by Hal Rifken

One of the perks of being a freelance DP is unexpected travel to often exotic places around the world. Over the past decade, I’ve filmed a food show in Borneo, an industrial on the gulf coast of Mexico, in a small galley on the Malaysian Orient Express, aerials off the gulf coast of Mexico, and the most arid region in the world: the copper fields of Northern Chile.

And though I’ve made a lot of mistakes on international shoots, a few of these even landed me jail time. With experience, mistakes become fewer. I hope sharing some of my personal experiences will help those of you about to venture beyond our borders.

Know Where You’re Going and What You’re Getting Into

Perhaps the most harrowing place I’ve filmed in recent memory was in and around Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina for the pilot of a documentary on forensic efforts to link the dead with the living. We had just passed from the Muslim sector in relatively “safe” Sarajevo and were heading to Tuzla, a region peppered with armed Serbs.

Dozens of mass graves were being discovered on a daily basis in Tuzla. Bodies had been thrown in dried up wells, found along river beds and in shallow graves amidst landscape that was breathtaking. It was the aftermath of a civil war in the mid 90’s tagged by those cataloguing the gruesome discoveries as another holocaust.

Connie, the producer, had seed money for a documentary that would show how sophisticated Western technology could help link the living with the dead through DNA analysis. Though she had done her standard producer’s research, she hadn’t figured on Haris’ fear factor. Haris was our Muslim driver whose job it was to translate and get us to the grave sites in one piece. From his point of view it was about as risky as his job could get as we sped past grim Serb farmers tending fields, many of which had been confiscated from Muslim families “cleansed” from the region.

The Serb farmers also had reason to be nervous. It was a juggling act: while alternately hiding their war criminals, they also tended the farms of the Muslims they had kicked out of the region. On rare occasions, they resentfully relinquished those lands when the Muslim owners started trickling back to reclaim their homesteads. “How would you like to come home from a forced vacation to find your neighbor tending your fields?” Haris, after a week of our gaining mutual trust, would ask. “That’s after they burned down your home . . .“

Understanding the bewildering history of the Muslim-Serbian conflict in the Balkans helped accelerate cooperation between Haris and others facilitating our shoot and also enriched our experience. We ended up meeting Haris’ mother and using some home video of her being shot and dragged out of harm’s way. Beyond the obvious, knowing a little bit about the food, the predominate religions, regional mores and quirks, what might be going on politically, and some of the social customs helps in untold subtle and not so subtle ways.

Hire a fixer

A fixer is someone who facilitates your needs in the host country. If you’re lucky, you find a Haris, who speaks all of the local languages, lives the culture, can drive, is smart and nice to boot. A fixer could be someone from the country’s tourism bureau who feels your project will bring in tourists. Or, it can be someone you pay who has no vested interest in what you are shooting. He or she is in it for the money. But, trust me, that’s okay. Especially if this is your first trip to the region. Think of him or her as your personal tour guide and your salvation if something goes wrong with the natives.

The tourism bureau or local business association can help locate someone if they feel your project is outside of their orbit. If you can find a fixer who can wear several hats, all the better. The important factor: make sure he or she is street savvy.

Avoid Jail time

You have all of your papers in order, your locals are waiting for your arrival at the airport, there’s absolutely nothing you have forgotten that will hinder a smooth sailing shoot – yet.

We were in Budapest, back in the communist era, shooting a documentary on three generations of American-Hungarians tracing their roots back to the old country. After finishing an interview on the “borrowed” roof of an apartment building in an upscale district of the city, we swung the camera over the balcony to get B-roll of the neighborhood. We did not know we were filming an urban military training facility and someone from the “neighborhood watch” saw us. Packing up and slowly going to our production van, we were suddenly surrounded by soldiers who swept into the building, looked us over and were convinced they had made the espionage coup of the century. A Keystone Cops moment if ever I experienced one.

They marched us to the same facility we had been filming where an interrogator showered us with questions. The Hungarian fixer was embarrassed for us and tried to explain the nature of the documentary but the initial officer was convinced he had uncovered a covert American operation. We were held until a senior officer checked playback, determined that we were innocent and released us with an apology.

A similar incident happened in Camaguey, Cuba a few years ago. An Israeli journalist was covering a story on the first synagogue to be built in Cuba in 40 years for the Israeli equivalent of 60 Minutes. I had never completed so many forms before entering a country, nor spent so much money paying for additional permits after entering. But there we were, driving through beautiful coastal villages, on our way to the second largest city in Cuba.

In all of the pre-production preparations, no one had mentioned, “By the way, when you get to Camaguey, drop by the local constable to pay your respects.” To make a long story short, on the last and most important day of the shoot, minutes before the ribbon-cutting of the new synagogue, the sheriff showed up and arrested us. He would not look at our papers on the street, which our fixer explained to him were in order. Instead, we had to drive the 20 minutes to his station. We actually got there before he did and found the station locked. After he arrived, unlocked the station, marched us in to stand at attention as he sat behind a rickety metal desk and looked over our mountain of papers, he announced that the papers were all in order. “Next time you must come to my office before you begin work.” He added his official stamp and released us.

The point: it’s a terrible cliché, but always expect the unexpected. Could we have avoided the arrests? Perhaps spending an extra day in country, asking questions, getting an “in country” lay of the land might have helped.

find an ice breaker

We were shooting the Manila segment of a series I co-produced with Martin Yan for the Food Network (Edible Roots With Martin Yan). Because Martin’s other program, Yan Can Cook, is enormously popular in the Philippines, we had plenty of gushing help to show us around, intervene if any problems arose. However, outside of Manila we were on our own. We wanted to film in the northern region of Luzon, which is known for its majestic rice terraces. After a single prop plane ride, a jitney through rural villages and a hike to get to the mountain village where we would be filming rural Banaue cuisine, the natives didn’t exactly welcome us with open arms.

The Banaue Indians live on these ancient rice terraces and, according to the history books, not that many years ago they would have found us a delectable entrée rather than the bamboo chicken that Martin eventually learned how to make. The ice breaker turned out to be beetle nuts, which Martin chewed with the chief, setting off a flurry of giggles from five toothless women who were observing. Martin is a master at figuring out very quickly the local customs. He knew that a ceremonial presentation of money to the chief was essential if we were to get cooperation.

To Carnet Or Not

A carnet allows you to take your camera equipment in and out of over 75 countries with fewer customs hassles than any other means. They are good for a year but they cost a few hundred dollars. I prefer dealing with US Customs just before the shoot. Go to the airport two hours before your flight with two copies of a list of the equipment you will be taking (include serial numbers on the more expensive items). Customs will give you a form that they stamp which has all of the equipment you will be taking out of the country: they keep a copy, you keep a copy, and it’s all free. All airports that fly internationally have a US Customs sector that will handle this chore.

Also helpful is to check with the country where you’re heading to see if there are any additional requirements. On a recent shoot in Altamira, Mexico, in addition to my US Customs stamped forms, the Mexican consulate in Manhattan translated a statement that was helpful in getting us through customs in Tula. BUT . . . no matter what you do to insure safe passage through customs, my experience is that there is often something unforeseen that holds up entry. And it’s not necessarily a bribe. It could just be a minor official throwing his weight around. Keep your cool, smile a lot, and it doesn’t hurt to look dumb. It also helps to have someone meet you at the airport to troubleshoot those potential problems, the higher up in the corporation/government/tourism bureau chain, the better.

You Can’t Take The Kitchen Sink, But It Helps

When you are planning what equipment to take overseas, especially to countries in the developing world, you have to think about redundancy. Each shoot has its particular requirements beyond the gear you normally would take on a shoot. Aside from the transformers, 220 lamps and the adapters that will fit into the foreign outlets, make sure you have plenty of tape stock, batteries, mics and anything that you normally would have at home only in duplicate. Even if you could find a store abroad that would carry these items, the cost could be astronomical. Check out the on line forums to hear war stories about equipment failures and the mistakes shooters have made abroad


Just like learning the increasingly sophisticated functions of modern digital cameras takes time to master, learning the ropes of international production is cumulative. Read all that you can on line about the country, the culture, the shooting requirements. And, most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.

Hal Rifken is a DP whose company, HM Rifken Productions.