The Making of ‘Coming Home to Banaba’
Written by Jeremy Cooper
Coming Home to Banaba was a project born and developed on the internet. In 1997 I was looking for a story concerning indigenous peoples in the Pacific area for a series about the Pacific for the UK Open University: a web search engine offered me the Banaban Heritage Society home page (among several hundred others). I checked it out and filed the “Homecoming” story in a list of “possibles”, but thinking that it was a long-shot on the grounds of expense and difficulty. I returned to it a couple of weeks later and decided to dig further.
I began an e-mail correspondence with Stacey King, Secretary of the Banaban Heritage Society, that looked all set to become a record breaker! Stacey, based in Australia, worked late (very late), so I could e-mail her during my usual morning office hours (in the UK) and get a reply almost immediately. It became quite a conversation and when I met Stacey in Queensland in January 1997 it seemed that I had known her for years. For an afternoon and evening at her home (“Banaba House”) in the foothills behind the Gold Coast, she put me through an intensive course in all things Banaban. I emerged somewhat the wiser and convinced that the Homecoming had a very good chance of happening. I decided to switch the story from the “possible” file to the “pre-production” file.
But expense was still a problem. (I did try for BBC TV co-production, but they would consider only a programme based on the personal experience of one tripper, rather than a programme based on ideas and multiple accounts). I did not have the budget to take a full BETACAM video crew with me. In any case, I wanted to minimise both our impact on the trip and the amount of gear we took with us: at the same time I was aware of the catastrophic possibility of equipment breakdown far from home. I decided to take advantage of the new digital options which had just become available to us, but were not quite considered “kosher” yet. I did not want to risk doing it all myself, so I steered away from that very minimalist option in favour of taking with me Alan Marlow, a staff sound recordist who is also a trained and experienced camera operator. He volunteered for the trip on the understanding that he would work on a no-overtime basis, despite knowing that he would effectively be on duty 24 hours a day. In return I met all his expenses for him, and we travelled in comfort for that part of our journey where comfort was available. Our Union, BECTU, was happy with this as a one-off voluntary arrangement.
We took two cameras – one each, effectively. “His” was a professional broadcast specification SONY DSR130 DVCAM camera. “My” camera was a SONY DSR200, almost at the bottom of the range, having the same front end as the SONY VX1000 but with a better, black and white viewfinder, more external controls and a body big enough to handle smoothly. Both cameras used the same 120 minute tape-stock, with cassettes small enough to enable us to lose 80 hours worth of stock in the equipment cases. We thought of the DSR200 as the back-up and “second unit” (i.e. me!) camera. In the event we used it almost as much as the DSR130 when the weight advantage of the DSR200 became apparent in the heat and humidity of Banaba.
For sound we decided to go mono, and took a Sennheiser ME66 battery powered gun mike which did not require powering from the camera (the DSR200 cannot provide phantom microphone power). We could mount this microphone onto either of the cameras or use on it a telescopic boom. In addition we took two personal microphones on wires for formal interview situations, and two radio personal microphones for “fly on the wall type situations”. We fed the mike directly in to the camera, saving the weight of a mixer, and had the camera mikes as back-ups.
We took a lightweight tripod, a small battery powered light, a reflector, two lightweight stands, a toolkit, enough chargers to charge all our batteries at once, and the small usual bits and pieces, including a four-inch LCD monitor to make viewing rushes easier and to reveal if we had a major colour-balance problem (both cameras have black and white viewfinders). In the event we used all of the equipment, but shot mostly without using the light, there being very little mains current available on Banaba.
The equipment plus our personal gear came to nine pieces of luggage and proved well within our ability to handle using two airport trolleys.
Once we joined the trip there were, as anticipated, plenty of helping hands. One member of the Homecoming Party had already agreed to act as our fixer, interpreter and porter on Banaba: he helped by carrying the tripod batteries, tapes etc. on location. The DSR200’s steady-shot facility helped to compensate for the camera’s lighter weight, and gave us the opportunity to get useable shots where the use of the tripod was either impractical or inappropriate.
On arrival in Fiji en route for Tarawa we learned of the difficulties the Homecoming had run into with the loss of the ship they had chartered. We flew on to Tarawa and waited for the Homecomers to arrive. It became a difficult judgment to make as to whether we should hang on in the hope of everything turning out well, or plan and shoot a different programme about Tarawa, or come home early. Eventually, once the Homecomers found suitable boats to get them to Banaba, we decided to double our insurance, extend our trip by a week and, in South Pacific fashion, go with the flow. The result can be seen in Coming Home to Banaba!
A note on postproduction: the programme was off-line edited on a ‘Lightworks’ non-linear digital system, autoconformed and completed on a SONY D3 digital system. The dub used AudioFile. All facilities used were at BBC Open University Production Centre (OUPC) in Milton Keynes, UK.
In 2007 The Open University licenced me to produce (free of charge) a Banaban/Kiribati language version of the programme. Ken Sigrah and Stacey King recorded new commentary voice-overs and supplied the text of subtitles for english-language interviews. I re-edited the programme on my own equipment at home. This new version – Okiran Mwengara ae Banaba – has been distributed to Banabans on Rabi, Banaba and elsewhere.