Caleb Ware travels to India for a documentary on their ‘death hotels’, winning a Gold Award at the QLD & NT ACS Awards in 2019 – by Caleb Ware
I remember getting an email late in 2018 informing me of a project green lit in India about some mysterious ‘Death Hotels’. I was intrigued to say the least. India had always been a place I wanted to work in and the story sounded insane! Weeks later I was on a Skype with producer Charu Menon from Heckler in Sydney and director Dan Braga.
We quickly realised that nothing can prepare you for filming in India. Absolutely everything is hard. Pre-production was a mix of making loose plans using available information from our awesome team in India, led by Sid Bhavnani and Neha Gowda, and problem solving everything else from Australia. By problem solving, I mean absolutely every detail. I literally got my Visa at the last possible hour.
Gear hire was another huge hurdle. Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is super remote but Menon, our producer, was a boss. Never taking no for an answer she somehow found a set of Hawk V-Lites which I had requested for the project. I chose the V-Lites for their beautiful distortion and texture, especially on the edge of frame. This felt like the right match for a wild story that was real but seemed so other-worldly. I felt these lenses would capture the story in a way that would help allow peoples imagination flow.
Naturally I paired them with an ARRI Alexa Mini. Knowing the temperatures we would be facing and the amount of scenes in either super-low light or extreme daylight I wanted the Mini knowing it would perform flawlessly while complementing our lenses perfectly.
Details aside, finally arriving to location in Varanasi felt like we had already won the war. However, it was only just beginning. While I was tech scouting, our first assistant camera, who is my good mate and award-winning cinematographer himself, Esteban Rivera, was in Mumbai dealing with the hire company. They didn’t have the equipment which we had hired months in advance. Two days were spent rigging ancient battle worn gear to build the jankiest rig you’ve ever seen.
Challenges aside, when our whole team arrived in town the anticipation was all time as we braced for a wild five days shooting. The heat was 47 degrees each day. Combine that with smells of burning bodies, sewage, dirty animals and sweat. Sensory overload is an understatement. A lot of the shoot was super run-and-gun as Braga had wanted to stick close to reality. It was a great challenge arriving to whatever chaos was ensuing on a location and then find what was important.
To help inform my decisions in this I set strong visual rules for key parts of the story. For our interviews I based camera angle on belief of the person. We started with lower hero style shots of our believers on their pursuit for enlightenment. Then moved up to eye level for neutral characters and a slight high angle for our unbelievers who were taking advantage of the believers for financial gain.
What had really stuck out to me during pre-production is just how separate the hotels felt from the rest of the craziness in India. With this in mind anything spiritual such as the hotels themselves or the ghats – which are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges – and holy people I used the tripod or Movi to create slow reflective movements or statics. Then, once we were in the streets I went hand-held to match the crazy, chaotic pace of life and build clearly a visual separation from the hotels. As for the rest of my choices, they were based on the cards we were dealt on arrival to each location.
Day three saw me nearly dead in a hospital from heat exhaustion. My ‘Easyrig’ turned out to be a fake and broke in the first minute of holding the camera. I had spent two days muscling the camera and Movi to keep the show going. Sweating out all my fluids during the sixteen-hour days saw me lose 10kg of fluids in ten-hours. I had heat stroke and was unable to work.
The team stepped up big time to cover the day’s events. Thankfully, I made a miracle recovery for the next day’s call at 3.00am. I had been so sick they flew in an Indian cinematographer replacement, called Bakul, in case I didn’t recover. She was an amazing help that ended up translating and occasionally operating for me when I was too weak to carry the camera on the last two days. A unique addition to the trip was having our editor, Andrew Holmes along for the ride. This was a huge asset as there was a tight turn around on the job. Having him on site meant he was processing dailies and selects from the day before as we were shooting. Having this helped us review and shape the story as it unfolded and plan better for the next day.
Perhaps the most confronting moment of the trip was showering of an evening and washing human ashes out of my hair. Nothing can really prepare you for that. To have been so close to these bodies as they left this world through fire was a challenging and confronting thing.
Life seems to be treated worthlessly there and I remember being told people wouldn’t show emotion at the pyres as their loved ones were burned. It’s because of this that one of my favourite moments came out of our final morning shooting at the local Ghat which burns bodies twenty-four hours a day. It was in the early hours of dawn, the lighting was gross and everything looked different from our scout.
Initially I was pretty lost and couldn’t get a flow. I was distracted by the smells, death and craziness around me. However, as I was filming a burning body, I saw a man in his final moments of saying farewell to a loved one. The tears running down his cheeks and pain in his eyes were devastatingly powerful. Here, where they say life doesn’t matter, I witnessed human love and care in one of the darkest, dirtiest places I have ever stood. That moment was priceless.
From the pits of haggard hotels housing dying people, and the dirty pyres filled with burning bodies, to the chaos of local markets and extreme heat our resilience was tested every day but the team remained strong and were rewarded with some stunning moments. Sunrises and sunsets on the Ganges, beautiful conversations with dedicated, passionate people and a glimpse into a world and tradition not readily accessed or captured.
Finishing the shoot and returning home was a triumphant achievement. Our crew overcame a myriad of challenges, faced impossible odds and walked away with a beautiful story from a world so alien to our own. I learnt a lot from working in an environment of harsh limitations on every side. Whilst this was the hardest job I’ve ever undertaken, it would be up there in my favourite trips to date.
Our dedicated post-production team went on to finish the documentary in under a month to make deadlines for submissions. This was a team effort in every sense with involvement from all over the world and I look forward to seeing where it goes. Until then ‘By the River’, is now in festivals and will be distributed internationally next year.
Caleb Ware is an award-winning Australian cinematographer, shooting both nationally and internationally.