Filming on an iPhone Saved a Film Director’s Life
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Written by Kristen Kidd
Film Director Phyllis Stuart risked her life in Africa to direct and produce her latest documentary film WILD DAZE by shooting in dangerous areas, sans crew that is, all alone, equipped with an iPhone.
In a few dicey interview spots in southern Africa, director Phyllis Stuart grabbed an iPhone, sacrificed the safety of a crew and filmed Wild Daze alone in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
This was a dangerous time for journalists and documentarians because the Tanzanian government was clamping down on the press due to a poaching scandal in the Selous Park, in which they had been implicated. It was in 2015, a peak poaching time when Stuart she returned to Africa. The world just learned that Tanzania had lost two thirds of its elephants in four years, and these illegal tusks had landed in China’s legal ivory shops. This level of poaching cannot happen and this many tusks cannot escape without the government’s consent and involvement.
Because the stakes were high and shooting with a camera crew could place Stuart’s life in danger, before she returned to film, Stuart approached Apple to support her efforts by donating an iPhone on which she would surreptitiously film. Apple’s marketing team embraced the idea that a documentary film could be shot on an iPhone and promptly sent her its latest models.
Having already filmed 90 people in eight countries during the previous year, Stuart returned to Africa to film in poaching hot spots in 2016. While most of the film was shot with a flexible but experience crew on a high-quality camera, in some dangerous locations, Stuart captured footage with tricked out iPhone gear.
Why would a director decide to sacrifice depth of field and forgo the comfort of a seasoned camera crew and results from a 4k camera? Because Stuart says her film “Wild Daze was forged by a fierce desire to save the wild and though independently created, it has been supported by its narrator Keith David, and cast members like Jane Goodall, Will Travers, Ofir Drori, Tony Fitzjohn, Richard Bonham and many other amazing souls”.
Even though tensions were high, Stuart found three compelling stories that drove her to risk her safety and return: She learned of the harrowing near miss of the American Elephant Listening Project founder, Andrea Turkalo, who was chased from her Central African Republican location by Sudanese poachers on horseback. She heard of Tanzanian farmers forcing a herd of elephants off a cliff. And she heard of Zimbabwe's plans shipping dozens of wild baby elephants to live in Chinese zoos. tried everything she could think of to prevent this, she even got help from Pamela Anderson who wrote a letter begging them to free the elephants, and enlisted a Zimbabwean buddy friend to meet a corrupt interior minister seeking the return of the babies. To free the baby elephants, he told Stuart she could have them and return them to the wild on two conditions: First, she must pay him two million dollars cash, which Stuart considered, but the kidnapping precedent would have just backfired. But his second deal point was the deal breaker when he asked an indie filmmaker to lift sanctions against him, Mugabe and his other cronies. Sure, he was playing her, but Stuart was not playing and his cruel pettiness steeled her resolve. Nothing could have prevented Stuart from returning to complete this film and galvanize audiences to save the African wildlife.
Remarkably, employing a low-impact iPhone tactic helped Stuart disarm her subjects and allay fears. Shooting on a cell phone, nobody took her seriously as she seemed to be just another American tourist. Since corrupt cops, rangers and government workers collude with poachers to profit from the wildlife, having Stuart shoot solo with an iPhone disguised her mission and dispelled the official’s suspicion.
Juxtaposed against glorious nature shots, audiences may be jolted by the iPhone footage, but cannot look away from the men revealing the unvarnished truth. Stuart admits she didn’t enjoy operating sound, lights and camera while having hard conversations with upset conservationists. Many African nations don’t grant citizens freedom of speech and foreign conservationists may not openly criticize the government for fear of deportation.
In fact, after conducting more than one interview, once the camera had stopped, the subject would quietly admit: “I can’t answer that question or I will be a dead conservationist” or “I can be disappeared for twenty dollars if I tell you what’s really going on.” Or “you can’t use my name or my face if I tell you the truth.” Stuart even had to shoot an interview in hiding behind a gas station with an on-camera KTN journalist, Dennis Onsarigo, who had just aired piece in which he implicated the Kenya Wildlife Service and named poacher kingpin names.
Stuart didn’t feel unsafe many times during her two-month shoot. But a woman traveling alone has to be cautious, so she dressed like an impoverished artist and carried large sums of cash (since no US banks had a reciprocal relationship with a bank on the continent).
Tragically, one year after her interview with the outspoken poaching activist, Esmond Bradley Martin, he was savagely murdered with a machete in his Nairobi home after he had publicly named kingpin poacher names. According to Stuart, he was a bold and clever American who had fought wildlife crime and lived in Kenya for 30 years. Before his death he had just exposed big-time wildlife criminals and showed China’s undeniable involvement with the illegal wildlife business. To this day Martin’s murder remains unsolved.