(first posted 6/5/13)
All of the photos in this posting were taken in 1974-75 during a film/photo shoot in France, Spain and Morocco. The still photos were taken by Wally Frerck, Bob Frerck’s brother, and me.
In late 1972, my college friend Bob Frerck called me after I had gotten fired from my job in NYC. He’d written a documentary and wanted to know if I’d be his second camera and translator on the film, which would be produced, directed and filmed in Spain and Morocco. There was no pay involved other than the chance of adventure. The film’s subject was the 800-year period of Moorish rule over Spain before the Moors got themselves kicked out in 1492. The intended audience for the film, which was titled Al-Andalus, was high-school history students.
Bob had purchased a brand new 1974 VW Westfalia camper to serve as both our mode of transportation and our home during this opus. We picked up at the Westfalia works in Germany, but I don’t remember much about the factory experience–we’d spent the previous evening at the home of Bob’s uncle, where there was plenty of good German beer and schnapps–in fact, perhaps too much. After we’d picked up the camper, the next morning, Bob asked me when I and his grandmother were going to be married. What? I was told that I had proposed last night, not to one of his good- looking cousins but to his grandmother. OK, on some level I was confused; I’d have married one of the young hotties quite happily, but I had to draw the line at septuagenarian amour.
The Vee Dub came with a maladjusted shifter that would not permit second-to-third shifts. I dubbed our new home “Rocinante”, in honor of Don Quixote’s well-known nag, and I came to feel quite comfortable with Rocinante over the next five months. And yes, we got the shift linkage fixed.
From Germany we drove back to Luxembourg to pick up our equipment, and then went off to Spain, via France.
We reached Spain without incident. On our second day there, Bob and I were standing outside of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia basilica, in Barcelona, when we were approached by an angel in the form of a Greek Cypriot named Stalo Stylianu. We both fell deeply in lust with this comely maiden and took her to dinner that evening.
Throughout our flight here Bob extolled the wonders of fried squid, especially the kind we’d find in Barcelona. I gagged at the thought of it, and hoped that he would forget. No dice. We took Stalo (pronounced ‘Shtalo’) to an open-air cafe in Barcelona that featured Calemares a la Romana–fried squid. When it was served to us, I thought the waitress had mistakenly brought us fried onion rings, which I found pretty tasty. After finishing our third basket of “onion rings”, I asked Bob when the squid was going to show up. His look said it all: Dumb-ass! That’s what we’ve been eating for the past half-hour! I’ve loved calemare ever since.
We reluctantly took Stalo back to her hotel and said goodbye. We had a lot of work to do. Bob and I weren’t saints, and neither of us was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the other.
Walt, formerly an AP photographer in Houston, TX, took this shot of Bob and me setting up in one of the Alhambra courtyards in Granada. We spent a whole week shooting here. In addition to the Arriflex, we had a full complement of Nikon Fs, a ton of lenses and Walt’s Hasselblad, shown above on the Calumet tripod. Our only mistake at the Alhambra was to shoot during Holy Week, when every school in Spain sent their snotty-nosed brats to view the national patrimony.
I believe this was the fountain/court of the lions.
The ugly American: After spending a week shooting here, what else would you do but ride a priceless Moorish lion?
The VW was not only good transportation and a comfortable home, but also a great shooting platform. Here we are in Cordoba, shooting the statue of Maimonides, the noted Spanish rabbi, philosopher and physician (1134-1205). Walt is on the left and Bob is behind the camera. Location photography, be it film or still, is not very glamorous. The hours are long–getting up before dawn for the obligatory sunrise shots and putting in long days that end in taking the equally obligatory sunset shots. Even though Rocinante had a stove, by the end of the day none of us was in the mood for cooking or cleaning dishes. Cordoba has a great midway with reasonably-priced cafes, and after we found one we particularly liked we ate there every night. We would then seek out our favorite bar, also on the midway, and play pinball (”Dakota”) for an hour or two. Great sherry was only about three cents a shot. We didn’t become pinball junkies only because we already were.
As mentioned earlier, the VW was sized for European cities but just barely so. This is a main (and perhaps the only) portal into Arcos de la Frontera, in Cadiz. We had to fold in one of the outside rear-view mirrors to keep it from scraping against the side. Such inconveniences aside, it did provide the combination of a comfortably roomy interior and the ability to navigate the tight confines we encountered.
This photo was shot by Bob’s brother, Walt, who was with us for three weeks. It illustrates our basic setup: An Arriflex 16 mm film camera with a Canon zoom lens, a Mitchell fluid head atop a heavy-duty tripod, and a Ni-cad battery belt.
When we arrived at a location, my job was to strap on the battery belt and then lug the tripod to where we were going to shoot. Bob would then hand me the Arriflex to mount on the tripod, after which I’d frame the shot. Although Bob took light readings, after a month or so I could pretty accurately estimate the required shutter speed and f-stop sans meter.
Every once in a while we would kick back, clean our equipment and air out the VW. Here we are, in Sevilla, Spain, parked along the Guadalquivir river. The VW van next to ours is a former Dutch telephone company unit. Apparently they were pretty cheap, since in Spain we met a number of young couples who’d bought these things.
I didn’t particularly like Sevilla. The Spanish spoken there is very fast and clipped, very similar to what you’d hear in Puerto Rico or Cuba–in other words, inelegant.
With the equipment cleaned and adjusted we headed to Morocco, home of the Moors.
After consulting the U.S. Consulate in Malaga, Spain, we had identified locations in Morocco that had really great sand dunes. You’d think that the Sahara would be nothing but endless sand dunes. Wrong! Actually, the Sahara features a variety of topographies, all of them hostile.
In our first attempt to find dunes, we took off from Marrakesh and encountered a blizzard as we tried to cross the Middle Atlas mountain range. It was January, after all. I don’t know what town this was, but as soon as we went beyond it the snowstorm got worse. It culminated in the road being gated off and closed, which prevented us from going further. We checked the map and decided to head back to the coast, then south, and finally east to Ouarzazate.
So we backtracked to the coast and headed east to Ouarzazate, our original destination. Once we reached Ourzazate we headed southeast to Agdz, Tighremet, and finally to Rissani, where we found a hotel straight out of Casablanca. While having dinner there, we met a BBC crew who were filming their own documentary about a British explorer. The film was being directed by David McCallum, and those of you familiar with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” will know who Ilya Kuryakin is. More on that later.
South of Rissani we found beautiful dunes.
Here I am, battery belt and tripod, schlepping them up to where we would do our shooting. I lost 30 pounds on this assignment.
Walt took this great shot of Bob and me filming the dunes. Since it was January, the temperature was on the coolish side. I’m just glad we weren’t here in August.
After our dune shooting, we met up with the BBC crew and David McCallum on location. We were standing next to the “set” and trying to be discreet when McCallum came over and asked us how the Mets were doing. None of us was a Mets fan, but it was cool that McCallum recognized us as Yanks and came over to talk and welcome us to the set. Nice guy.
That evening we were able to take advantage of the BBC’s presence to film a camel and rider that the BBC had hired to be in their film. We shot the ugly beast and then hit the road.
Although we only spent three weeks in Morocco, they seemed like an eternity. The Moroccans are very aggressive, and will try to sell you sand if you are so gullible.
One of our objectives in Morocco was to film sand dunes in the Sahara–the very same ones filmed for Lawrence of Arabia. This shot shows Rocinante on the “piste”, or desert floor trail. Although the terrain was generally smooth, there were occasional arroyos (wadis?) that could be pernicious. Walt thought our VW was equivalent to a dune buggy. Not so. He blew out three shocks crossing arroyos at too high a speed. Do you see any VW dealers in the photo above? Do you know what it’s like to drive a thousand miles over unpaved roads with only one functioning shock? Try carefully. And painfully.
On our way back to Rabat we took the route across the Middle Atlas that we had hoped to take originally. Lingering patches of snow are evidence of what had kept us from heading south on this route a week before. Driving this route with only one functioning shock absorber (‘damper’, for the enlightened) was not pleasant.
Ah! Our last morning in Morocco. The Mediterranean is visible on the left. That morning we went to a cafe, where we were probably the only patrons not partaking in hookas fueled by hashish. Later that afternoon we took the ferry from Ceuta to Algeciras. But the adventure wasn’t over. Once back in Spain we were confronted by the Federales. Yes, we had beards and stashes, long hair and a VW camper. The captain decided to take our van apart to find the drugs we obviously were attempting to smuggle into Spain, and set his lackeys to disassemble the interior using screwdrivers.
However, before we left Spain for Morocco we had asked the attache in the U.S. Consulate in Malaga to compose and print a letter, in English, Spanish, and French, that stated our mission. The attache in Malaga said he would “put some big gold embossed stars on the document, they always seem to impress the locals.” We used it very sparingly, since we lacked official permission to film in any of the countries that we’d worked in, but with our van coming apart rapidly, I said, “Bob, I think it’s time to bring out the big stick”.
I handed the gold-starred letter to el capitan with no expectations. He read it, then clicked his heels in the best Wehrmacht style and stated, “I was not aware that you were on such an important cultural mission, I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you!” Well, shit and fall back in it! I was knocked out. I thanked el capitan, told him it was not necessary to put our van back together, just give me the screws and we would be back on our way. I did my best not to break out laughing. No, we didn’t have any drugs. Why would we? Spanish wine and sherry made them superfluous.
By the time we’d finished our shooting schedule in June I was ready to head home. One evening we found a natural mountain spring in the north of Spain. I drank from it, and the next day I had a horrendous case of the trots. That night we camped in a field, close to the airport in Luxembourg. Next morning I awoke feeling much better. Time for the morning cigarette and a dump. My friend Bob was there with his camera to capture the event.
Rocinante and I parted ways at the Luxembourg airport, never to see each other again. Too bad. With a five-speed (the gulf between third and fourth was huge), two liters and the heavy duty suspension available on Australian units, Rocinante would have been a really sweet ride.