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Screen Edge 2014: A Creative Couple (1)

Pegi Vail, director of Gringo Trails, is not your typical film director – she’s also a Professor of Anthropology at New York University. It is also rather rare for a film’s possessory credit (“A Film By…”) to be shared with the DoP. But then it could be said that Melvin Estrella’s relationship with his director is not particularly typical of that between cinematographer and director – in June they will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.

The pair presented at Screen Edge on the ups and downs of living and working together, what Vail referred to ahead of the session as “couples therapy”.

Vail was born in New York, with strong Irish ancestry. Estrella was born into a family of 10 in the Dominican Republic and moved with his family to New York as a child. Vail didn’t marry Estrella in order to have a cinematographer on tap; the filmmaking aspect of the partnership didn’t begin until later. But Vail’s happy to joke about having her DoP close at hand: “Cheap crew. We only need one hotel room.”


Melvin Estrella and Pegi Vail at Screen Edge 2014

When Estrella took on the DoP role for the short film Vail was making called Brooklyn Dodgers about three years after they married, he had been working as a stills photographer in the fashion world in the US and overseas and as a regular line producer for a Swedish company filming New York. He had no experience of working a movie camera. When Vail’s chosen cinematographer suddenly disappeared for a well-paid job, she had no money: “So it’s you!”

Estrella learned the technical aspects and techniques of using a video camera on the job. He talked about the short-hand they’ve developed as a result of their intimacy, the signs or gestures they use rather than words. “What makes it good is sometimes we just look at each other, and know what each other wants to do.”

Sometimes it can also be difficult.

After shooting for a 16-hour day, it’s not surprising that one partner or the other doesn’t feel like talking, let alone engaging in the intimacy of a relationship. Both want to escape work. You look to your partner for comfort, relaxation – but when both of you are looking for that kind of escape and you’ve already been together as colleagues all day, it can get tricky.

It’s essential, both reckoned, to have realistic images of your partner in your head, not a fantasy ideal of who your partner is. As a documentary team, having to cart your gear with you to dinner rather than leave it in the $3 fleapit of a backpacker hostel in the wilds of a jungle puts extra pressure on a marriage also. Money creates even more pressure on a low budget project.

Defining roles was seen as a critical factor in a wife and husband working together. It was very easy for roles to become blurred; clarifying and sticking to roles made everything easier. Respecting the roles implied respect for the people and respect for the project.

In this kind of environment, open and effective communication becomes even more necessary. Unfocused venting can be a problem! Work out how a partner needed to hear things, to understand their way of expressing and absorbing what might need to be said. The most effective and empathetic ways of communicating could take a long time to learn.

Even after negotiating all that territory, sometimes the dynamics were not about Vail and Estrella’s own relationship, but about others’ perceptions of relationships. When it came to introducing one’s working partner to a stranger, it was critical to present the other person well.

For Vail and Estrella, other complications sometimes intruded; men often wanted or even expected to talk to the male. At other times it wasn’t the gender that was the issue – some people preferred to talk to a white person rather than a black person.

In Vail and Estrella’s case, they were both ambitious, determined, and wanted particular things. Each needed to be aware of subtle competitiveness, even when they thought they weren’t being competitive with each other. “We apologize a lot.”

Estrella spoke of how they had an illusion that they were very similar people, and were surprised to discover that they were more different than they initially understood – to the extent of it being as if he was saying to her: “Hey – you’re white!”

On Gringo Trails, it helped that Estrella had read the unfinished manuscript of a book Vail was writing. He understood what she needed for the film; and he knew the style that was required from the style of her writing.

The creation of Gringo Trails was not motivated by the more common desires of your average filmmaker. Vail was about to start a doctorate in anthropology, and as a result of her considerable experience as a backpacker in many parts of the world, decided that an analysis of the ethnology of backpacker subculture would be a good subject for her PhD thesis.

Film would be a perfect medium to convey the evidence for the ideas that she wanted to develop and express. And early stimulus was the experience of Yossi Ghinsberg, who in the early 80s got lost in the jungle for some weeks, and wrote a book about it. As a result of the book, a previously unknown area became a hive of backpacker activity, leading to more intensive development. Locations were chosen for the film which represented different phases of the development of tourism around the world.

It is not uncommon for a documentary to be many years in the making – particularly when the key filmmaker has another full-time job! Inevitably, things change over time, and not always in foreseen or foreseeable ways.

Once initial filming in locations in South America, Africa and Asia was completed, further filming took a back seat for a decade, apart from the occasional intermittent burst of activity. Upon returning to the same locations after such a long break, Vail and Estrella were shocked by much of what they discovered – the extraordinary extent to which the locations had been changed by the expansion of tourism over the intervening decade.

The film’s focus began to shift, a move initially prompted by comments made by Fredo, who lived on a salt desert island in Bolivia. Fredo was disturbed by how tourism was getting out of control, and how in his eyes the tourists needed education – in ecology, the roots of foreign cultures, even garbage disposal.


Melvin Estrella and Pegi Vail at Piha

Vail said, “I really felt that we were at a tipping point in terms of what I call tourism globalization. I liken it to urban gentrification, in that it had changed so much over the 10 years in the places that we filmed that I realized that this was the more important story to tell. Tourism is like fire – it gets out of control.”

(This is part one of a two-part article. Part two is here.)

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