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Amerikan Passport

Amerikan Passport

Articles - Directing

Amerikan Passport (16mm color, 82
mins) is the riveting and thoughtful chronicle of three years of
shoestring travel by Seattle native Reed Paget. Along the way,
he visited 12 war zones, dodged missiles, tanks and bullets-and
made a great documentary.

At the age of 23, Paget set off with a used CP-16
camera and a plan: to visit the seven wonders of the world and
record his travels on film. He started in China, where he worked
in Canton as an English teacher. It was there that he heard the
first inklings of a student uprising. Paget’s original plan fell
by the wayside as his worldwide adventure began to unfold on its
own terms.

He quit his job and traveled to Beijing, where he
witnessed the rising tensions of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
After several days, he took an overnight trip to the Great Wall.
As luck would have it, that was the day the Chinese Army overran
Tiananmen, massacring hundreds of students. A piece of disastrous
timing from a documentary maker’s point of view? It might have
saved his life, and the footage Paget captured while fighting his
way back to Tiananmen through Beijing the next day is electrifying-he
runs a gauntlet of tanks and army snipers, then is led by student
protestors to the bodies of their slaughtered comrades. Paget recalls
standing in puddles of blood while filming them.

Paget managed to smuggle his footage out to Hong
Kong, then traveled via Thailand to Vietnam, where he explored
that country’s turbulent history of war with the U.S.

In Cambodia, he and several other young journalists
embarked on an illegal foray across mined dirt roads to the ancient
temples of Angkor Watt. They were arrested for espionage, but once
the army decided they were too young and inept to be spies, they
were released and invited to a military party.

Flat broke, Paget left Asia for the U.S. While home
he raised more money, bought more film, and flew to Central America.

In Nicaragua, he scammed press credentials and braved
run-ins with rioting Sandinistas. In El Salvador he witnessed martial
law and civil strife. In Costa Rica Paget met a young American,
Stephanie DuPont (yes, of those DuPonts), who wanted to help with
his project. She learned sound recording, and Paget’s crew of one
became a crew of two for a while. She accompanied him to South
America, Africa and Europe before they parted company in Moscow.

In Panama, they infiltrated the wedding of the president,
and questioned the U.S. Ambassador about the recent invasion.

At the Festival of the Sun in Peru, Paget was shot
at by guards. There he filmed the ritual sacrifice of a llama,
whose still-beating heart was raised as an offering, a modern substitute
for human sacrifice.

Further travels through South America, then on to
South Africa. He waded his way through more civil strife, and captured
footage of security forces gunning down a crowd of protesters in
a black township.

Next stop was Germany, in time for unification ceremonies
with accompanying riots. Then to the Soviet Union (he was repeatedly
denied visas, so he signed up for a tour and walked away; later
he would find that getting out of Russia was almost as hard as
getting in). While in Moscow, he joined a military parade where,
between the tanks, he was able to infiltrate the Red Army and film
Gorbachev up close.

When he learned of the Gulf War he went to Cairo
to get a Saudi Visa, gave up on a plan to sneak across the border
by camel and took a bus to Israel instead. How did his mother feel
about all this? "Get the fuck out of there!" was her
maternal advice on the phone to him as he donned a gas mask and
dodged scuds.

"It’s funny," says Paget, "but I can
remember how I felt running down the hall and jamming my gas mask
onto my face and ducking into a room with a bunch of terrified
Israelis and waiting for the missiles to hit. Danger really perks
your adrenaline. I’ve never felt more alive than when contemplating
death, and I’ve tried to address that on a personal level."

Just as the viewer starts to wonder if this guy isn’t
just some kind of international voyeur of violence, Paget’s voice-over
narration tackles that issue squarely, and Amerikan Passport rises
above travelogue (albeit exciting travelogue) to the level of affecting
personal documentary. It recognizes that no filmmaker can be subjective,
and that a film is most effective when its makers question their
own motives.

Paget struggled for several years to raise finishing
funds and make sense of his footage in the editing room. A series
of simple but effective animations between country segments provided
the final unifying touch.

Amerikan Passport won Best Documentary at Slamdance
this year and is attracting distributors and playing at other festivals.
Paget now lives in New York City and works as a news cameraman
for New York One.

George Wing (GW): Your theme seems to be man’s
predisposition to violence.

Reed Paget (RP): Yes. What leaves me uneasy
is that, in spite of my feelings against it, I found myself transfixed
by it.

GW: I like the way you tie in the fact that
so many of the wonders of the ancient world you visit are sites
for ritual human sacrifice, like Angkor Watt and the Roman Coliseum,
and that it’s part of cultures throughout the world.

RP: Not to mention the central image of Christianity.
Think about it.

It’s been suggested that there’s a side of us that
overcomes our own fear of death by killing another. To take pleasure
in killing is disturbingly universal. Otto Rank said something
like "The death-fear of the ego is eased by the killing of
another-no wonder we are addicted to war."

GW: You describe watching a scene of escalating
tension between South African police and Zulu protestors, and how
a photographer screamed at you to get out of the way because she
was from Newsweek and had been there for five hours. You wondered
if she was hoping that someone would be shot so she could get it
on film. Did you ever feel that yourself?

RP: Not exactly. I didn’t want anyone to get
shot. But I did put myself where I needed to be to get good footage.

GW: Are you addicted to violence? Do you experience
that in your current job?

RP: If there’s a public demonstration and
some people are fighting and others are standing in the corner,
my bosses want me to show the conflict. But no, I’m not addicted
to scenes of violence.

GW: Why did you take the job?

RP: I was broke from making the film-I’m still
broke, in fact-and I wanted to live in New York.

GW: Will your next film explore different
themes?

RP: Yes, I want to make a documentary on
environmental issues, with a very broad scope. That should take several
years. And I have a narrative project I’m developing. It’s hard to
describe, but it deals with physics and gravity, which have always
fascinated me. I think it’ll work best as fiction.

GW: How did you manage to travel solo with
a complete 16mm production kit on your back?

RP: I had a metal-frame backpack. When it
was fully loaded it was so heavy I had to hoist it to one knee
before I could put it on my shoulders. I walked like a turtle.
I carried an old CP-16 that I bought for $500, plus a Sony Pro
Walkman with crystal sync-I’d use a DAT now-which also cost $500.
So my equipment cost $1,000.

GW: What does the CP-16 weigh?

RP: About 23 pounds, empty.

GW: How much film stock did you bring with
you?

RP: When I left for Asia, 15 cans of 400-foot
loads. On my next departure I brought 30 cans. That’s 66 pounds
of film.

GW: How did you have room for anything else?

RP: I couldn’t take much clothing. That’s
a drawback when you’re in some embassy applying for a visa or a
press pass and you look all scrawny in clothes you’ve wrung out
a million times and don’t smell so good.

GW: How did you get your equipment across
all those borders?

RP: Sometimes I couldn’t. I was denied visas.
With the film, I brought a changing bag and had Customs open my
film cans inside it so they could feel there was nothing but stock.

GW: Did you send film home to be developed
as you went along?

RP: No. I carried it. But I should say that,
as hard as it was to get around, feed myself, deal with language,
and get great footage, that was only half the battle. The other
half was figuring out how to make it cohesive. How to discover
a central theme to tie it all together.

GW: What theme did you have in mind when you
first started filming?

RP: Exploring this question: Was America’s
foreign policy a legitimate attempt to promote democracy or a covert
campaign to ensure a steady supply of cheap resources and cheap
labor, and to fight a social movement that was trying to rectify
that, namely Communism.

GW: Many documentary makers are switching
to compact, lightweight digital video cameras. How do you feel
about using DV?

RP: I’m not thrilled by it yet. It’s not durable.
I use video cameras in my job, and they fog up a lot when we step
indoors. And the resolution of video still isn’t there yet. It’s
fine for a certain type of documentary, but if you want a gorgeous
image, you shoot film.

GW: Would you encourage someone inspired by
your story to attempt a trip like this themselves?

RP: Absolutely.

Because she is present in Amerikan Passport as the
voice of reason, we spoke briefly with Reed’s mother, Seattle sculptor
Julie Speidel:

GW: Did you support Reed’s decision to take
these risks for the sake of a personal documentary?

Julie Speidel (JS): It’s a scary world. As an artist
I have to honor that quest. But sometimes I get the feeling we’re
taking that Joseph Campbell "follow your bliss" thing
a bit too far.

GW When did you find yourself most concerned
about Reed?

JS: Israel was bad, but the truly horrible time was
during Tiananmen. We knew he was there, but then we didn t know
for days if he was alive. We finally started calling Representatives
and Senators and our connections in network television, hoping
someone could learn something. What we were finally told is ‘Not
only is Reed okay, he’s having the time of his life." MM

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