Interview: Claudio Von Planta
“If you want to get rich, don’t go into this line of work. Practice every day, like an instrument. Choose topics that will interest others. Gain experience working for charities. You’ll build your name and reputation.”
This is the advice documentarian, Claudio von Planta offers the as yet seasoned film makers who come to him. Most people will recognize von Planta’s work from the 2004 Long Way Round and its 2007 follow-up Long Way Down. Von Planta was chosen to follow film actors and buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman motorbike to remote regions of the world.
Von Planta possessed the rare combination of not only being a cameraman, but a documentary film maker, film editor, and military trained. All this, and Claudio could film while riding a motorbike of his own!
The result was two epic journeys that continue to entertain and educate new audiences every day. The chemistry was obvious between the three men who often times were alone and roughing it in some incredibly isolated corners of the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Claudio von Planta was a major reason why these films have stood the test of time. His was the first interview I conducted via Skype. Needless to say I was a wee bit nervous! But, there was absolutely no reason to be. When I began my conversation with von Planta, I already felt like I was talking to an old friend.
Von Planta did not disappoint. He has an easy smile, familiar laugh and an engaging manner. For me, Claudio will always be known for his calm demeanor in situations that were anything but! Few people know that von Planta took a fall from his bike in Mongolia and bruised, (or broke! He never saw a doctor) a rib. He was suffering through great pain, but Claudio’s first thought was that he did not want to disappoint Ewan and Charley by leaving the trip early. As a first reaction Claudio phoned Markus, a friend from his school days and a medical doctor. As a seasoned adventurer himself Markus provided simple advice:
“It’s difficult to find out whether a rib is broken or bruised because the pain is the same. As a consequence breathing is seriously impeded. This is very dangerous because the lungs do not properly clear and could cause pneumonia.”
Markus urged Claudio to take antibiotics as prevention against infection.
Luckily, the men had unexpected down time in Ulaanbaatar for a few days, and von Planta had some time to recover. He continued to suffer from rib pain for close to a month, but fortunately the roads across the border into Siberia had good tarmac. The riding during the next 10 days was smooth and easy, which helped with Claudio’s recovery.
At school Markus once advised Claudio to study medicine, but Claudio made a different choice. Growing up in beautiful Switzerland, he settled into a political science major at the University of Zurich.
Von Planta reckoned he would travel to Afghanistan in 1985 while on a semester break to produce his first news feature. Von Plana said,
“No one was paying much attention to that region of the world, so I knew this is where I needed to be.”
This may seem like the height of risk taking, but von Planta had something few other film makers had, officer training with the mountain grenadiers in the Swiss Army. This training served Claudio well. There certainly were a lot of dangerous events happening; the Soviet–Afghan War, the rise of insurgent groups such as the Mujahedeen and guerrilla warfare in the rural countryside.
The one unexpected and unsettling event for von Planta was culture shock.
“The mentality of my companions was totally incomprehensible to me. The concept of the Holy War and the belief that being rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins when martyred was unknown to me. I found it extremely difficult to get used to the consequences of these deeply medieval ideas. The glorification of the martyr’s death drove my companions again and again to suicidal attacks, which in my view were insane.”
This did not deter von Planta. He noted,
“The cumulative load of the Afghan culture shock and the discovery of real adventure catapulted me irrevocably into a freelance career. In 1985, Antenne-2 showed my first ‘News Feature’ in France and as a result, in 1986, I received an official assignment for more Afghanistan reports.”
In 1990 von Planta moved to London and began to gain a reputation by word of mouth. This is how he became part of one of his biggest productions to date; The Long Way series. Ewan and Charley had interviewed numerous directors of photography for the position, but their way of working was far too complicated, according to von Planta.
“They all wanted to include some assistants for sound and light. It was much easier with me because in war zones I learned to operate independently and with little equipment in an autonomous way; certainly not as sophisticated as in Hollywood, but fast as on the hunt. That was clearly the point.”
And the rest as they say is history!
Working on Long Way Round opened another important door for von Planta. Seeing how the motorbike adventure component of the series was so well received, Claudio realized a way to express his journalistic passion and make a film about an issue very close to his heart.
Enter Billy Ward “Biketruck“.
You may remember Billy from a previous interview I did. It’s hard to forget Billy! As a seasoned travel guide to such places as Africa, South America and Australia, he invited Claudio to tour Peru in 2016. Feeling a kinship with Billy, Claudio suggested the possibility of organizing professional motorbike tours in little known corners of the world like the Kurdistan part of Iraq. Von Planta explained that at first Ward questioned his new friend’s sanity! Visions of ISIS and other terrorist atrocities were at the forefront of Ward’s mind.
Von Planta was quick to assure Ward that traveling among the Kurds was very safe. Given that Claudio had 20 years of experience working in that region, he knew firsthand what a kind and welcoming people the Kurds were. Ward was eventually sold on the idea of organizing an exploratory motorbike trip with Claudio shooting a Long Way Round style documentary. Just as Ewan and Charley before them, Claudio and Billy set out for an unforgettable road adventure.
It was not all fun and games, of course. Billy and Claudio visited the ISIS frontline near Mosul, met many refugees and also looked at a memorial in Halabja commemorating Saddam Hussein’s gassing of over 5000 Kurds in 1988. The oppression against the Kurds started 100 years ago after WW1, when the Kurdish population of 30-40 million people became divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Ever since that time the Kurds have been caught in a territorial and religious war zone. Fortunately, there were also many moments of joy in Billy and Claudio’s A Kurdish Movie, as Ward charms the Kurdish people with his unique sense of humor and the Kurds sharing their thoughts, food and hearts with the two travelers.
It is von Planta’s hope that professional guides like Billy will one day be able to bring motorcycle tourists to Kurdistan to help the Kurdish economy, and more importantly, shine a light on the beauty of the Kurdish people. Von Planta offered some statistics that strongly imply the safety of commencing on such a Kurdish journey;
“The best indication of Kurdish friendship for Western states is the following; since 2003, over 4,500 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, but not one in the Kurdish region. There are also around 2 million internal Iraqi refugees who sought refuge with the Kurds because they feel safer there than under ISIS or the similarly religiously fanatical Shiite militias in southern Iraq.”
When asked about his experience about funding for these kinds of projects, I got a great, big chuckle from von Planta. I was naïve enough to think he had backers with deep pockets. But, A Kurdish Movie was produced on a shoestring budget with crowd funding contributions from Vimeo pre-orders. Von Planta explained,
“The Vimeo pre-order system was new territory for me. I was curious to find out if I could find people to support crowdfunding with my film projects because it is the dream of all freelancers to fund film projects through direct support from fans. This allows much more creative freedom and authenticity than having to consider the interests of sponsors and TV editors.”
Which brings me to the link!
A Kurdish Movie: www.billyandclaudio.tv
A quirky motorcycle adventure in Iraqi Kurdistan with the ‘Long Way Round’ cameraman Claudio von Planta and his fellow biker friend Billy Ward (Biketruck)…
Von Planta told me,
“Almost 200 people supported the project immediately and now we are winning more and more attention on Vimeo On Demand. We are not yet able to cover the costs of the entire production. But it is a first, direct contact with a fan base. I find that very inspiring.”
But, I guarantee if you visit Vimeo and download A Kurdish Movie it is YOU, who will be inspired! I asked von Planta if he had any trips planned in the near future.
“A Kurdish Movie has proven itself as a concept and we want to experience this kind of adventure in other countries…Nigeria, Congo or Sudan would be exciting.”
And now I’m thinking; why the hell not?!
Thanks to Billy Biketruck Ward for connecting me with Claudio. And much gratitude to Claudio von Planta for sharing his time and experiences!
Follow Claudio on Twitter:
— Voices Film & TV (@Voicesfilm) February 1, 2018
— Wes Candela (@WesCandela) February 1, 2018
— Voices Film & TV (@Voicesfilm) February 1, 2018