Africa’s Locals Offer Country Comfort

Location managers offer up their secrets

In South Africa, Jaco Espach is your film production go-to guy.

The veteran location manager is on a roll, having wrapped “Catch a Fire” earlier this year after working on 2006 foreign-language Oscar-winner “Tsotsi.” With a career stretching over two decades, Espach has proven to be one of the safest hands in his home country, one blessed with beautiful scenery but still hampered by sizeable economic problems.

Espach is one of a growing number of location managers hitting the road around Africa as Hollywood interest in the continent grows.

“Jaco has done so many films, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his country,” says “Catch a Fire” helmer Phillip Noyce. “I was never less than excited about the locations he came up with.”

For Espach, the secret to good location managing in Africa is all about experience.

“When you’re working on a film, if you can’t control the environment, as in South Africa, you have to be able to handle anything,” says Espach. “I’ve been visiting locations for 20 years.”

Espach has noteworthy counterparts in other regions of Africa. Mick Snell handled the Mozambique shoot for “Blood Diamond” and also repped the Namibia set for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming epic, “10,000 B.C.”

Working on “Diamond” saw Snell returning to Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, for the first time since handling Michael Mann’s 2001 “Ali.”

“Maputo has developed tremendously,” says Snell, a native Zimbabwean who earned his spurs while working on the anti-apartheid pics shot in Zimbabwe during the 1980s. “It was a lot easier to shoot this time round. They really want to push filmmaking there, and are very amenable to doing deals on waiving certain duties.”

While the Southern African states have increasingly become location hubs for European commercial shoots — and now Hollywood features — other territories further afield are also getting into the film biz.

“The Last King of Scotland” shot in Uganda. The lack of film infrastructure didn’t prove a problem for its local location manager Emily Mabonga, who also handled last year’s Kenya shoot for “The Constant Gardener.”

“Africa, and Uganda in particular, is quite fluid,” Mabonga says. “You need to know the right departments to contact. It can be bureaucratic, but if you know the right people, it’s easy.”

Given there was no Ugandan film commission, Mabonga and the crew had to visit Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni personally to ask for his support, the result being they were given free use of the country’s parliament, university and main hospital as locations.

“It’s all about working with the local community,” Mabonga says. “That’s how we were able to get 2,000 extras to turn up on set at six in the morning. East Africa is ready for films now. It might not be as sophisticated as South Africa, but there’s a lot of support from the government.”

It’s not only Africans who are developing a rep for finding locations within the continent.

Blighty’s Crispin Buxton worked on both “The Last King of Scotland” as well as the Rwandan shoot for Michael Caton-Jones. For Buxton, whose past credits include “Children of Men” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the time spent in the country left a lasting impression.

“I’ve heard that in other parts of Africa, getting money out of foreign film crews is the only reason they let you anywhere near them, but in Rwanda we had extraordinary support,” Buxton says. “The Rwandan people wanted their story to be told. There was an extraordinary will to assist and support us that outweighed the usual dynamic of just getting some money out of us.”

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