"No bars, just wonderful pictures!"
Keen to impress the man from the 'West', one young cameraman goes above and beyond at Yaravan Zoo.
The following took place in the mid-nineties when I was leading a team training documentary makers at Internews in Armenia’s capital Yerevan.
I really wasn’t prepared for Armenia. I was an experienced documentary maker with my own company. I had made some films abroad and felt pretty much at the top of my game. How wrong I was. When the former Soviet Union collapsed many of the satellite nations that were in Russia’s sphere of influence found themselves with a very uncertain future. With failing infrastructure and economies dependent on the Soviet system it was like starting all over again. It was even harder for those working in the media.
Being brought up in a democracy I was used to asking the question “why?” On my very first trip it was explained in very clear terms “why?” was a very dangerous word in the Soviet Union and could lead you to being sent to prison, or worse.
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This would have been a big issue to tackle if it wasn’t for the students I was helping. From the very beginning they overwhelmed me with their fervent desire to learn. They were keen, highly educated–often with science degrees as part of a Soviet push to cultivate its engineering and science–and full of ideas.
To them, I was the programme maker from the west and, from the beginning, I knew that I had to deliver. It was exhausting, there was no let up. I would set a task and they never stopped. It was not unusual to be woken up at 1 am to be asked a question by a team that was still hard at work editing.
It was this enthusiasm that led us to the decision to make a half hour documentary called “Portraits of Yerevan.” Each team would produce an insert that together would paint a contemporary picture of life in the city. One that still haunts me today is a portrait of an orphanage. The last shot was of a young 10-year-old girl looking out from a window. Her mother had died but each day she sat believing she would return to find her. To me, the hardships that these people had to face day to day made me realise how privileged I had been to grow up in a stable country.
However it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The last item was meant to be a happy story but I learnt a big lesson, one I wouldn’t forget…
Yerevan had a Zoo. Founded in 1940 it had suffered greatly in previous years. Local people, who themselves had little, would come with food for the animals. It said a lot about the pride that these people felt towards the Zoo. I was asked to go along and ask the manager if we could film inside the zoo and make an item for the programme.
On arrival, I was met by this huge imposing and, quite frankly, scary man carrying a staff topped with a brass cobra’s head. This was the larger-than-life manager who had kept the zoo going through very difficult times. I had been told that he often got into the cage with the bears for a hug and that his wife had a pet Hyena, which she would walk on a lead. I was so relieved when this grizzled man took to me and was very kind. The filming got the go-ahead!
Excellent! All that was left was to brief the crew. Turning to the cameraman, a very keen but quiet lad with an intense expression, I said “you’re really important to the shoot. I want stunning shots of animals and I don’t want to see bars, just the animals, got it?” What I was trying to do was motivate the lad, but I forgot how seriously these young programme makers took my words.
He was away quite a long time and I was starting to worry. On his return he showed me his work. It was excellent. The shots of the puma were outstanding, and I told him so. No bars just wonderful pictures. “How did you manage it?” He looked very pleased. “Well Paul, I tried to get pictures without bars but I couldn’t manage it.” His friend and assistant chipped in, “So he got in the cage with the Puma and it was so much better.”
What could I say. I told him not to include the bars. I thought I was being a motivating producer. What I hadn’t grasped was that, to them, I was ‘the man from the west’, ‘the font of all knowledge’, who had travelled a long way and must not, at any cost, be let down. All I meant was that, if possible, shots without bars would be good. That’s not how he saw it. When I spoke to him further, I found out that his childhood was in a remote part of the country and he was used to working with animals. Still, from that day onward, I was very careful with what I said to any of my team.
I haven’t seen my group since. I hope that they were able to achieve their ambition of a new free media. It was an honour to be allowed to help and I feel guilty that they taught me a great deal more than I taught them.
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe.