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INTERVIEW: Claudio Von Planta, friend of Ewan McGregor, talks adventure…

June 6, 2012

Claudio von Planta talks to UAM about his incredible work as a film maker… filming the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the modern day Samurai, and tracking down Osama Bin Laden…

Hello Claudio Von Planta! A lot of our readers may well know you from your exploits in Long Way Round and Long Way Down. However, here at UAM we’re interested in you, in your adventures, in your history. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a cameraman/filmmaker?

CVP: As I grew up in a small country like Switzerland, I always wanted to travel and discover as many corners around the world as possible. I was also interested in politics and felt that journalism would open opportunities to go abroad. However, I was slightly dyslexic and writing was never my passion. Telling stories with images and even better with film and audio felt much more exiting. Primarily I was always interested to give voices to people who are exposed to extreme situations, who can teach us important lessons about the essence of life. These ideas were rather abstract at the beginning of my career. First I started studying political science and during my first holidays I wanted to do something more tangible than just reading a book. I wanted to try my luck and produce a TV news report. I didn’t have any formal training with film making, but I already cut a few silly Super 8 films whilst I was at school and felt confident to learn more on the job. To find the right topic was the key.

In 1985 most media organisations (at least in Switzerland) focused primarily on conflicts in Latin America (Nicaragua, El Salvador etc.). I decided to look for a conflict where I’d have less competition. Afghanistan was the perfect place. The Soviets invaded the country in 1979, and after 6 years of war over a million refugees ended up in Pakistan and another million in Iran. Despite this massive catastrophe Western TV stations didn’t make much effort to report about Afghanistan. First I thought they blanked it out because of political reasons. But once I hooked up with Mujahedins in Pakistan and started to march into Afghanistan I quickly realised that TV stations could never send their own staff into Afghanistan because it was simply too tough and time consuming. You couldn’t fly with helicopters to the front lines like in Vietnam. First, you had to walk for several weeks across mountains before you came near any action and fights with the Russians. Only freelancers took that risk.

Fortunately I had some very good military training from the Swiss Army where I spent 2.5 years and ended up as an officer with the Mountain Grenadiers. At the time I felt we were just playing around like boy scouts because nobody in Switzerland had any real war experience. However, once I saw the fighting of the Afghans I quickly realised that my skills were very useful. I survived 3 months and returned to Paris with a rucksack full of Super 8 rushes, maybe 4 hours in total. Antenne 2 agreed to cut a 7 minute news report and assigned one of their best editors to work with me. His name was Pedro, he was Vietnamese and he learned the trade during the Vietnam war. I felt the choice of Pedro must reflect the quality of my story but Pedro didn’t even say hello. He only addressed me after he saw my footage. His message was simple: “If you are stupid enough to risk your life for such a pile of rubbish, I think it’s about time you learned how to use a camera and make proper films!” – Pedro taught me the most important lesson to succeed as a freelance documentary filmmaker: you should always be the toughest critic of your own work, only ever compare yourself with the best in the business and try to be better than them. As a result of Pedro’s mantra I still feel I’m a beginner after 26 years. Pedro became my mentor and Antenne 2 offered me a next Afghanistan assignment. I never went back to university. I might look at it again when I’m retired and when I have something to talk about!

UAM: Can you tell our readers an anecdote from your time filmmaking in Afghanistan/Kuwait/Iraq?

CVP: That’s difficult, there is so much. Where could I start? In 1985 I met a Japanese Karate teacher in a Mujahedin training camp in the mountains of Afghanistan. That was rather unusual. Koshiro Tanaka was not only training the Afghans, he also joined their battles against the Soviets. Communication wasn’t easy but with a little bit of English I found out the essence of Tanaka’s motivation. Apparently his family came originally from the island of Sachalin, which was annexed by the Russians after the end of WW2. For obvious reasons Tanaka didn’t like the Russians. As a Buddhist he also believed that everybody needed to find a mission in life to seek perfection. He chose Karate and in his view perfection in Karate was not only self-defence, but the kill. In Japan he couldn’t follow his ambition, but in Afghanistan he was free to fight his enemies, the Russians, and live a life of a modern day Samurai helping his Afghan friends in their freedom fight.

Surprisingly Tanaka survived and 24 years after our first encounter I met him again in 2009 in Tokyo. He is now over 70 years old and is a highly respected Karate Grandmaster. He is very nostalgic about our time in Afghanistan and misses his battles against the Russians. In his view a man can only feel alive if he has an enemy to fight. Since the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989 Tanaka is in search of a new enemy. He feels most likely he will find it within the Japanese society itself because modern lifestyle has made them so decadent. On that note he picked up a microphone and started to sing a Karaoke love song… the moral of the story: the value systems in other cultures can be very different from our own, and it’s therefore never easy to find common ground on a global scale… but I still feel close to Tanaka, somehow I understand his logic and appreciate his honesty.

UAM: Looking at your filmography, there is a massively diverse range of films you have been involved in – from popular BBC TV shows such as By Any Means and Long Way Round, to more serious documentaries such as Rape Trade, Surviving Sudan, Living with Aids and UNICEF Stop Aids Campaign? What gives you the most satisfaction as a film maker?

CVP: Since the beginning of my career I’m most satisfied if I succeed to give voices to weak, oppressed and exploited people. My latest film  SPELL OF THE ALBINO is a good example. I feel it is crucial to promote compassion and a sense of justice on every possible front because mankind can only progress if we eliminate greed, inequality and hypocrisy.

UAM: You seem to choose many projects which have a strong ethical basis. Would you say you are trying to change the world for the better with your filmmaking?

CVP: I hope my films raise awareness about important issues and stimulate new levels of consciousness. We are clearly moving forward but it’s a slow process. The British abolished slavery 200 years ago. Since roughly 100 years Western societies abandoned child labour. In 1971 even the Swiss allowed women the right to vote etc. In future we will hopefully be more human with refugees, be more responsible with our environment and our natural resources. Modern communication technology is speeding up such thought processes and I hope to contribute to that effort.

UAM: You biography also states you are a director; what kind of films are you interested in directing? Would you direct a feature film, for example?

CVP: I’m not at all interested in feature films. I find reality more extreme and fascinating than any

Hollywood inventions. Since the beginning in 1985 I worked as a one-man show: producing, directing, filming, editing – however, when I ended up in the UK in 1990 after filming/directing REBELS OF THE FORGOTTEN WORLD, the most ambitious and complicated documentary in my entire career, I realised that at that time nobody in the British TV industry liked the concept of a multi-skilled jack of all trades.

As a freelancer I could only find a job when I started to say that I’m simply a cameraman, a guy who presses a button but needs somebody else to think. In a certain way it wasn’t a bad move because it gave me the opportunity to work with very impressive directors and reporters, particularly in the field of investigative journalism. One of them was Gwynne Roberts who hired me in 1996 to film THE SAUDI TAPES and track down Osama Bin Ladin in Afghanistan. I also got involved with adventure entertainment like LONG WAY ROUND, a totally new genre. On my own I wouldn’t have gone into that direction but it was a very useful experience. Interestingly, my ability to work as a one-man operator was essential for LWR and LWD because who ever rode the third bike needed to be totally self-contained and able to shoot and direct on his own. It was the perfect job to use all my expertise.

UAM: Are you still motorbiking? If so, what kind of machine do you currently ride? What adventures do you get up to on the bike?

CVP: From July to November 2010 I had the opportunity to ride the 26,000 km long Pan-American Highway on the back of various motorbikes.

It was better than driving myself because I had to film RACING GREEN, a 3 hour BBC World News TV series about 8 Imperial College students from London who built the first electric car in history that succeeded to drive from Alaska to Argentina. I was very impressed by this pioneering clean-tech adventure. I very much hope we will soon switch from petrol based transport to electric vehicles.

At home in London I’m back on my scooter – definitely the best means of transport in congested roads!

UAM: And finally, what filmmaking activities are you currently involved with?

CVP: After the horrors of SPELL OF THE ALBINO I’m keen to finish RWANDA-17, an African ‘Good News’ story about the development of Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Together with award winning Sierra Leonean reporter Sorious Samura I followed a junior football team on their way to compete at the 2011 Under-17 World Cup in Mexico. They are the first Rwandans who reached the level of world-class football and they represent a new generation of youngsters born after the genocide. Their story offers a great opportunity to find out how far reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis evolved and how sport can re-unite a nation and inspire hope for development and a better future.

Thank you Claudio!

You can read more about Claudio at http://www.vonplanta.net and watch Spell of the Albino HERE.

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