Instead of being merely a topic for an anthropological thesis, Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella hope Gringo Trails will become a widely-used educational tool.
This is part two of a two-part article. Part one is here.
The pair believe that locals in potential tourism hotspots need to be educated on how to handle mass tourism as it invades their spaces; tourists, especially backpackers, need to be educated into the pros and cons of what they do when they travel.
With a benefit of the 10-year passage of time since the first filming in Bolivia, Mali, Thailand and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Vail and Estrella were able to show visually how places were changing. To accompany images of entrancing beauty, they would spontaneously pick up a film-friendly backpacker to follow through a location, as well as talking with locals. In these ways many of the subtle alterations to the environment as a result of tourism are revealed; some images are anything but subtle.
Financing a doco appears to be not much different in New York or New Zealand. A question about the financing produced peals of laughter from Vail.
In the family
The initial funding came from the New York Council for the Arts, friends and family (her mother, his brother and others), plus a significant proportion of money from their own pockets. That got them so far. Then they needed more and decided to take a chance on crowdfunding.
Kickstarter was in its first year, and they decided the challenge of achieving a goal or not getting a cent if they didn’t was exciting. The challenge forced them to work their butts off to succeed.
They did a lot of preparation. A huge key to crowdfunding success in their eyes was knowing their networking circles – close friends, moving out to not-so-close friends and acquaintances, then to people friends and acquaintances know (but you don’t) … and finally total strangers who might be interested.
Vail and Estrella felt a month was a good length for a campaign but acknowledged that might depend on the size of one’s network and how long it would take for the ripples to reach the outer edges of that network. Watch other campaigns first, they recommended: see how they do their videos, their rewards, and find the approach that suits your film.
And yes – crowdfunding was “totally a full-time job, whether you’re after $5000 or $50,000”.
After shooting on Gringo Trails was completed, Vail and Estrella were lucky enough to find a benefactor who helped fund their post-production. “We still owe on the credit cards, but we’re not bleeding money any more!”
While Vail directed and did most of the sound recording, Estrella was the cinematographer and did the translations from Spanish to English both on location and in the edit room. Vail speaks pretty good Spanish, but being Dominican-born, Estrella’s first language is Spanish. They were lucky that Vail’s best friend is a professional editor. The editing was done part-time over nearly a year, as a labour of love.
Despite having done so much of the work themselves, Vail and Estrella made sure to credit other contributors. Estrella insisted that those watching the film should pay attention to the music (by composer/musician Laura Ortman, a White Mountain Apache Native American) and the work of graphic artists Begonia Lopez from Venezuela and Victor Melton from Argentina.
A good beginning
The film has made an unusual first sale. A Europe-based travel company, with 6,500 employees worldwide, decided to use the film for educational purposes. It was a way of motivating and educating staff about how tourism affects people around the world. The company had other internal goals, one of which was to give employees a sense of pride that they were in helping people all over the world by promoting sustainable tourism.
“To be seen to be doing good is big for companies these days,” said Estrella.
As well as a screening for the travel company employees in their home city, Vail and Estrella decided to do a password-protected screening on the internet for employees based elsewhere. “It was a new model that we were trying to work out, for them to access it for all their employees around the world,” explained Estrella. “It was exciting, and we would like to use it with other companies. I think it’s a great model.”
Vail added, “At the World Travel Tourism Council, of which I’m a member, people were saying that rather than talk or write about these changes, now we can see them, and do something about them.”
To a flame
Both Vail and Estrella felt that a lot of the storytelling style evolved not only from the backpacker habit of sharing stories on the road, but also from their own experience with an event called The Moth.
The Moth is a public event where individuals get to tell a story from their lives to an audience. “It’s just you and your 10-minute story on stage – nothing else.” Five people per evening, often with a loose theme linking the stories – and anyone from a celebrity to the guy or gal next door.
The Moth (from the idea of moths gathering around a flame) started in their friend’s loft, and its popularity has spread like wildfire. Vail was on the board for eight years or so and curated a lot of the nights, but stepped back when she started her PhD dissertation. After a while National Public Radio (NPR) approached them about a radio version. It’s now a regular feature on NPR, with an archive of stories on the web.
Vail, Estrella and the others realized that to stop and listen to a story like that in our urban environment, to take that time, was a rare thing. 17 years on there are now hundreds of Moth events across the US and in other countries, including Ireland and Australia.
“They’re like no other audience,” Estrella said. “They have a way of listening, internalizing, transporting themselves into your story. No other audience is as good as a Moth audience.”
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An abbreviated version of part of this article first appeared in the Screen Edge Forum daily The Knowledge on 30 May 2014.