POV: What were the challenges involved in filming half a world away on a small budget?
Aaron Matthews: When Wayne De La Roche (my co-cinematographer) and I left New York in December 2001 for Arusha, Tanzania, we weren’t at all sure what to expect. I had met Pete O’Neal in 1998 for a grand total of three days, and on the basis of that meeting as well as some intervening email contact, I’d planned a trip back to Tanzania to start shooting a film. Jennifer Mittelstadt, my wife and associate producer for the film, and I both had a gut feeling about Pete being a strong character for a film — he told great stories and we thought his situation as a criminal fugitive/study-abroad-program coordinator was worth exploring. And I thought the film presented an opportunity to look at some interesting themes like the complexity of exile, the situation of African-Americans in Africa, and the legacy of the 1960s. But beyond that I had no idea how A Panther in Africa would take shape, and what would happen to help tell the story. Tanzania was thousands of miles away, we had a limited budget (at this point, $20,000, which we had just received from the Jerome Foundation) and I was nervous that if nothing happened, we’d show up in East Africa, and we’d be filming giraffes at the local park.
I was also concerned about whether I could make this as a cinema verité film — specifically whether Pete would be amenable to the kind of intense relationship that a verité film requires. I had developed a friendship with Pete over email, but spending 12 hours a day together, mining the past and present with video cameras rolling, creates a whole different dynamic, and even the best of friendships can deteriorate quickly under these circumstances. But Pete assured me he was an old Panther: That if he said he was ready to commit the required time and energy to the film, his word was his bond.
One of the first things I asked Pete was how he felt about me, a white guy, not of his generation or background, making a film about him. He didn’t miss a beat. He said he and his wife, Charlotte had granted interviews to journalists and media makers of all stripes in the past, and that their racial backgrounds rarely had anything to do with how well their stories turned out. He said that he and Charlotte were interested in collaborating with progressive people, and furthermore, they had seen and liked my previous film, “My American Girls.” We then talked about the benefits and drawbacks of an outsider telling his story, and the complicated ethics of documentary filmmaking. I made it clear that above all I wanted A Panther in Africa to be an honest account of his present-day life — that it would be personal and intimate, and that by the end of the film audiences should feel as if they had walked in his shoes. Pete and Charlotte liked this idea, and we were on the way to establishing trust in each other. The issue of our different racial, class and generational backgrounds came up periodically, but these discussions helped propel an even greater intimacy and trust between us. As time went on, Pete and I connected on a number of levels, and found we had a lot in common including similar tastes in music, movies and books as well as a fondness for the late-night rap session.
The initial days of shooting in Tanzania were exciting, but overwhelming, and we ended up filming excessive amounts. We were staying at this amazing place — a thriving international community center in rural Tanzania, the backdrop of which was a colorful array of life-size murals and 1960s revolutionary posters. Between the computer and English classes, HIV awareness programs, as well as the diversity of guests from all over the world, the UAACC was a cross between the United Nations and a ’60s-style commune. Everything seemed worthy of getting on tape — from yoga and art seminars to graduation award ceremonies. After one month, we ended up shooting 65 hours, and when I got home and reviewed the footage, it was often exasperating sifting through this material. Much of it never made it into the film. But now I had a better idea of what we needed to focus on for upcoming trips.
We ended up going to Tanzania three times in all, for approximately one month each trip. Between these trips, email communication was frequent and indispensable. Pete was able to keep me informed of what was happening in his life, and when would be the best time to come film. As a result, much of the production planning was done on the fly at the same time that I was editing together rough cuts for potential funders, and also trying to hone the themes of the film. We had to shift travel plans and filming approaches accordingly since almost all of the major action in the film arose unexpectedly. For example, we had no idea former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, would enter the film and decide to move to Tanzania. We had no idea Pete’s mother would visit Pete for what looked to be the last time she would ever see her eldest son. We had no idea that the De La Salle Education Center in Kansas City, Missouri would be sending over two dynamic young men from Pete’s hometown to participate in an international exchange program. These supporting characters ended up being crucial to telling the story of A Panther in Africa, because we realized later on that each of these people were mirrors of Pete, reflections that illuminated his experience as an American exile. We also had no idea we would capture Pete’s momentous decisions regarding his 30-year legal battle and his choice of citizenship. We were fortunate that these characters appeared and these incidents took place, but we were also just patient. When you take time and allow life to take its course, dramatic events often unfold.
So, the initial blueprint we started out with, containing just a character and some themes, slowly developed and became more detailed. Things started to fall in and then out of place as the focus constantly shifted. One of the delights (and frustrations) of this type of filmmaking is that the story is always evolving and growing, distorting and bending up to the time you make your very last edit. It can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating.
Two years later, when I had finally finished a fine cut of the film, Pete called me and admitted that, especially towards the end of the production, he’d begun to question his judgment in committing over 200 hours of a year in his life to videotape. “Man, you could do anything with that,” he told me. It was true, I could do anything with all that footage, and at that point the only thing Pete had to fall back on was that trust that we had established over the course of the film. I had assured him that in addition to my desire to make an engaging and entertaining film, I was committed to portraying people fairly and with dignity. But this was little solace to him during the months he was anxiously awaiting the final product. Like anything else trust has its limits. Thankfully, Pete and Charlotte both are pleased with how A Panther in Africa turned out. And last June in Tanzania, Pete gave me the best compliment I could hope for — as I was leaving to get on the plane, he stopped me, looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you for telling my story.”