What we should learn from Sarah

12 Aug

As an engineer, my task is to figure out “why” (why isn’t this working correctly? why do I need to build it this way?). I have spent a lot of time on the little things, determining reasons and excuses for what goes on in my world–partially to satisfy my own curiousity, and now to prepare myself for the inundation of that same question by my child(ren) in the future. But there’s one “why” that I’ve been struggling with for a while, and it’s a very serious one.

For those who don’t know, Sarah Jones was a Local 600 Assistant Camera in Georgia. It’s past-tense because she was involved in a…well, in a very bad situation on a train bridge. I don’t say “accident” because that implies there was no one to blame; blame has been placed, trials have been had, and those deemed responsible are going to jail. There are countless posts about how the problem is bigger than just the producers and director–as an AC, Sarah had many people in the chain-of-command above her who should have spoken up about the lack of safety and precautions. No one should have been hurt that day, because someone should have stuck up and said “this isn’t safe, we shouldn’t be out here.” But no one did. Why?

Dozens of posts ensuing after the tragedy followed the lines of “it’s just a movie, it’s not worth your life” and “no shot is worth dying for.” And at their core, everyone agrees with that–to give your life for your art is damn poetic, but also insane. And to bring a whole crew with you wouldn’t be poetic, it would be psychotic. But that’s at a very deep level, and I don’t think people are learning that there’s a trickle down effect.

I was on a shoot recently, as a favor to a friend. It was a no-budget narrative music video–no doubt promising “exposure” for everyone involved, but I couldn’t care less; the director wanted to work with me before I moved to Kentucky and he to Florida. I hadn’t been very involved with pre-production, but what little I saw from texts and emails was that it was a mess–talent and locations were falling through right up ’til the shoot, and of course there was no money, despite this being a decently successful artist who has paid top-dollar for videos before.

Day 1 went smoothly from my standpoint, but the cloud over the producer’s head was a cemetery location. No cemetery they had called would let them film for free, or at the least without clearances and insurance. Hence, the decision was made to shoot it “guerilla style” at a cemetery nearby. At this point, I’m already committed, so I make my objection clear: “I do not want to go to jail.” Assurances were made that we would be in and out quickly, it was only a couple of shots, yada yada yada.

The morning actually ends up not being that bad, but as we are going back to our cars, police pull up! Turns out that there’s a drug problem in that area! And a groundskeeper, who was a former addict, had phoned in some “suspicious activity”!

The situation is explained, the police are pacified, and we are on our merry way. Turns out that we were at a “public cemetery” anyway, and it wouldn’t have been a problem to shoot there at all in the first place, had we just alerted someone at the office that we were there.

This may seem like an enormous distance from Sarah’s death, but as I’ve been thinking about it, I realise it isn’t. The idea and act of doing something without permission is what’s at the heart of both situations, and the sickening reality is that we aren’t getting any better.

I read several articles recently about drone usage. From what I understand, there are scores of drone operators around the country, getting paid to operate drones for film shoots, and doing so illegally. This is the same root issue–without permission. Here, the stakes are losing your equipment, and getting slapped with a fine; in Sarah’s case, the stakes ended up being much higher. The core issue is the same: damn the laws and do it anyway, either because permission would be too expensive, or impossible to obtain. After all, it will only take a few minutes–what’s the harm?

I understand the appeal when you’re young, before you know the rules or when you have some overriding reason (e.g., an assignment for school.) The change-over needs to happen when you start even acting like a professional. In the case of our music video, I told the producer afterwards that if the artist doesn’t understand that we needed more money for insurance or for proper permits to film at a location, then there’s a deeper issue–someone who isn’t aware of the impact their decisions have on others.

If we can get to the core issue of our artistic desires–namely, that we want to make our art as excellently as we can, whether to glorify God or to serve our own careers–then we can realise why we think we can shoot a scene “real quick” in a cemetary, or a dream sequence on a railroad bridge. And it will take a conscious decision to deny that impulse, and it will be hard, but if great art were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.


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