I crowd into the tiny bit of shade on a curb next to Goma’s airport building, already mostly filled with a tripod bag, a camera case, my bag, the producer’s backpack, some empty water bottles, and Brent, the print photographer for the NG magazine story, and Mick, the producer.
Just as I sit down, I look over to where Erin, the cameraman, is setting up the camera and tripod. A man in a uniform is zeroing in.
I jump up to join Erin to try to stave off the confrontation before it starts.
It’s 12:30 pm, and we’re awaiting the arrival of Paulin Ngobobo, the key witness in the prosecution’s case against those accused of illegal charcoal trading and the massacre of six members of a gorilla family known as the Rugendo Group. He’s been reassigned to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city, all the way across the country, but he’s flying back today to testify in a closed hearing.
We’ve been here for about an hour already, but the plane is going to be an hour late. Or it might have been cancelled. Or else it wasn’t supposed to arrive until two. Ish.
What I’m saying is, Paulin, the arriving witness, has texted a contact here to say he’s on a plane and it’s heading towards Goma. He’ll get here.
In the meantime, we’re trying to hold our ground at the airport.
Our fixer, Ferdinand, the local contact who managed to arrange permission for us to film here at the airport, is busy a few feet away. He and the airport hostess assigned to keep us company are arguing with a couple other guys who claim to be airport staff. Ferdinand is waving around the documents and letters he painstakingly gathered over the last day and a half giving us the right to enter onto the tarmac to film Paulin’s arrival.
Erin’s new adversary arrives, and demands to know what we’re doing.
We’ve had this conversation at least six times already. When we first arrived. When we tried to walk towards the runway (we were turned back). When we tried to aim the camera at the runway (there are Congolese military planes in that direction. We don’t have permission to film in that direction). When we were walking back towards the terminal where we’d been told to wait, carrying the switched off camera (where were we going? What were we trying to film? Where was our permission? Didn’t we know that we had no right to film the terminal?)
Now Erin has turned the camera away from the military planes and away from the terminal, and is looking towards the United Nations planes and helicopters parked at the far end.
I explain to the angry soldier in French our reason for being at the airport, yet again, and that we’re waiting for someone to arrive from Kinshasa. I grab our paperwork from Ferdinand, and the man looks it over with a skeptical eye.
“This only gives you permission to film one man,” he says triumphantly. “Is he on those planes over there? No! So what were you doing filming those UN planes?”
“I’m not even filming!” Erin says, with exasperation. “The camera’s not even on!’
I translate. This was the wrong the thing to say.
“Do you think I’m stupid? I know how you people operate.” We take a different tack and we show him our press pass from the UN. Airport authorities already resigned to our presence come over to argue with us against him. He will not be placated.
If I had to guess, he is looking for a bribe. Corruption here is widespread. It is a country of vast natural wealth, from precious minerals to wildlife to rich, fertile soil, but most people are desperately poor. Even those with salaried jobs often don’t get paid. So many look for alternative sources of income. We’re white (read: rich), foreign (read: rich) with a big camera (read: rich), and we want something (to film at the airport where he has some authority). He’s not wrong; we had to pay a fee for permission to film here. So I suspect this guy wants his cut.
But he doesn’t have enough authority to stop us filming or to make us pay (again). In the end, we put the lens cap on the camera, and walk a safe distance away. If we don’t touch the camera again until Paulin’s plane arrives, maybe we can get away without another fight.
Gorilla Murders airs Thursday April 29 at 10P et/pt. Watch a video preview.