In university, I studied mass communications and cinema. While this degree wouldn’t afford me amazing work opportunities, particularly while in Portugal, the truth is that I got to meet some pretty interesting people during my college days. João Meirinhos is one of those guys.
João is a man of many artistic trades. He is a visual anthropologist and experimental ethnographer. In a nutshell, he travels a lot, he spends solid time with people from different corners of the world, he writes, photographs and films, putting together stories that show different ways of life. All of this, to get us all closer to other realities.
His latest project has been going on for a while now. João is currently on the road to Mongolia, as part of a team that organizes solar powered film screenings aimed at bringing a smile to kids living in isolated villages. Actually, their impact goes beyond just smiles.
But I’ll let João tell us more about it…
What’s the idea behind Cinéma du Désert: Road to Mongolia?
Firstly, I want to thank you Zara for your curiosity about our project. You’re very kind!
Cinéma du Désert started in 2009. A group of young travelers wanting to cross the Sahara Desert and reach ‘Black Africa’ by land. To see what it was all about with their own eyes, aside from the occasional media spotlights about kidnappings and/or epidemics.
So, I ended up going with 6 Italians on a 5-month trip to Burkina-Faso and back, around 16.000 km in total. My friends are sort of neo-nomads since they live in their trucks for many years now, always moving around and using them as house and work.
Since we had a lot of free space we contacted NGO Bambini Nel Deserto and offered to carry humanitarian aid material on their behalf to specific places in West Africa. This relationship has strengthened with the years and many other actions have taken place. I recently put together a video showing what has been done so far:
To show films in a big screen for free at isolated villages along the way was our own personal initiative! People are just so nice to us wherever we’ve traveled before that the desire to give back started brewing in our minds. What’s nicer than watching a film together with a brand new group of friends from another country? It started that simple but ended up evolving into something very beautiful and, actually, extremely powerful. We met kids that had never seen television in their lives. Whole villages gathered, I’m talking 200, 300 people watching Alice in Wonderland, Kirikou, Les Trippletes de Belleville, Mihazagi movies, etc… Once we filmed the truck going over a camera, when we screened that clip everybody went hysterical and ran away, it was just like we once reacted to a 3D film in Europe.
The innocence we found towards the moving image was surprising and that’s why we’ve kept on investing our own energy and resources into making this happen: finding populations that do not expect our presence and, without deranging their lifestyle, to bring with us the gift of cinema for children, for a couple of hours (or a couple of nights). That’s why crossing Central Asia until Mongolia makes all the sense of the world for us, it’s the least densely populated country in the planet with an incredibly rich nomad and spiritual background. It will definitely be a surprise for all.
Departing from Europe, the road to Mongolia would obviously include many stops. Where have you been spending time in lately and how has the trip been like so far?
So far: 1 month in Romania, 2 weeks in Bulgaria, 3 weeks in Turkey, 1 week in Georgia and 1 month in Russia. There were planned stops made previously with local associations that work with children in difficulties and there are accidental stops when we go off road to look for communities not on the map. It sounds quite random because it is. Those are my favorite kind of meetings; no one expects our presence, not even us. When we find, for example, a group of young kids playing basketball and, even if we don’t speak the same language, if there’s a general spark in their eyes, glad that such a weird circus is going to stop in their town, then we know it’s time to start setting up!
We were recently interviewed for a Siberian news channel (it’s in Italian but it will give you a picture of what I mean):
So far, so great! I’ve lost count how many screenings we’ve done this time, about 40 or so. The response has been outstanding – even in countries already used to carrying around small computers in their pockets –everyone ends up respecting what we do and thank us with breathtaking hospitality – which is great moral support for such a long journey!
I see that you are not into “visiting” countries but, more accurately, “spending time” in different areas. What type of places do you guys prefer to travel to and why?
We prefer to work at orphanages, summer camps or the central square of a village (when an agreement with local authorities is possible). Although we’re not all fully trained as social workers, we’ve entertained kids with learning disabilities and it was very worthwhile for both parties. We wanted to give it a go at Syrian Refugee Camps but the elections in Turkey were coming up so no public assemblies were allowed for a long while.
Of course we’ve visited iconic places in Transilvania, Kapadokya or the Altai Mountains but always with the clear agenda of finding perfect places that fit our purpose and populations that will enjoy our effort! It’s also necessary to adapt to what’s going on. We were in Tblisi when the floods and fleeing animals from the zoo took place, in that case is best to just give a hand in helping out and setting your project aside for a sec.
What has the reaction been like in the places where you have been doing film screenings? What movies to do usually play?
The movie that started it all is called ‘Home’, it’s open source and available online. It was filmed all over the world and it usually triggers interesting debates about ecological awareness, garbage disposal and globalization. Many ask us for a copy afterwards, or where they can see it again because it was too much info to grasp in one go. After watching it, some African farmers told us they will reconsider upgrading to modern technologies because it’s too damaging for the planet and maybe not worth the investment. It was also that film that made us go for solar powered; it was an embarrassing contradiction to have to go and put more diesel in the generator while showing a film that speaks so much against pollution and climate change. Now we are energetically self-sufficient and proud of it!
This year we are focused on non-verbal documentaries like ‘Babies’ or ‘Samsara’ that can appeal to all despite of color or creed. Kids that have never even seen the sea go nuts when they watch ‘Oceans’ and encounter strange surreal animals like, for instance, the Komodo dragon.
I imagine that, logistically, this has to be a pretty complicated trip. How did you manage to put all the required equipment together, transport everything for so long and cover the expenses involved in all of this?
Tell me about it… the equipment for the cinema was already on board. We carry with us a 2000w sound system, two 4×3 movies screens, 3 projectors and a bouncing castle that is always great fun.
It involved around 8 months of pre-production. Getting visas, insurances, 4×4 vehicles that can handle the challenging Mongolian bumpy so called roads, always trying to have solutions for unexpected problems. To gather sponsors for an initiative that is free of charge and not for profit has been quite difficult tho, so we crowd-funded instead! In Italy, Spain and France and now there’s an ongoing Indiegogo campaign you can check out here.
We are on the other side of the world already (it’s 8 hours more than in Lisbon), some of us think there’s no real point in heading back to Europe already in mid-September! If we can go further with this action, namely, to India and China, we will! Let’s see if we can make it that far…
The team behind this project includes people from many different nationalities. It makes sense, considering one of your goals is to promote cultural exchange. But how exactly do you think that the fact that you all come from different cultural and even professional backgrounds influences this project?
Thanks for that question. Portuguese is the language I use the least at the moment. I think in a mix of Italian and English and also speak French and Spanish daily. In theory we were a perfect group exactly due to its cultural and professional variety but all sort of unpredicted issues have surfaced in the field. We try hard to put it all on the open and overcome these difficulties but I must admit it has been more challenging than any of us imagined. It’s a big heterogeneous group and small differences of opinion at first have had the tendency to escalate with time. But the core group will stay tight and together because the project is always what comes first! Some couldn’t take it and already left, other recently joined and we are still open to accept new collaborators that believe this idea matters.
What is your personal contribution to Cinéma du Désert: Road to Mongolia? Can we expect a documentary that will show others what this trip was all about, just like you have done with previous projects and trips you’ve been on?
I’m one of the image addicts on board. I photograph and film everything. The whole Indiegogo campaign was created whilst traveling. I’ve edited 8 promotional videos so far. People demand things instantaneously nowadays. When I was a teenager I used to say ‘Refuse and Resist’ now I’m forced to update it to ‘Refuse and Adapt’. I also manage a couple of social media platforms. Through Tumblr I try to keep an audience up to date and post two pictures per day: silkroad2015.tumblr.com
Lately we’re especially interested in how people can understand each other without a common spoken language. We’re attempting to portray that through film. The Human Language. We’re aiming at a non-verbal documentary of my own. How communication gets stripped down to the bone on the road and survival basics are always what comes into conversation first: water, food and shelter (or football, family, religion and stereotypical jokes about your home country). Furthermore, I’ve been researching on one of Mongolia’s main specificities: Shamanism. If all goes well, I plan to produce a documentary about that as well, since my previous work ‘The Mirror of the Spirit’ was about ayahuasca shamanism and spiritual tourism in Peru.
You are traveling by truck, living in caravans and doing everything collectively with a team of people. What’s your regular day like, while on the road to Mongolia?
There’s nothing regular about our days! Although it’s been very much breakfast and go lately! In Russia we drove 10 hours every day for 12 days straight. Our trucks are heavy and the roads are sometimes disastrous…
I found a quote recently and it went something like: “You only really know someone until everything goes wrong”. It’s a hard balance to maintain between your personal psychological health, the moral of the group, survival basics and the project at hand + the well-being of 6 dogs. The trick to keep sane is to turn it all into art as catharsis. Any misfortune has a positive side to it! Personally, being on the road is a breath of fresh air, not knowing what’s coming next is exhilarating, living in the now, tasting new things, meeting new people, sharing everything. It’s less comfortable, of course, but only in terms of demand and immediate accessibility. Although if you crave something for a long time and then you finally have it, the feeling of an accomplished task and reward is way greater; may that be being allowed inside a new country after ages of paperwork, changing a tire, finding a proper toilette or just finally having something to eat.
Finally, what do you think it is going to be like when you reach Mongolia? Any hopes or expectations?
We are already in Mongolia!!! We’ve finally arrived to the border about a week ago. We actually screened a film inside the border for the overnight waiting foreigners. We’ve experienced the foreseen hardship of their roads, even crossed a couple of small rivers with our trucks. Plus, we were lucky enough to be invited for the 90th anniversary of a village in the mountains. It was like the famous holiday ‘Naadam’, it included many games such as archery, wrestling and horse riding, simply amazing!! The hospitality is off the scale. It’s a privilege to finally spend time inside of a Mongolian yurt, drink fermented horse milk and talk about ancient traditions and cosmology. Right now, we are slowly on our way to Ulaanbaatar where we have several contacts. We will screen at a theater, at a prison, at the endless surrounding yurts of the capital, at a Buddhist festival and at the central square.
Exciting times ahead… wish you luck!
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