I just returned from a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico. It was one of the craziest trips I've ever been on, and I've been to some pretty crazy places! At the behest of Sarena Snider, a long-time collaborator and business partner, I packed my bags two weeks ago today. I set off for San Juan. When I arrived, the hotel we'd booked was dark -- I couldn't even check in. Everything was dark. It had been 40 days after Hurricane Maria had hit the island, and the capital city was still without power. The handful of lights I saw came from diesel-powered generators.
Puerto Rico remains a mess. Most of the country still does not have power some 50 days after Hurricane Maria. The place went from developed to developing world overnight. And when you don't have power it means that anyone with diabetes, for example, can't get their insulin that must be refrigerated. People are now dying at alarming rates and it seems like most of the media has moved on. Donald Trump gave himself a 10 out of 10 for his Puerto Rico performance, but I give him a 1 out of 10. But more of this later. Let's get down to the nitty gritty... During these 10-days, I learned a ton about making films in hostile environments. Here are some of them:
1. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Always have a plan and always have a backup plan. For example, I went to Puerto Rico with a ton of canned fish to eat for the week and water purification tablets in the event I couldn't procure food or clean water. Though I didn't need these, it was smart to prepare for the worst. Luckily, I had a backup plan for my place to stay too: Chris, a friend of Sarena's, lived a few blocks away from the hotel that was shuttered. At 10pm, in the pitch black, I called Chris and was able to procure a last-minute place to stay. If I didn't have Chris, I'd be screwed. Your safety and security (and your team's safety and security too) should always come first. In a world without electricity, crime skyrockets. For example, Chris and I, two athletic guys in our 30s, were mugged on my second night in town during our 300 foot walk back to his house from a nearby hotel!
2. You can make a film AND help out simultaneously.
My first mission in Puerto Rico was to make an investigative doc about the relief efforts. But my second mission, as a human being, was to help out as much as possible.
To make a documentary you have to interview multiple people. This allowed me to meet people from multiple sectors of Puerto Rican society and other volunteers (who were American). What I realized was without power, communications became difficult. I also realized that my network of people, made in a few days, was vast. Soon, I started matching people who had successfully acquired supplies with people who needed to take supplies to areas of the mountains where people were hardest hit and the US government, military, and FEMA are nowhere to be found.
3. You don't always need a fixer, because you must think well beyond the news cycle.
On my first day in town, I interviewed two fixers who were highly recommended to me. However, I didn't feel like either of them understood what I was trying to do or had a vested interest in my project going well. They wanted to tell smaller stories that could fit into the news cycle. When you make a documentary you have to think well beyond the news cycle. They were also expensive, asking for $350 per day. This seemed like a rip-off. I figured I realized I could find other people to tag along with and still record everything that I wanted to. And that was just what I did. In disaster environments, the normal rules of society are dropped. Most people will let you hitch a ride with them for free!