“Let the picture come to you.”
When I first picked up a camera 10 years ago I really had no idea what I was doing. But I was so excited that I went off on my own to film in the malarial jungles in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines with the communist rebel group known as the New People’s Army. I was actually sent there to meet with insurgent leaders and secure access for the real pros in the business – a big budget BBC documentary team that was going to be flying in after I’d laid the groundwork. I wasn’t even supposed to be using a camera, but I wanted to learn. After two weeks, I came back out with my footage, and showed it to my friend and mentor Egay Navarro, a veteran cameraman. He looked at me with scorn. “You should stick to filming your kid’s birthday parties.” He was right. My footage was awful, and he noticed that the people I filmed looked as if they didn’t trust me. “You were there to gain access, not film a documentary.”
Orlando de Guzman and Edgar “Egay” Navarro, South Cotabato, Philippines, 2008.
Egay and I ended up making several documentaries together for PBS and Al Jazeera as I worked my way up to being a TV producer. He became a mentor, and his playful cinema verité approach was an inspiration. His experience was unparalleled: he was there rolling when a deranged Bolivian artist tried to assassinate Pope Paul VI in Manila, and he filmed the rise and fall of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He was first to film with the New People’s Army when they set up in the jungle in the early 1970s. He was there for every coup, flood, and volcanic eruption. He made hundreds of documentaries all over the world. I would also later learn that he even filmed my father’s first solo painting exhibition in 1969. His work captured moments of tension, boredom, anguish and terror, all with a sense of irony and humor. Even Egay’s darkest footage – a severed head on a platter being carried around by rightwing paramilitaries in 1980s-era Mindanao – had his own comedic twist to it.
Egay always reminded me that filming was like swimming with fish. When you stop going after them, they will come around. “Don’t go chasing for the picture. Let the picture come to you.” Gain access, get in the best position, and don’t stop filming.