VENTERSDORP, South Africa – It’s late in the day, and we’re losing daylight. My documentary-film partner is leading one camera crew, while I lead our second.
My phone rings, as I’m driving.
“There’s been a development,” says Danny, soberly. My mind flashes to the top-shelf Sony we’re renting for a small fortune, per day. “Come quick!”
After 20 years as a foreign correspondent, it’d take a lot to rattle me. In fact, I love the challenge of adapting, of switching gears, under pressure. Especially when you’re on the ground, when time is precious – indeed, when time is money.
One thing I’m learning from documentary film, just as I’ve learned over the years from “parachute” reporting into 30 countries: not even a well-hatched plan goes according to plan. So when the inevitable crisis strikes, how do you handle it?
No, you don’t panic and throw in the towel – You’re a professional, dammit! Your reputation is at stake. Even the university student or young journalist who’s serving as your interpreter is watching you, studying your response.
So, you breathe deep, soothe the voices in your head, collect the facts, assess the situation. Will you shift into salvage-mode? Or, take the steps that produce an even better story? As we Americans put it, “When dealt lemons, make lemonade.”
The range of crises is vast.
Technical emergencies that make you sweat, like a car that conks out uncomfortably far from civilization. (Now what?) Or logistical emergencies, like a source who’s not here, but for mysterious reason, there – 100 kilometers away. (Who else can we get?) And financial emergencies, like how to pay this loyal interpreter when the ATM rejects your card. (Will an I.O.U. do?) And so on.
But what I’m really referring to are crises that test the intellect, your trouble-shooting, problem-solving skills as you gather the material you need to tell a serious, meaningful story. My favorite crisis, because it’s more than a question of how quickly you react, when under fire. More important, how smartly do you do it?
A revelation! … A confession! … A twist in the story!
Or, as happened to us this past weekend, in Ventersdorp, South Africa: a genuine news story that breaks right before our eyes. It unfolded on a golf course that for decades was stubbornly all-white – until five years ago, when the Club finally admitted its first two black members … already 15 years after Apartheid.
For more on that intellectual crisis, please read my next post.
But the point here is that crisis-response is itself a survival skill for anyone dropping into an alien environment – and a skill that I suppose I’ve subconsciously honed over the past two decades. They’ve become journalistic reflexes.
For anyone who would like to taste this adventurous form of story-telling: expect the unexpected, keep cool – and turn that negative into a positive.