OUT OF AFRICA: FILMMAKER FRANK DE MITA ‘81 TEAMS UP WITH SIR BOB GELDOF FOR BBC SERIES
One wonders how the former classmates of London-based filmmaker Frank De Mita ’81 reacted when, at his 25th Haverford reunion, he answered that seminal question: “So, what have you been up to?”
Because here are a few of the things he’s been up to in the past few years: Roaming Africa with one of the world’s most famous humanitarians. Trawling down the Congo River. Attending a reception hosted by the president of the Republic of Somaliland. Dodging rock-wielding street gangs in the Congolese capitol of Kinshasa. Battling not one, but two deadly diseases in an Ethiopian hotel room. De Mita’s 2004 trip to the continent to film a BBC series with Sir Bob Geldof was the capper of a versatile career creating non-fiction and documentary programs for television.
De Mita, who holds a law degree from Cornell University, was a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., when he considered a career change: “I began to find the work tedious. I didn’t want to be desk-bound.” He went to work for several presidential campaigns and was intrigued by the television media’s role in shaping a candidate’s image.
“I was fascinated by it as a way to tell stories,” he says. “I started thinking about how I would approach things if I were behind the camera.”
He was working for Bill Clinton in Little Rock in 1992 when he decided to return to academia, pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan. In 1998, he received a grant to do visiting research at Oxford University, where he remained as a research fellow for several years.
In London, De Mita was acquainted with several employees of a television production company called Brook Lapping, who were creating a pilot with an archaeological theme for the Discovery Channel in Europe. They asked De Mita to review the proposal, and he returned it to the creators with substantial re-writes and changes. A couple of days later he received a call from his acquaintances: Discovery loved the pilot—particularly De Mita’s additions. He was invited to London to discuss opportunities in television.
“I had some initial doubts,” he recalls. “What seemed appealing at age 22 may not be as appealing when you’re in your late 30s. Plus, I had become accustomed to academics, the joys of no deadlines or pressures.” But, he says, he liked the idea of the television series as a form of teaching, reaching a large audience eager to learn more about the world.
“It came down to, did I want to lecture in front of a handful of bored undergraduates every day at 8 a.m., or did I want to work on a program that millions of people might see, many of whom never had a chance to attend college? I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
De Mita’s first filmmaking endeavors were independent projects, but in 2002 he was hired by the BBC’s current affairs department. His lack of significant technical experience wasn’t an issue; besides taking advantage of the BBC’s high-caliber training facilities, De Mita found that the best way to hone his craft was through experimentation. “You just pick up the camera and go do it.”
After two years at the BBC, De Mita was invited to meet with representatives for Ten Alps (the parent company of Brook Lapping), co-founded by Bob Geldof in 1999. “They had my resume kicking around, and knew I had studied anthropology,” he says. “They called me and asked me to meet for coffee…it was all very mysterious.” At the meeting, De Mita’s future employers were impressed by his relative lack of awe regarding Geldof, a household name throughout England.
“Bob has a strong personality and hates it when people act like toadies,” he says. “He wants them to talk back.”
When De Mita finally met Geldof himself, the latter was sprawled across an armchair, barely rising to greet De Mita when he entered the room. “Within an hour, we had gotten into an argument,” he laughs. “Shouting is customary of our relationship.”
He joined Ten Alps as a producer/director, and in 2004, he was commissioned to follow Geldof throughout Africa, filming a six-part series for the BBC that would be called, appropriately enough, “Geldof in Africa.” It wouldn’t be De Mita’s first visit to the continent; he’d been there in 2002 to make a BBC program about the World Summit on Sustainable Development. “I was in South Africa, and I fell in love with the place,” he says. “I was excited to go back.”
However, Geldof and company planned to visit countries and villages far removed from tourists’ radars, places like Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all home to poverty, hunger, and ongoing civil war. “Bob didn’t want to make a travel program; he wanted to show the Africa that Africans knew,” says De Mita. “He didn’t want just images of misery, he wanted to show that even in the most broken areas, there are communities finding their own way to solve problems. There are good, intelligent people finding their way forward.”
The safety and security of Geldof and the film crew was a pressing concern. “Somalia, for example, is run by clans,” explains De Mita. “Everybody is armed, and they love a good fight. Many aid workers have been injured or killed; being a non-combatant or riding in a U.N. vehicle didn’t protect you. And five people from England with TV cameras and sound equipment can’t exactly blend in.”
The crew’s first stop was Somalia; they arrived at the port of Boosaaso in the autonomous republic of Puntland, where they were greeted by uniformed teenagers with guns, eyes bloodshot from the popular narcotic chat. They took the crew’s passports and money and handed them over to the village warlord, who met with the group the following day in his heavily guarded house. “It was like a meeting with the Godfather,” says De Mita.
With the help of translators, the film crew learned that the warlord had been unaware that Bob Geldof—revered throughout Africa—would actually be accompanying them. “They were very nervous. They didn’t want anything to happen to Bob Geldof on their watch.” Therefore, the British group was awarded 36 armed teenagers to act as guards everywhere they went—it would be the crew’s responsibility to pay and feed them. De Mita negotiated their rates from the nearly $30,000 he had taped to his body.
In the nearby Republic of Somaliland, still unrecognized as a state by the rest of the world, the Republic’s president held a dinner and reception to welcome Geldof and friends. The arrival was major local news, making the front pages of all of the Somaliland papers. After dinner the guests sank into overstuffed armchairs in the front yard and listened to local musicians. The show took a surreal turn when all of a sudden, a performer in a Mickey Mouse costume joined the talent to sing a special song for their British hero: “Bob Geldof, Welcome Welcome Welcome.” The crew left the Republic laden with gifts from the first lady. “I still have my ‘I Heart Somaliland’ T-shirt,” reports De Mita.
The group’s second attempted visit to Somaliland wasn’t so successful: They planned to sleep in bunk beds at a fishing cannery, only to arrive and be denied access to the building by the cannery’s night watchman. Fortunately, a senior official arranged for them to spend the night at the spacious home of his cousin. The group slept under the stars on mattresses in the house’s courtyard—and was rudely awakened at four in the morning by the family rooster, who was kept in a covered cage and so greeted the “dawn” anytime he chose. In the morning the women of the house prepared a breakfast of fresh bread, honey, cheese, and sweet tea.
“It was a night I’ll never forget,” says De Mita.
Filming also took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where De Mita found that the film crew served as entertainment for the local children: “They followed us all day.” He also realized, to his chagrin, that he and his companions in their sweaty, stained khakis were the worst-dressed people in the villages. “The people wore the most beautiful cloths, and they said things to us like ‘We thought you were all rich,’” he says.
The airport in nearby Kinshasa he describes as “mind-boggling: no electricity, thousands of people, the air thick with mosquitoes.” Visitors pay freelance “protocol agents,” who take passports and disappear into the crowd, their return uncertain. Then, before panic truly sets in, they’ll re-emerge and guide patrons to the exits.
It was in Ethiopia, inside an old Russian air force helicopter (“My colleague described it better as ‘10,000 rivets flying in close formation’”), that De Mita fell ill with typhoid and typhus, passing out during the flight. He was treated by a doctor affiliated with the Swedish consulate and quarantined for a week in his hotel room. “With typhoid, it’s important to diagnose it early, which they did.” Once well, he returned to England.
Although De Mita maintains a working relationship with Geldof, he left Ten Alps in 2005 and struck out on his own, producing an episode for the Discovery Channel series “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” about a wildlife conservationist in Zimbabwe who broke all of the bones in both legs, yet survived unbearable heat and the threat of stalking lions; and an upcoming PBS “NOVA” episode on super volcanoes, focusing on a volcano in Sumatra called Toba. “Some scholars believe that the ash and sulfur that enshrouded the planet from this eruption pushed the Earth into the last Ice Age,” he says.
De Mita recently returned from the Gulf of Mexico, filming footage for “Oil, Sweat and Rigs,” a program about the oil industry’s efforts to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He is also preparing two feature-length films for theatrical release. One concerns a piece of music that uses excerpts from testimonies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which will be performed as a “multimedia extravaganza” with professional and amateur singers. The second film explores politics in the Middle East, particularly events in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to the rise of the Taliban.
He admits that people tend to cock their heads in disbelief when he tells them what he does for a living. “Even my mother sometimes says, ‘You do what now? You’re going where?’” he laughs. “I see my life as a warning to others.”