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Caravan/Prague: An Interview with Zack Winestine

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Caravan/Prague: An Interview with Zack Winestine

Zack Winestine’s Caravan/Prague is a first person documentary account of a 500-mile bicycle caravan across Europe. The journey takes Winestine to Prague to protest against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Described as a “mobile utopian community,” the caravan represents an ideology in counterpoint to these vastly powerful corporate organizations. Riding on bicycles across gorgeous green landscapes, passing through beautiful European cities, the group makes an effort to live as a self-sustained community. There are ideological hurtles along the way, such as their goal of functioning without money, as well as looming conflicts with police checkpoints. Along the way, Winestine narrates in a quiet, even-handed way, sometimes bemused, at other times befuddled. As he draws closer to Prague, the increasing stress weighs down on his voice, and tension builds as utopian ideals come face to face with the powers that be. Caravan/Prague is a political film, but never comes off as a hectoring lecture from the far left. It’s more of a personal diary, where a personal belief system is put to the test. Winestine shared some insights with The House Next Door on his experience making the film.

When you documented your 500-mile journey from Germany to the Czech Republic, were you thinking ahead to make Caravan/Prague, or did that evolve along with your experience?

When I set off to join the caravan, I hoped to make a film, but I really had no idea if it would be possible. I brought along a DV camera, but I knew that the chances were high that other participants in the caravan would veto the idea—among many globalization activists there was tremendous skepticism about any kind of media coverage. At the opening meeting of the caravan, the night before we left Hanover, I introduced myself and asked for permission to film. Somewhat to my surprise, people agreed that I could do so as long as I respected the wishes of those individuals who didn’t want to appear on camera. There were about ten people who didn’t wish to be filmed and I was constantly watching to make sure that they didn’t appear within the camera’s field of view—this is one reason that there are almost no wide shots of the caravan in the film!

What was your intention with the documentary? Do you consider the film do be part of the larger mission of reacting against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank?

Caravan/Prague was not meant to be a didactic film about the IMF and World Bank, and in fact the film itself contains only a brief overview of the issues. What I hoped to do was to convey both the experience of participating in a community of people trying to live out their ideals, and the experience of participating in the great anti-globalization
protests at their height. These experiences were extremely powerful, and my hope is that through them the film may motivate viewers not already familiar with the issues to learn more about why so many people became passionately committed to fighting against corporate globalization. As one starting point, a great deal of information about globalization is provided in the DVD extras.

This is a first person documentary, with you as a character behind the camera experiencing events firsthand. When you were making the film, did you regard yourself as a “character” in the film? If so, how would you describe your role?

My primary interest was in participating in the caravan; during the trip I regarded myself as a member of the caravan rather than as a filmmaker (and certainly not as a character in a film!). I hoped that this might give the footage I was getting a unique perspective, but I very consciously avoided thinking about what the resulting film might look like until long after the caravan was over.

By videotaping your journey, you blur the lines between observer and participant. Did you feel like you were both?

My goal was to be present as a participant, not as a filmmaker. I wanted to make a film about the experience of participation, and it was precisely this experience that would be lost had I been present as a filmmaker, constantly thinking about which angles to get to cover the story and how a given moment would fit into a larger sequence. This wasn’t easy for me—my background is as a Director of Photography, and as soon as I pick up a camera all my instincts kick in and start telling me how to function so as to best observe and record the moment, as opposed to participating in the moment.

I gave myself some simple rules before I started filming. Basically, I would participate. I had the camera with me at all times in a belt pouch, and if something happened in front of me that seemed interesting I’d pull out the camera and hit the ’record’ button. But I wouldn’t run around trying to get coverage, I wouldn’t try to be in all places at once. If something happened at the back of the caravan when I happened to be at the front and I missed it, so be it. The perspective would always remain that of a single participant.

This led to certain problems—my footage was necessarily incomplete. But because I was present as just another participant rather than as a filmmaker, I think I was able to portray the event in a way that would not have otherwise been possible. And if I had been constantly running around and waving the camera all over the place, I suspect that people would have quickly gotten fed up with me and asked me either to stop filming or to leave the caravan.

How did you structure the documentary once you finished shooting?

The basic structure was pretty clear from the beginning—a linear narrative following a journey that starts at point A and ends up at point B. The hard part was that, as I mentioned above, my footage had holes in it. Certain emotional moments were missing, and without these moments some parts of the story made no sense. So it fairly quickly became evident that I would need a first-person narration to fill in those holes and bridge the missing moments. And although I kept the footage in strictly chronological order for the initial rough cuts, I eventually realized that the edited film had its own emotional flow, which required some minor massaging of that chronology.

You have multiple locales and characters, from Utopian anarchists to border guards. Were there moments that, when they happened, you knew they would have to be included? I think specifically of the moment where you didn’t want to give the policewoman your passport.

There were a number of moments which I knew at the time had to be in the film; one which comes to mind was when the caravan’s sound system came together with the strobe lights mounted on a fleet of police cars to create an impromptu disco at 1 AM in the middle of a closed down highway seemingly floating in the middle of nowhere! And the conference between the caravan and the Prague customs officer was a unique meeting of two (or three) very different worlds, all sides making a genuine attempt to understand the other but despite their best efforts mostly talking past one another. I knew at the time that I wanted to run the entire meeting in real time in the finished film. This ended up being simply too much and I cut it down to five minutes, but I always regretted not being able to show the ebb and flow of the encounter in real time, and I’m happy I was able to include the uncut scene as an ’extra’ in the DVD.

However, what I was most aware of were the important moments that I wasn’t able to film. The denouement of the encounter with the policewoman was that she confiscated my camera. The scene then continued for another ten minutes, but obviously I wasn’t able to film it! Ironically, the central point of our discussion was a German law, which stated that unless one had official press credentials, one is not allowed to film the faces of the police. I’d been completely unaware of any such law, and prior to this moment the police had shown no interest in my camera whatsoever. But we had just crossed into Saxony, where the police have a reputation for being very hard-line, and all of a sudden I nearly got arrested for pointing a camera in the direction of the police. Filming became almost impossible; a bunch of people in the caravan didn’t want to be filmed, the police didn’t want to be filmed, there was no direction at all in which I could point the camera! Eventually I just thought, ’to hell with it’ and stopped worrying about how the police would respond to the camera, though I did try to be a bit more circumspect than I had been earlier.

Similarly, I was repeatedly warned that the border guards were extremely sensitive about cameras and that filming at the border would be out of the question. Clearly, the border crossing was in some ways going to be the climax of the trip, and it would have been a great loss not to be able to film it. I initially rigged the camera so that I could inconspicuously shoot with it while it was hidden in its pouch, but after several hours the whole border crossing had turned into such a circus that it was clear the border officials were long past worrying about the presence of cameras.

The most difficult thing was making judgments about when it was and was not appropriate to film internal caravan discussions. Such meetings are usually off-limits to cameras, but I pushed the envelope a bit and filmed some of them because the whole process of making decisions by consensus was integral to the nature of the community that we formed, and I wanted to be able to give viewers some idea of how these things worked. On the other hand, there were a few times when discussions touched on personal topics or when people were completely exhausted after 16 hours of bicycling in the rain and cold and lost their tempers, and though it might have made for dramatic footage I felt it would have ended up being exploitive had I taken out the camera. I also think that people were aware that I was trying very hard to use the camera with respect, and this in turn led to their trusting me and allowing me to film with a minimum of interference.

While you were unencumbered by a crew, there must have been inherent challenges in making this documentary. You’re on a bicycle caravan, which means you have to be continually on the move while shooting, and you’re constantly wondering if you’ll get arrested along the way or have your footage confiscated. What was your attitude towards this?

The hardest part was figuring out how to shoot one-handed from a bicycle without crashing! Seriously. My decision to bring a camera along was very last minute, and I didn’t have any time to practice filming from my bike at home. The first day the caravan was moving in a fairly dense mass through Hanover and its outskirts, and I crashed into other bicyclists several times while trying to get the hang of it. My fellow riders showed a great deal of patience with me.

I’m not a big fan of mini-DV, but this is one film that simply would not have been possible to make in any other format. I had a very small single-chip camera; it would have been impossible for me to use anything larger on a spontaneous basis while riding my bike. Also, I realized before starting out that there was a significant chance that my camera might get confiscated before the trip was over and I needed to use a camera that was sufficiently inexpensive that I could afford to take this risk. As it turned out, the police did confiscate the camera at one point, but thankfully they eventually returned it to me.

While making your video diaries, you describe not only the logistics, but also how you’re feeling. Were you charting your emotional journey along the way? How did your feelings change the closer you got to Prague?

The entire journey was an odd combination of euphoria alternating with extreme stress—and I never knew from hour to hour which emotion would predominate. This generally had to do with the fact that our police escort would change every few hours as we entered a new district; at one moment we would be happily bicycling through bucolic landscapes in relative harmony with the police, and then, seemingly with no warning, we would be swarmed with police vans and helicopters trying to shut us down. The fact that I spoke no German and was unfamiliar with the various rituals and cultural assumptions surrounding German police behavior didn’t help, but even the Germans were mystified by the police response on many occasions.

In some ways the emotional climax of the trip was crossing the German/Czech border. There was a general feeling that we would probably not be allowed to cross the border, and this in turn would lead to a significant confrontation with the authorities. I was concerned that if I was arrested or otherwise ID’d at the border, I’d be blacklisted and prevented from making another attempt to cross the border and get to Prague on my own—and for me, getting to the Prague protests was a primary goal. As I mention in the film, I gave some serious thought to leaving the caravan before the border and trying to cross on my own as a tourist, but eventually decided that emotionally it was more important to stay with the caravan and play out the drama. Once we got over the border, on the final day’s journey to Prague there was a feeling of elation, we had accomplished something that many of us had thought we’d never be able to do. Then, when we got to Prague and started dealing with the realities of the upcoming protest, the whole emotional roller coaster started all over again.

How did you determine the tone of your narration?

This was the single hardest thing in the entire film. Biking from Hanover to Prague was nothing by comparison with trying to find the right tone for the narration. I was relying on the narration both to convey factual information that was missing from the footage and to talk about my emotional reactions to the events that were unfolding, and it was terribly difficult finding the right balance. My initial attempts contained way too much factual information, and the whole thing became very leaden. At the same time, I wanted to the greatest extent possible for the footage to speak for itself and not to impose my own emotional reactions on the audience. Another problem was that I was way too close to the events depicted in the film, and it was hard to gain enough perspective to gauge the difference between the events I had been through and the footage which I had of those events—not the same thing at all, and the narration had in some sense to bridge that difference.

Another big problem was, quite literally, the “tone” of the narration. Because it was a first-person narration, I had to read it myself. I’m not an actor, I get extremely self-conscious when I’m put in front of a microphone, and through many edits the narration had an artificial tone because I tensed up so badly when I was reading it. The narration had to provide an emotional connection that would pull people into the film, and this required a performance that didn’t come naturally to me at all. I finally hired a vocal coach to work with me to relax my voice and to help me use it creatively to communicate the emotions I wanted to convey.

You throw yourself right into police obstruction of the protest, with tear gas and the possibility of violence. What do you go through when shooting in the midst of that?

There wasn’t much I could do other than trying to keep the camera pointed in the right direction. The camera had an LCD screen that was totally useless in bright daylight, so I was essentially shooting blind. At times I was very conflicted about what was happening, it was exciting and scary and at some moments I was genuinely unsure whether we were helping or hurting our cause. It was the first time I had been in a street situation as chaotic as this one, and it was fascinating to watch a large and very diverse crowd of protesters learn and adjust and adapt to that chaos. The police would charge, the crowd would retreat, the police would withdraw, the crowd would advance, the police would charge again. It became a kind of dance.

I should also mention that one of the shots you may be referring to is one of three shots in the film that I didn’t shoot myself. Although almost the entire film is literally shot from my point of view, there’s an exception at the moment that one of the marches approaches an intersection near the IMF/World Bank meetings that turned out to be the site of a climactic confrontation with the police. Several months after the protests, I found out that someone I knew had been out in front of the march and had shot some very dramatic footage of the confrontation from a closer and much more revealing angle. It was fascinating to see for the first time events which I, back in the middle of the march, had been only confusedly aware of as they were happening.

Where have you screened, and how can people find out about the DVD?

Caravan/Prague has had several New York screenings, most recently at Anthology Film Archives, and has just been released on DVD by Cinema Libre Studio. I’m particularly happy about the package of DVD extras that we put together, including a short film I made about the 2001 Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and a DVD-ROM feature with maps and documents from the Prague protests and an anthology of essays (from groups such as the International Forum on Globalization and Jubilee USA) describing in depth the issues surrounding economic globalization. More information about the film, along with the trailer, is available at www.caravanprague.com.