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John Hibey

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The Sundance Diaries: Buzz Is All Good, Until You Get Arrested

Posted: 02/16/2012 12:09 pm

Downtown Park City is small. The topic of conversation was all movies this past week, and the word spreads fast. Who's playing well, who's selling? They say, the buzz can make or break your movie, and pack the house. We heard arguments about ticketing outside of a full screening even a juror couldn't get into.

The faster the news spreads, the easier it is for films to sell.

Word travels fast in Mombasa Kenya, especially when you're accompanied by Somalis carrying AK-47's. We were shooting a Somali pirate film in Mombasa, Kenya. We needed real Somalis from Somalia, the proper costumes and headdresses of Somali pirates, real boats, real locations, and of course, we needed real AK-47's for the pirate scenes. You don't go half way around the world to shoot with fake guns.

It took us months of begging and pleading the Kenyan government for permission, to the point where the adventure became a story of two white guys show up in Africa and ask for guns. Somehow our five week trip became three months, but we convinced the Kenyan government to grant permission to use the guns from their armory in Nairobi.

The ten AK's and an RPG traveled from Nairobi to Mombasa with a gang of five policemen and a man named Mambo. We had fifteen days to finish the film.

Everywhere we went with guns, police accompanied us, but when we landed on a public beach with our armed cast, we created a stir that spread into the neighboring villages: al-Shabaab led by a white man (Cutter Hodierne, director) and an Arab foreigner (myself, producer) was roaming the area and was not to be trusted.

Real story: We landed the shore, walked straight through the beach, and hopped into taxis, disappearing. It was our fastest way out, hoping not to cause alarm. The word spread, however, from person to person, village to village.

We had convinced even the locals that we were a gang of marauding hostiles.

The following day, after our police escort left with our guns, we were shooting a scene by a secluded shore: two pirates converse about a cargo ship that won't sell. No guns, no police guard. Just a quiet afternoon by the shore.

Before long, a neighborhood's worth of concerned citizenry showed up with their local militia to shut us down. Our permits were good, so Harold Otieno our Kenyan producer held them off, but their numbers were too many. It doesn't matter if you have documents on your side. If people don't want you around, you're as good as gone.

The local militia claimed we needed the original copy of our shooting permits, and not a facsimile, so we were rounded up into the back of a pick-up and brought to a local jail.

Shooting was at a halt. We were in jail.

We have been telling a lot of people about our short here at Sundance, relating our stories, but as the week went on, people started talking about our film for us. The word traveled through Park City; I even overheard a conversation about our film in a bus headed to a different screening. It was unreal.

In the end we were awarded with the top prize of Jury at the short awards ceremony. It's a total dream to make it to Sundance, without even a thought for an award. We're ecstatic and thankful for everyone who watched the film and talked about the film. The Jury prize is a huge honor.

And it sure beats getting jailed.