would be many insects and too many lizards. Besides, as hot as it was in the day, at night it was very cold and we had only skimpy shirts on our backs and now grimy khaki pants. With the pilot's help we discovered that the gas station had a dormitory in back for truckers, itinerant farm workers and people stuck on the road like us. Anyone with a few cents in his pocket could spend the night sleeping on hard packed dirt. There were no beds. For a few more cents, you could rent a hammock, stay off the floor, perhaps hold onto your valuables, and even stay alive. That's what the pilot said, and we believed him. The station owner took us around back to show us our bedroom suite for the night, one we would share with many men, most of whom had not bathed for what I thought was forever. I had never seen that kind of a barn-like room, with open windows, a door that creaked when it opened or closed, three single lights, probably 25 watts each and each on a long wire suspended from the ceiling, lights that stayed on through the night. Yes, unappealing and appalling. We had no choice because we it was the only place we could go other than to sleep outdoors. We would stay the night and hope for the best.

We bought food from the makeshift kitchen behind the sleeping shed, a stew cooked so long we believed it had to be safe and loaves of bread, hard as rocks, but when dipped in the gravy softened and did not break our teeth. After washing down the meal with a local beer bottled probably the day before in dark brown bottles that had no labels, we made our way to the dorm for the night and some badly needed sleep. There were already some twenty men on the floor, some asleep, others not. Hardly anyone looked at us, and that was good, as each of us climbed into our designated hammock. My watch said nine o'clock. The next day would start early and I, and my two companions, each very tired hoped for some sleep before dawn and the first light. The cameraman huddled with his camera and rolls of film. I held tightly onto the small cassette recorder. Our pilot donned his aviator glasses with their dark lenses. My mind somehow relaxed from the easy swaying of the hammock and I soon fell asleep. The sun came up, it seemed, very fast. I woke with a terrible taste in my mouth and with a splitting headache. My two companions also had headaches, but I did not ask how the rest of their bodies felt. We were safe, untouched by another person, welcomed even with smiles from other men who also just awoke. After a breakfast of strong, black coffee and another of those rocklike rolls, we sat in the sun and waited for transportation back to Recife. We were back at our hotel by midday, tired, dirty, our film intact. It would be an important part of our finished piece. The pilot followed when the parts he needed to repair his plane arrived. We saw him later that week for another flight and everything, thankfully, worked fine.

By the way, the heavy rains and flooding did little for the farmers and ranchers of Northeastern Brazil. Land washed away. Homes disappeared. Cattle
disappeared in the floods, and in some ways, the people were worse off than during the long drought. That says little for nature's help and less for possible progress suddenly upended by nature.

Two weeks after we returned to New York after processing, editing and writing, we went on the air with a strong film piece. It ran twenty minutes and, to boot, we had a memorable experience.

© Ron Steinman

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