Shooting under fire

In focus: Cinematographer Lance Gewer and director Jon Blair.

In focus: Cinematographer Lance Gewer and director Jon Blair.

Jon Blair’s remarkable action documentary Dancing with the Devil was shot by accomplished South African cinematographer Lance Gewer. He spoke from Paris where he is working on the post-production of an international film, shot in South Africa and directed by Jan Kounen (Doberman, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky).

Gewer said shooting Dancing with the Devil among the drug gangs in the favelas was an incredible experience. “The most amazing part of it was the access that Jon Blair and an Irish journalist and researcher, Tom Phillips, who has lived there for years, managed to get.” He said the crew managed to get “right into the underbelly of the society, beneath the skin, to see how this underworld worked — the interconnectedness between the gangs, preachers and cops.”

During the three-week shoot, Gewer said, the filmmakers faced constant danger and even had guns pointed at their heads. 

“A cop was hit by a sniper right next to me in a raid. In the favela cops are not allowed. If a cop enters the favela, he dies. So we went on many raids, in thousands, with ­Special Forces, cops, the army and the paramilitary.

“It was during election time and it was like a military operation. I was even leopard-crawling. Every alley you passed was a danger point. It was bizarre. I was wearing full metal protection, hats and everything, in the Brazilian heat. It was war.”

The film deals with the continuing conflict between the law enforcement forces and the drug cartels, and with a preacher, Dione dos ­Santos, who has made it his mission to try to resolve some of the decades-long conflicts.

Gewer said his work as director of photography did not merely involve shooting the movie. To gain access to the images he needed he had to win over people’s hearts. He cut his hair to look respectable and on occasion hung out with one of Rio’s most feared drug lords, Spiderman. On one excursion the dealer drove Gewer at breakneck speed along the pavement between lampposts and buildings.

He also became so close to Dos Santos that the pastor gave him a Bible that had been in his family for decades.

About Blair, the director who will visit South Africa for the Encounters documentary festival this month, Gewer said: “There was an incredible tension while we were working and I think Jon has a way of handling it all in a caring, sensitive, responsible, mature way. He tells the story in a way that doesn’t abuse his privilege and gives people the right to show their humanity, no matter who they are.”

Gewer was also the cinema­tographer on the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi, the current release Otelo Burning and two previous documentaries for Blair. 

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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