GRANTING: Victor Viyuoh on Filmmaking in Cameroon

Victor Viyouh (right), director of Ninah's Dowry

Last year, GFI awarded Cameroonian director Victor Viyuoh a production grant to support completion of his film, Ninah’s Dowry. Such grants, as many of you know, are awarded twice a year to filmmakers who present us with unique cinematic visions of the world (or rather, their world). And since our founding, we have supported films that cover every kind of story one might imagine–from a behind the scenes look at Bollywood to films about wrestlers, politics, and, in Victor’s case, marriage in Cameroon.

However, as is often the situation, we sometimes find that the story behind the ‘vision’ is just as engaging as the film it produces–something Victor recently reminded us of after sending an email recounting the various difficulties he and his production crew faced while trying to film Ninah’s Dowry in Cameroon.

A full, unedited transcript of his experience is below and as you’ll see, the story rivals-in-reality some of the best chasing windmills stories around. More importantly, it reminds us that behind the picture, there is always a person and a context–personal, cultural and universal–than can never truly be captured by any camera.

The Making, Breaking and Beauty of Ninah’s Dowry

In 2000, after a few years of attending film school in the States, I returned home to shoot what was probably the first USC narrative thesis shot out of the USA.  The film gained some international attention and I felt that I would be able to make my award winning feature script, Fifty-Fifty.  After a series of ups and downs, we screeched to a painful halt in 2006 when financing fell through the day before lawyers were to sign documents.

Dejected I withdrew and sulked.  For a couple days.  Then it occurred to me that I had been meaning to do a small movie ala El Mariachi or Festen. And there was a story my cousin had told me a couple of years earlier that had not only stuck with me but I had tried to document it on one my trips to Cameroon in search of investors.  I decided to write a narrative inspired by her experience, but I wanted to focus on just the day that her estranged husband and his posse came for her and forced her to go back with them.

A scene from Ninah's Dowry

I wrote an outline, spent a great deal of time putting together a professional portfolio to raise money and I was off looking for a couple of investors.  It took me 7 months to convince a friend of my wife’s to invest $10,000.  I knew I wanted to make films in and about Cameroon so I had started saving money and buying equipment.  My wife and I teamed up, bought more equipment including the Panasonic HVX 200.  We then shipped a container to Cameroon in December 2007 believing that the Ministry of Culture will applaud our efforts and help us clear the container since we were not going to sell the equipment.

I went to Cameroon and tried in vain to meet the Minister of Culture.  I was actually at the Ministry waiting to find out when she might be able to grant me audience when I heard that our container was up for inspection the following morning.  I rushed to Douala and they inspected and okayed it but the agent gave me a mindblowing estimate of how much it could cost to clear it.  $25,000.  This was after I had already given him $2,000 to start processing the documents.

Alarmed, I went back to Yaounde to see the Minister.  While there we got word of an impending national strike. We could not be caught in the capital where we knew no one and could not afford to pay hotels.  We rushed back to Bamenda where the strike cornered us in the house for more than a week.  We survived on only potatoes.

I did receive a call from the Ministry of Culture. And it was the technical adviser to the Minister telling me that he could see me the following Tuesday.  This was in the middle of the strike and my container was already in default at the seaport. It was useless.  I didn’t go.  I could not go.

Each passing day meant additional fees at the seaport.  I knew no one in the country who would lend me a dime.  Plus, it was nearing the point where my container would be essentially confiscated and sold at auction. This could be a solution if the auction were fair.  But they are not. First, it is supposed to be a public auction but it never is.  Sometimes they make the announcement as the auction is going. And at the auctions customs officers who already knew what was inside each container knew what to bid on. So, they used money they ripped off you to buy your container at a cheap price.  It is one of the worst examples of a loss loss situation.

Fearing that we would lose our equipment along with a production van and a production truck we had sent, my mom introduced me to a cattle businessman who agreed to lend me $10,000 for two weeks.  That was not nearly enough.  Another businessman agreed to lend me $3,000 if I agreed to return the money in two weeks with an interest of $1,000.  I had no choice.  I approached enough people to meet the amount needed but I had to return the monies within two weeks.  They were each lending me the money totally believing that I would clear the container all right but also believing that I would default on the loan.  But since I was bringing container full of items, they would then get their hands on the vehicles and other cargo as payment for their loans.

I called my wife and pleaded with her to borrow money in the US.  She did.  And she made emergency plans to travel.  But she could not arrive within a week. So I accepted the money people loaned me and cleared the container.  The details of that drama I will leave for the book, but we cleared the container days before my wife arrived Cameroon.  She brought the money and we were able to pay everyone to their utter amazement.  In fact I had to chase the dejected cattle businessman around in order to return him his money.

A couple of things had happened.  One, we were out of money.  And second, the season had changed.  So, I left the van with my trusted cousin to sell and packed everything else in storage and returned to the US.  But I was not at peace.

Victor had intended to shoot against this dry landscape. But after production delays postponed filming...

"We were out of money... And the seasons had changed."

After months of trying and failing to raise more money, decided to return to Cameroon, sell the pickup truck and use the money to film.  I went back and the truck that people had initially said would fetch me $30,000 was not generating much interest.  The best offers were in the $10,000 range.  I resisted for a bit but I gave in and was willing to accept the amount since time was again running out and I had to film.  But the buyers would not pay.  They had excuses or they will go and not return.  Again I had to return to the USA.

What had also happened was that the van I left with my cousin had been crashed no less than three times and it was in awful shape.  I only found out days before I returned to Cameroon.  So, I bought fenders, airbags, front lights and several parts from the US and took them so that he could repair them and put the van in the market.  While in Cameroon I did not see the repaired van until I was about to leave.  I went by to check it out only to be told that it had been taken to be shown to a potential buyer. I didn’t have time to fuss because my flight back to the USA was that night.  I left the truck at a car dealership to be sold.

Back in the US, I grew restless.  The wife was tired of me going to Cameroon but I could not give up.  I spoke with a friend of mine in London who was moved by the effort and he promised to come in as an investor although he, too, was faced with serious financial difficulties.  The truck sold for next to nothing but with my friend’s investment and the truck money I felt I could film.  My friend told me later that he could not afford the whole amount that he had promised but he would send me more once I started filming. I remembered GFI from years earlier when I was prepping Fifty-Fifty and decided this was the right time to apply.  So I applied.

One of the many vehicular mishaps that occured over the course of filming

Before I left, my cousin told me that the van had been involved in yet another accident.  I was dumbfounded.  I should note here that I had sent several people to take the van from him but he refused saying that it was in his care and only I could take it.  This time when I went back, I took it.  A mechanic promised to bring it into life and we sank money into repairing it.

Gong back a few weeks in time, my wife was not okay with me traveling and she felt the only way to stop me was to hide the camera.  And she did.  I tried to explain to her that I would shoot on a cell phone camera if I had to. I left feeling confident that when she sees that we were actually going to shoot she would send me the camera.

I arrived, prepped everything for the shoot and she did ship the Panasonic HVX 200.  Since it was for filming and not for sale she declared the value to be $100.  But paid over $500 to ship it. The day the camera arrived Douala I went to pick it up and was told it was at DHL customs which was closed that hour.  I returned first thing Monday morning and they gave me the runaround before admitting that the camera was there. Yet they insisted on delivering it in Bamenda where it was destined. I complained but the guy who was helping me find the camera advised me to just go to Bamenda and the camera would arrive.

Pumped, I went to pick up the van that was about to be delivered some 2 weeks later than they had promised.  I had compared the cost of renting a vehicle versus repairing and owning our van at the end and found the repair to be more cost effective even at almost $2000.  Of course the repair ended up costing more than $3000.  Still, we were happy when we picked up the van because it was ours.  I loaded the cast and crew in Buea and headed out in high spirits for Bamenda.  It was first time that I was meeting some of the crew. I was quite happy because in spite of a patchy front grid body work, the van, a Chevy Astro Van was impressive looking and unlike anything the crew had seen in Cameroon.  And for sure the chairs were very comfortable.  The CD didn’t work smoothly but hey, we were moving.

After about 3 hours of driving the van suddenly stopped.  Nervous we opened the crooked hood and discovered that it had overheated.  The cast and crew were good natured about it and they fetched water. It got it moving again and headed out. After climbing the windy Dschang mountain and going past the town, we heard a loud noise and I pulled over.  We went out to find that the fan had fallen out of the engine and the van had run over it.  When the fan came off it hit and burst the radiator at several places and we spent the next 12 hours repairing both of them.  I called a taximan in Bamenda to come take the actors while I tied to repair the van.  He arrived just as the van was ready to go again.  But as we drove we realized that we didn’t have headlights. It was 1 a.m.  We drove behind the taxi all the way to Bamenda and Sabga where we would be based.  The Cast and Crew had just made it through our first major obstacle but no one knew the shame I felt when the fan fell out.  When the fan fell out I could just imagine them wondering what kind of operation I ran that had car engines falling off moving vehicles on highways.  That day in Dschang, there was no place big enough to hide my head.

In Bamenda, I waited a few days and then called DHL.  They told me the camera had left Douala and was on its way from Bafousam to Bamenda.  It would be there Friday afternoon. It didn’t arrive the afternoon it was supposed to arrive.  Then DHL called and wanted me to describe exactly what was in the package.  I flipped on the phone.

DHL gave me a runaround and we are still in court to this day.  We lost two months trying to figure out where to get another camera.  Meanwhile, we watched the season change and our funds dwindle to nothing.  Looking at the cost of buying versus renting in Cameroon and the threats of shipping, we decided to ask my wife to send us our Sony FX1.  We had someone traveling to Cameroon hand carry it because we had lost all faith in DHL and the likes of it.  Because we wanted it hand carried we had to find someone with a matching schedule.  We did and it meant another 2 weeks of waiting.

When the camera did arrive, the cast and crew wanted to start shooting that day and be finished in 10 to 11 days.  I panicked.  Our script was short but it was not a script for 10 or 11 day shoot.  Not with a crew that had to be trained in essentially every aspect of filmmaking.  I worked on a 13 day schedule which the crew half-approved.

I managed to convince them to wait until the following day March 27th to start shooting.  We decided to start at Memfi’s and shoot the opening scenes.  I chose those scenes for a few reasons.  They were not too complicated.  Secondly, the rainy had been briefly interrupted by some strange haze that had lasted days but it was clearing up.  At the time we didn’t know it was Icelandic ash because we cut off from the world. If we shot those scenes first we could catch a quasi dry season look.  Plus, the kitchen had just been rebuilt after the fire but the house was not yet done.

Cast and crew on the set of Ninah's Dowry

Which brings us to the film house.  We put a chunk of our money into building the film house because I wanted some very specific design elements that most mud brick houses didn’t have. A hallway.  And an attic which houses with hallways don’t have.  Cast and crewing put in hours of work building the film house as we waited for the camera.  We knew we would age it at the end because we didn’t want the house to look new. So, 2 days after it was done, the head of construction decided to gather the remnants from the grass used to thatch the roof and burn so that the smoke can darken the walls.  Most of us were not around.  But from all indication a jumping flame caught grass hanging from the roof and in a matter of seconds the whole house was ablaze.  There was nothing anyone could do but watch in awe.  No time to even film it with a cell phone camera.  The palm front kitchen beside the house was also reduced to ashes.

At this point, we had no van, no camera, and now no film house.  Plus, it was the rainy season.  Should we pack up and leave?  Should we shoot a short film so that the cast and crew from Buea could hide behind that and be able to re-enter the city?  How could I ever go back to the USA?  The wife had tried to stop me.  I surely could not tell my co-workers once again that I didn’t film.  I could never even return to my job. My friend from Ireland who had advised me to give up this silly notion of filming in Cameroon would have no sympathy. And the investors?  Plus, our investments. And sweat.

I was no quitter.  I checked and we were still all alive.  It was not that bad, after all.  Plus, if you think about it you would smile the way I smiled when I first saw the burned down film house.  The catastrophe was quite thorough.  The burn was impressive with ash strewn more than a kilometer away and embers staying alive for days.

We decided to stick with the original goal.  Film Ninah’s Dowry.  We were totally tapped out when the camera arrived.  Feeding more than 30 people for months is not cheap.  Plus their health and transportation.  And me, chasing the DHL case.  Opening a case file alone cost $1,000. And because we had sunk so much money in the van we felt obligated to repair the fan and radiator which had come apart again when we arrived Sabga. The rebuilding of the film house involved quite a bit of volunteering, still there were people we had to pay. And we had to buy grass at a much higher amount now because it was the rainy season and dry grass was scarce. The kitchen was easier to rebuild so we  started on it.

A scene from Ninah's Dowry

Day 1, we shot at the rebuilt kitchen and framed out the film house which we were still rebuilding.  That evening we nervously gathered around and watched dailies.  The framing was all off because my cameraman didn’t know he had to reframe every time the actors moved. Still, we had a little bit  of dry season, a little bit of coverage and much much needed relief. The sound was mono, the film, HDV but the actors were the same and story was onscreen.  I told them that I had been prepared to shoot on a cell phone but look at what we were shooting on – HDV.  That was a vast improvement.  Let’s forget about the Panasonic and concentrate on telling on our story.

The screening did something else that for me was magical.  It quelled talks about a 10 day shoot. People opened up to the possibility of shooting even 18 days.

For day 2 we went indoors so that I could break out the lights and get a feel for what obstacles lay there. With the stress and confusion surrounding such a big day, I immediately plugged a 120v light into a 220v outlet and blew out one of 2 Arri 650 fresnels we had.  Again I smiled.  I helped set up the lights and explain why we could not plug the lights to the local current and must always use the generator or go through the step up step down converter.  We were setting up for the third shot when I received a call from one Marita Murphy saying she was with GFI and they had sent me an email.

One moment.  When the camera came we had no money.  I mean not even money for lunch.  We borrowed food to cook that Saturday.  Remember the cattle businessman from two years earlier who lent me money?  This time he refused.  I went to a friend of mine who agreed to lend me $400 as long as I would return it before Wednesday.  I accepted without the vaguest clue where I would get $400 in 4 days.  That was the money we used to repay food debt, buy more food, buy some props and costumes and pay for some out-of-town actors coming in for the scene.

So, with Marita’s call, I had faith that if I could just keep finding ways to pay for each day, at some point we would have funds to repay the debts and finish the movie.  My wife could not assist anymore.  We were still deeply indebted, we had welcomed twin boys months earlier and she had missed months of work.  She was swamped as it was with house bills and debts.  In fact, I sent her the $500 she needed to ship the HVX. Plus my friend in London had also welcomed a child and his job was not secure.  Their company was downsizing.  So, he could not send the rest of the money he had promised he would send once I started filming.

I started borrowing $500 here and repaying $200 there and then borrowing $800 and repaying $500 while using $300 to feed cast and crew and provide for transportation.

Also, there were still actors coming from Buea.  I had to pay their round trip ticket and feed them on the trips.  When things got especially rough I entered family cattle and sold a few with the intention of buying and replacing them later.  After feeling terribly guilty, I sold some of my own cattle.  Since I didn’t have marketable cattle, I separated a mother from its unweaned calf.  I sold the mother and it was horrible.  Horrible.  The herdsman pleaded with me.  It was the one cow that provided him daily supplies of milk.

Finally, my mom told me about our village credit union which I thought was defunct years earlier.  It was not defunct.  Since they knew me or knew our family they could lend me money if I had an account there.  I opened an account there and they broke all rules to lend me money.  I showed them the letter of award from GFI and they lent me money that was 15 times what I had in the account. Their rule was a maximum of 3 times.  They lent me money only 2 weeks after I opened the account when their rule requires the account to be at least 3 months old.  They went out of their way to make it happen for me.

The money went toward:

  • Feeding
  • Repairing van which we needed to reach some of the more remote locations
  • Fueling van which is a bona fide gas guzzler
  • Props
  • Costumes
  • Location rebuilding
  • Tapes
  • Bus fares

The grant will cover those debts as well as:

  • Help some cast and crew resettle after losing jobs for staying away too long
  • Initial post work
  • Drives, supplies
  • Editor token

I can’t think of what the grant wouldn’t do.  But the mere promise of the grant helped secure loans and the grant is now repaying.

- Victor Viyuoh

Print Friendly
Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply