Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is cracking down on rampant crime, but many fear the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ is turning his country into a dangerous police state. Reporter Sally Sara, along with cameramen Greg Nelson and Matt Davis, travel to Rio de Janeiro for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent.
Greg Nelson and Matt Davis are two of our country’s most seasoned news and documentary cinematographers.
Nelson joined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as a camera operator and cinematographer twenty years ago, after nine years working in commercial television. “Most of my career has been in news and current affairs working across a variety of short and long form programs,” he says. Nelson’s camerawork can be seen in documentaries including The Killing Season, The House, Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners, Australian Story and Unravel.
Davis joined the Foreign Correspondent team in 2015. “I was initially hired as a Producer,” says Davis. “My first two assignments were more traditional projects with the main camera operating an electronic news gathering style, with hints of my Canon C300 for stylistic purposes.”
#BlackLivesMatter (2016) put Nelson and Davis together for the first time as they made the wholesale move to working on Canon C300s. That program received two Walkley Award nominations, for Camera and International Journalism, as well as an AACTA nomination for Best Television Documentary.
Davis always had a close connection to Brazil through many of his friends. When Brazilian politician, and human rights activist Marielle Franco was assassinated over a year ago he began discussing the story with the ABC. Then along came new Brazilian president, Jair Bolosnaro. “Yet another right-wing populist swept to power on the back of anti-establishment protest votes,” explains Davis. “We had seen a lot of this going on in the United States, but now Brazil had voted the so-called ‘Trump of the Tropics’ into power, and that was a story we wanted to tell.” This became Foreign Correspondent episode ‘The Battle for Rio’.
The brief was to report on the far right shift in Brazilian politics that saw a populist and, some would say, extremist politician elected President. What societal shifts were occurring and what political forces were at play to bring such a result? As always the report needs to relate back to an Australian audience. The pair’s time filming in Brazil coincided with Carnival celebrations, which afforded them no shortage of filming opportunities and allowed them to bring together a lot of different characters into their story.
“The situation in Brazil is one that we’d been watching for some time,” says Nelson. “The crackdown on crime in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and the battles between police and crime gangs in the favelas particularly, were always stories that interested us. The political situation has parallels in many countries around the world right now.”
Filming an episode of Foreign Correspondent generally takes around ten days, plus travel. It’s usually always as a core team of three – producer, camera and reporter – supplemented with a good local ‘fixer’. “Between all the filming commitments there’s no down time for anyone,” says Nelson. “That’s why it’s always a pleasure to work with a visual reporter like Sally Sara, as well as a complementary shooter and producer like Davis. Both have a great eye. A two person crew affords us the opportunity for more coverage and the ability to split the team if circumstances or time demand it.”
Matt landed in Brazil a few days ahead of the other team members to set things up and do reconnaissance on locations. “Unfortunately, the final scene was shot on our last night so it was definitely a bit of a race to the end,” says Davis. As a team, Nelson and Davis are very confident of each other’s skillset. On several occasions they did in fact split and capture different scenes. “This was particularly useful as Brazilians never seem to sleep,” he says.
Safety and security is always a concern filming in environments like favelas. Unique, poverty-stricken and unregulated slums and shantytowns located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities, favelas are by far the most dangerous places for Westerners to visit in Brazil. If you’ve seen Fernando Meirelles’ excellent and award-winning 2002 film City of God (cinematography by César Charlone), you know what the favelas mean. But favelas too can be vibrant, diverse, colourful and inviting; full of the friendly, kind-hearted and beautiful people that the country is made up of.
In Brazil, visiting and filming in the favelas is something that’s considered from the very start of the production process. Davis met with a few different producers and journalists based in Rio who had experience working in these at times hostile environments. “Having good local contacts and fixers is absolutely essential for access,” says Nelson. “You can’t just stroll on in with a camera so being able to make the initial approach and talk to the right people for access is crucial.”
“It also introduces you to people and aspects of the story that might otherwise have stayed hidden,” continues Nelson. “Obviously there are players on both sides of the story in Brazil who want to control the visuals but if you’re friendly, observant and persistent, you’ll get what you need.”
In advance the team developed a relationship with the story’s characters and through them access was provided, although the crew was blocked several times from entering due to police raids targeting gangs. “It was quite a challenge to get the material we needed, but once we were inside the community we felt safe and welcome,” says Davis. “I did get robbed on the beach… go figure.”
Long form current affairs and documentary programs at the ABC have been shifting to super 35mm cameras for some time now. The television production unit had been using the Panasonic Varicam, until they were disbanded two years ago. The Keating Interviews (2013) was one of the first in-house news productions to use the Canon C300. When Nelson was asked to shoot The Killing Season (2015) along with Louie Eroglu ACS they both agreed that the C300 was the best option available at the time to fulfil the program brief.
“The success and style of that series led to a great deal of interest from program teams at the ABC looking to emulate our look for their own shows,” says Nelson. Foreign Correspondent became one of the first ABC News programs to shift away from 2/3inch electronic news gathering cameras to Super 35mm. “Several programs had already been filmed with full-frame DSLRs but the Black Lives Matter episode, which was also the first time Davis, Sara and I worked together, was one of the first to use the C300.”
That camera, which was inherited from the The Killing Season after it wrapped, was the only one we had in-house for a long time. Between Eroglu, Davis and Nelson it was rarely off the road between program assignments. It was not uncommon for it to arrive back in the office from a two week shoot in the morning and be out on a different overseas assignment that afternoon.
The Super 35mm cameras are far more commonplace today with a wide variety now used for news gathering, daily current affairs and long form programs like Australian Story. “It can still be challenging to obtain a matching pair of cameras at the ABC for a job like this,” says Nelson. For this story Nelson used a Sony FS7 Mark II with Fujinon MK Cine Zooms, and Davis used a C300 Mark II with a Canon 18-80 Cine Zoom.
Most of The Battle for Rio was filmed using these cameras. Nelson also used his DJI Osmo Mini, which became very handy in less friendly environments, and both of them travelled with DJI Mavic Pros and the FiLMiC Pro app installed on their iPhones.
“Because of the speed we have to operate and the size of the team, lighting kits are tailored for each job,” explains Nelson. “On this program we had to stay small and light moving through crowds and favelas so we used a mix of Dracast and Aputure lights both for their size and output. They’re affordable, quality lights.”
Where possible Davis prefers to run with available light and film with talent on the move. “To be honest,” adds Davis “I don’t promote myself as a lighting cameraman in the traditional sense. Nelson is a very experienced operator so he was in charge of lighting our major interviews.”
While some current affairs programs still operate with dedicated sound recordists, Foreign Correspondent does not. “It’s a case of budgetary constrictions, not a disregard for the quality audio capture that good documentaries need,” says Nelson. “It means we have to work harder to get sound coverage from our characters and interviews, however it’s no replacement for a specialist and certainly compromises have to be made when catching sound.”
“Carnival is such a feast, visually, it’s hard not for anyone not to be awestruck by the pageantry and spectacle of it all,” says Nelson. “Not just the main Sambadrome event but also the street parties or ‘blocos’ and the samba school rehearsals.
“Those final scenes at Carnival are absolutely stunning,” says Davis, “but I actually really love one transition in the story where we go from a favela rooftop barbecue to the Mangueira Samba School rehearsal. It is just so raw; all that energy, music, dance, skill and smiles, taking over a carpark as they prepared for the main event. At that point of the shoot I began to feel great. The build up to Carnival was a great series of events to anchor around and it certainly provided a cinematic climax to the story.”
Brazil, and Rio in particular, are such beautiful places but also full of extreme contrasts. Life in the favelas is hard but the people we met are making the most of the opportunities they get,” says Nelson.
As attached producer on this project Davis sees the project through to its completion in post-production, working closely with editor Leah Donovan and reporter Sally Sara. “There were so many layers to this project, I admit it was an extremely tough post,” says Davis. “We had to assume that people only know Brazil for football, samba and beaches. The political reality was always going to present a problem in scripting, but we got there!”
The ABC has some of the best colourists around. In-house programs like Foreign Correspondent, Australian Story and Four Corners, among others, are truly a collaborative process. “Everyone takes ownership and brings something to the end result that makes it stand out,” says Nelson. From initial planning, through to the field shoot, editing and grading the program is always evolving with input from the team. Nelson and Davis are always taking and gathering stills and portraits as they go. The look of these can often help guide the edit and colouring process.
“The project received a colour grade and sound mix; a luxury that Foreign Correspondent is still allowed. I think our colourists, Simon Brazzalotto and Conor Bowes, do a remarkable job week in and week out,” says Davis.
“We have great editors at the ABC who can really unlock the potential of a program,” says Nelson. The look and style of a story is generally discussed and planned at the start of the editorial process, but that can evolve along the way as themes, locations and characters develop in the story. “Even though we move on to film other projects while post-production takes place, we’re always discussing and keeping across changes that may be necessary. Another aspect of the program that we’re responsible for as field operators is the digital companion pieces that are rolled out online to accompany the program.”
The assassination of Marielle Franco became such a strong theme throughout The Battle for Rio it provides a personal focus for the crime, political situation and upheaval in Brazil right now. “The scale of the violence and societal clashes can be hard to gauge when you’re just talking numbers, but to hear the impact from her friends and colleagues and to see the influence that she had posthumously on Carnival really brought the story together,” says Nelson.
The whole team were successful in taking a complex issue and delivering a watchable, informative piece of international current affairs. “It was not the easiest shoot, but in the end I think we captured a remarkable story,” says Davis.
“Hate and fear killed Marielle Franco,” says Nelson. “No matter who pulled the trigger, she represented something that threatened ideology and power and that always encourages extremists to attack. Her killers actions though have only emboldened her supporters and friends to continue her legacy and bring about justice and change. Those effects are now starting to be felt in Brazil, one year on from her assassination.”
“Arrests have been made and there are some very interesting and concerning connections to Bolsonaro’s family,” concludes Davis. “Dare I say… watch that space.”
Greg Nelson and is a senior cameraman, editor and producer with the ABC.
Matt Davis is a producer and camera operator with the ABC.
Fabio Ignacio Junior is a Brazilian living in Australia, and is good friend of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.