Revisiting Peace Corps and "The Road to Wakapoa"

Before I begin with deconstructing this video project, there's something else on my mind. I've had several marketing specialists for my business and website tell me that these blogs need to be short, concise, and tailored strictly to the business. I thought long and hard about this approach, and there's something about my Peace Corps experience that rejects this thought. Understanding the nuance of an event requires the long form, and that's why I got into documentary and not journalism, that's why I moved to New York and not Los Angeles, that's why I finished my Peace Corps service and didn't take a short cut resume builder. I've had a handful of individuals tell me flat out how much meaning my old Peace Corps blogs during my service meant to them- perhaps it made them reflect on their own privilege, career, and emotional intelligence as it has for me. This has made my heart melt, and I'm grateful for their support. And if I'm true to myself and I really act upon what I believe, these blogs aren't going to be influenced by statistics, money, business politics, or other opinions. I've been trying something a little crazy - I'm making movies for myself. It started in Peace Corps as a mode of art therapy, and I discovered a few things because of this approach, and it's an approach I'm going to continue. I'm making movies for myself, that I enjoy, and I'm writing for self-preservation, and if anyone else wants to absorb my approach to film and what Mango Tree is all about, they're welcome to participate in the discussion.


I recently had my really good friend and super talented editor, Kirstie Mattheis, upload an HD version of a project we assembled in 2013, "The Road to Wakapoa". Before it was only uploaded as SD because of the limitations of living in Guyana.

I fell into a swamp - but the camera was okay. Wakapoa, Guyana. Feb. '13.

I fell into a swamp - but the camera was okay. Wakapoa, Guyana. Feb. '13.

The premise of "The Road to Wakapoa" was simple: documenting a road building project in the remote savannah wetlands of Guyana, not terribly far from the coast on the western half of the country. Three years later, looking at the project, I'm reminded of how hard it was. Not for me necessarily, let's be real, I was just a visitor, but reminded of the village politics, bureaucracy, and having two groups of extremely privileged porcelain-white American high school students in the background. 

So what became of the video project? As I learned first hand, and was later reinforced in graduate school a couple years later, the camera changes the behavior of your subject as well as the filmmaker. I could either hide this process or celebrate it, and back in 2013 I was constantly in the process of hiding myself as an author of this project. I'm neither seen nor heard, and yet it's not entirely sans my own ego, I realize, but it was a first experimentation in a long line of experiments that dove into media representation. Lesley had concerns about if what she said was taken out of context, and I had concerns during the entire process if every possible question and pitfall addressed by our audience was alluded to. It's not an easy task, especially given the optics of volunteer placement in a formerly western colonized developing country. It's not easy. 

I used the film later in my own village in Guyana as a model for a community project, as we were in the process of constructing a library (a story on its me). I didn't get much response from it - I think some people felt resentment that I spent so much time in Wakapoa (5 nonconsecutive weeks) as opposed to my own village in the region of Berbice. It's hard reflecting, even several years later, on what I could've done better within the bounds of media representation. My inclination is to say I should've had even less of an alluded presence in terms of any media projects I involved myself in, although given the relative nature of each individual project nothing is absolute. Everything I work on for now on makes me think of this project and tangent projects in Guyana. Everything I owe to my career from 2013 forward is because of this moment. 

Capturing Kirstie's best moments, Oct. '15, New York, New York. 

Capturing Kirstie's best moments, Oct. '15, New York, New York. 

The nuance of politics aside, the nature of the filmmaking process cemented bonds between Lesley and her community in Wakapoa, and changed my relationship with a friend from undergrad. Kirstie and I were friends in undergrad, but we worked together to see this project through, even though I lived in Guyana and she lived (and lives) in Los Angeles. Why did she volunteer for this project? I'll leave that up to her to answer.

I learned what is meant to have a close digital friendship with someone I hadn't seen in the flesh since 2010, and even though this video project consumed 2012 - 2013, we didn't see each other in real life until October 2015 in New York City. We had a blast in NYC, six years of catching up with a best friend. Wakapoa opened up and blossomed a friendship that changed my life, and even in my darkest moods while living abroad, Kirstie always had a digital presence and helped me through the toughest of times. It's amazing how the filmmaking process changes lives. 

As far as I've heard, the central host agency, Builders Beyond Borders, has kept to their word and checks up on the road project from time to time. I've heard the community has come together to make regular repairs to the road and I really hope that this continues to provide a model for others looking to implement similar projects with minimal resources. I understand that the video itself is glossy and a bit reductive, but man is it hard to convey the pain that this village upheld in seeing this project through. The Amerindians that I've worked with are somewhat reserved in nature, it's hard to read their faces, but trust me, that project for physical, logistical, and emotional reasons, was no easy task (did I mention that already?)


Today we launch!!!

Matt & Leah studying Film Theory abroad during undergrad together. Florence, Italy. 2009.

Matt & Leah studying Film Theory abroad during undergrad together. Florence, Italy. 2009.

We've launched our own production company! After years of traveling, teaching, degree consuming, and most of all, shooting film and video, we've decided to work for ourselves. I (Matt) will be doing most of the postings and updates between our events page and our documentary domain. Which brings me to my first point: why present ourselves as both a documentary and event production company? Why not just docs? The work we do for events (a) really does help pave the way for documentary projects by supplementing costs. Also (b) we love shooting events. I've shot weddings for the last six years, and I always find them an adventure each time. And Leah loves concerts. Plus, by shooting events to offset small documentary budgets, we don't have to adhere to the influence of grants or investors that may fund documentaries. We're able to make decisions for ourselves and distance ourselves from potential conflict of interest. 

But yes, as I've just alluded to, I'm primarily working with my friend, colleague, and roommate, Leah. Leah and I have been friends since we did undergrad together eight years ago. We were the big awkward dorkuses in the film & video department - myself concentrating in directing and herself in cinematography. Since undergrad we both lived in the same apartment with the same friends in Chicago at different times (our location sound friend Scott and his makeup professional girlfriend Violet). Leah then migrated to New York shortly after, and I wrestled with going into Peace Corps service.

I lived, taught, and shot plenty of video in South America during Peace Corps. One of my favorite things about Guyana was the available produce which was relatively affordable (rice being the most affordable). But usually a good mango can be pulled directly from a tree in your backyard, and that to me was always astounding. You mean I can eat directly from a tree? Seems like such a normal concept, but if you grew up in suburban Chicago and you think of mangos as gross and mealy because they've traveled so far to get to your nearest grocer, the idea of seeing a mango directly on the tree is magical. It made me appreciate mangos in a way that would've only been possible because I chose an unusual path towards filmmaking and landed up in South America. And mangos directly from the tree are so much better than from your Chicago grocer. 

I met up with Leah directly after Peace Corps, and she helped me move into a Brooklyn apartment with her, and we've been roommates ever since. I love New York. I love the variance, the struggle, and the plethora of stories hidden around every corner. Most of all, working in New York has many options: television, studio film, independent film, commercial, documentary, journalism, music video, events, fashion, theatre, etc. For someone who loves to absorb information by shifting perspective, New York seems like the place to be. 

Graduate school was no easy feat in New York. I worked full time hours to attend the most expensive school in the most expensive US city. I worked to purchase new video equipment, and came up with an arsenal of gear in anticipation of launching this company. I then used my grad school loans to pay rent and buy food to make ends meet. 

And now we have a production company! I now have the freedom to pick and choose projects, and the flexibility to subcontract myself out to other NYC companies in the fields I listed above and work on projects I really believe in, that I think are important. And hopefully our cashflow will continue to remain steady so we don't have to sell out. 

I wrestled for a long time if my way into the film industry is the correct way. Now I take pride in my unusual path towards a career that I find technically interesting, and that has extreme cultural significance that fulfills my soul. I love making movies, but I also find the need to work and volunteer on important causes. Mango Tree Productions helps me do both. It's important to me that I volunteer my time to documentary projects for worthy causes each year, and if anyone has ideas, we'd love to hear about them. If I can use my skills, experience, and camera to amplify the voice of a disenfranchised community or individual, with an important story, or vital cause, I'll gladly volunteer my time. 

So here's to you, New York City! A couple of Midwesterners out to make some movies!