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Filming Madagascar’s lawless Red Zones

By Zeenat Hansrod

In southern Madagascar’s “Red Zones” armed bandits known as the Dahalo thrive on cattle-rustling with little interference from the police. TV producer Jamie Welham talks about meeting them and how his job is like juggling several balls in the air while walking a tight rope.

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Welham is a British journalist and TV producer who enjoys working in dangerous places and talking to people who do not really want to talk to the media.

He has filmed the Camorra mafia in Italy, smugglers in Libya and more recently the Dahalo bandits in Madagascar.

One of the Dahalo chiefs gave an interview to British documentary series Extreme World, which Welham produced.

With little or no police presence in the Red Zones, the armed cattle rustlers’ attacks on villages go largely unpunished. They do not hesitate to use children as human shields and kidnap women as sex slaves.

In one of the poorest countries in the world, the Dahalo are part of a large illegal meat trade that involves businessmen, politicians and the gendarmes.

Meeting the armed Dahalo

Securing an interview with a Dahalo chief was not a simple process. A first attempt fell through but then the connection was made through a woman enjoying high social status within the same tribe as some Dahalo members.

“It was a careful, long negotiation,” says Welham. “We had to meet several intermediaries. I’m pretty sure that they were watching us. It was touch and go as to whether it would happen but really what sealed it was the trust that their key members have in her.”

To the TV crew’s surprise, the Dahalo chief was ready to show his face on camera, which wasn’t what was initially agreed.

“I think they just thought that they are untouchable by the state and a television programme wasn’t going to make any difference,” Welham remarks.

The meeting took place in a cave in a remote location. Obviously the security aspect of this particular episode went through a lot of discussion among the team members. They agreed that showing up with security was going to jeopardise all their efforts as it would indicate that the TV crew didn’t trust the bandits and “they would shut it down”.

“They kept their cards really close to their chests. We didn’t know the location. We had to hand our phones away. We were stopped at various steps along the drive and held in position,” Welham recalls.

Meeting with Bara tribe elder in a village in the Ihorombe region in southern Madagascar ahead of shooting Jamie Welham

Fixers can make or break a shoot

Trust is a word Welham uses a lot - trust in the fixer (a local who helps a journalist with contacts, translation and so on), the contacts, the interviewees, even though some of them might be criminals.

“Trust starts with the fixer, the single most important person on this job” explains Welham. A fixer can unlock the doors to a world foreign journalists are trying to get into.

“Fixers can make or break your shoots” he adds. Hence, the importance of checking their references and taking as much time as needed to ensure that they understand what you are trying to achieve.

The language barrier can be a challenge for foreign journalists. Here again fixers prove to be useful as they often act as translators. But, “it’s quite helpful to have a member of your team who speaks the language when you don’t trust the fixer,” warns Welham. Or when for television programmes you need to have every word translated and not just the general meaning.

Preparation is key

For a producer, the time spent on a recce on location is invaluable. With the documentary series Extreme World, Jamie Welham gets two weeks – a luxury he says – ahead of shooting to travel to the destination and prepare everything, from logistics and security to devising a plan B for back-ups. A time spent “talking to absolutely everybody about the situation on the ground”. And working hard to find intermediaries that will get the crew to the right people.

“Planning what can go wrong is a huge part of the job” says Welham. “In Madagascar, handling logistics is half of the battle. It’s a vast country, roads are in a very poor condition. The biggest problem is not the story. You know there’s a story there but it’s actually about whether you can get there.”

“Is this new? What are we saying? Do we care?” are Welham’s mantras while on the job. “You need a clear idea of what you’re setting out to achieve,” he says, “There will be stuff that you might get excited by and that’s not relevant to your story. [So,] constantly reminding yourself of those questions is quite important.”

"What I found most striking was the huge number of children everywhere we went, always very curious about what we were doing." Jamie Welham

Being a white person operating in countries where the white community is a minority works both ways, according to Welham. It apparently works well with the officials, mayor and army. “They take you seriously, they are a bit scared of you, perhaps they are more respectful.” he says.

Not being French certainly helped in Madagascar. “There is still a bit of a hangover from post-colonial times and not everyone is happy with the French, particularly in the areas we went to. So, being British was useful.”

Welham was surprised that, in some of the remote places the TV crew travelled to, the Malagasy people had never seen white people before.

“People were terrified of white faces. They associated that with bad luck in some cases”, Welham remembers. This happened in villages far from roads with no electricity or running water.

According to Welham, journalists in Africa are today in a better position to sell their stories to foreign outlets. International news organisations are shrinking in size and are more dependent on journalists based on the ground, as sending their staff on assignments is expensive.

“There is such an appetite for that sort of grounded, contextual approach which they [local journalists] could bring”, he says. Equipments are now affordable and, for Welham, the story is what matters the most, so journalists shouldn’t hesitate to pitch their ideas to broadcasters.

“It’s a question of making contacts with different outlets and news agencies and letting know you’re there.” recommends Jamie Welham.

Follow Jamie Welham on Twitter: @jamiewelham

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter: @zxnt

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