At the Intersection of Film & Travel
In Conversation with Bruce Neibaur
Bruce Neibaur is an American film director, producer and writer who began his career in 1981 as a documentary and news cameraman for CNN. Since that time he has worked as an independent writer/producer/director of IMAX motion pictures, television productions, feature films and dramatic and documentary short-subject films for special presentation. Titles include Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (2002) that chronicles the famous expedition and breathtaking landscapes that Lewis and Clark crossed while searching for the northwest passage. Mysteries of Egypt (1998) which takes viewers on a journey to Egypt’s remote and mysterious places. India, Kingdom of the Tiger (2002) which explores Jim Corbett’s spiritual journey from Tiger hunter to the father of Tiger conservation. In 2009, Bruce wrote and directed Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta, an inspiring documentary that follows the epic pilgrimage of Ibn Battuta from Tangier, Morocco to Mecca.
What inspired you to work in film?
My career has traveled a winding path, beginning at CNN as a documentary cameraman, then moving to narrative films—both feature length and short subject, to combining dramatic and documentary elements in giant screen (IMAX) films. I can actually point to having grown up on a farm in southern Idaho—which is about as practical an environment as exists—as the most influential factor in my becoming a film maker. I had no idea during those childhood years, that there were even people who made movies! However, we did have a beautiful cinema in the nearby town of Rupert and our family would go there on Friday or Saturday nights to escape the hard work of the farm. We saw Dr. Zhivago, How The West Was Won, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, Around The World in Eighty Days, Its A Mad, Mad Mad, Mad World... and the impact of seeing those movies, in the context of our isolated, day to day lives, never left me. In fact, after I had been working in the motion picture business for some time, it suddenly hit me one day that I “frame” my environment—-just like the magical framing of scenes in those great movies, and I had done so basically all my life.
What are your earliest memories of travel and how did they shape your career choice?
My earliest memory of travel, which I can tie directly to my career choice, actually happened in my head. About three miles from our farm was a main trunk of the Union Pacific Railroad. It originated in Oregon and terminated in Chicago. I would “travel on my bicycle out beyond the cultivated fields to the sagebrush wilderness and an old water tower standing near the tracks, which supplied water for the locomotives in the age of steam. I spent hours at that tower watching the long freight trains go by. Sometimes there were even “Hobos” riding on top of the box cars! There were also many passenger trains back then and I used to romantically imagine where these trains were coming from and where they were going—and wishing I could go there too.
what are some of your favorite filming locations?
At the top of the list is Morocco, followed closely by India and Italy. Nothing can replace seeing, hearing, smelling, shaking hands, feeling confused, being yelled at, being welcomed, and then lying awake at night processing it all.
How does cultural context influence your films?
Location and cultural context are integral and very often the writing will change significantly when these factors are explored and absorbed. I actually insist that the writing not begin in earnest until a journey has been made to the location. You can’t write meaningfully from internet searching or even from extensive home-base research. Only being there starts to give you the true portrait of a place. Nothing can replace seeing, hearing, smelling, shaking hands, feeling confused, being yelled at, being welcomed, and then lying awake at night processing it all. More and more film productions skip this fundamental step and you can see it.
Does your work have an impact on your own personal travels?
I have traveled so much for work that the leisure element has come into play more in the form of having my family travel with me, or join me on location. These have been rich, priceless experiences.
What is film to you in the
context of religion and spirituality?
Well, here I have been enormously fortunate and blessed because issues of faith in all its forms—including trials of faith, and spirituality, have been an immeasurably important part of my life, so to be able to fold that into motion pictures that have explored, in varying degrees, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, ancient Egyptian and Native American theology has been deeply fulfilling—and revealing, because there are so many, many common threads of belief that run through these religions and I’ve seen, first hand, how so much of the conflict that exists in the world is due to ignorance and even a refusal to understand what others believe.
You spent quite some time in Morocco for Journey to Mecca. what struck you the most about the country and culture?
I’ve seen nothing to compare to Morocco for the range of filming possibilities. It is astounding! We had no trouble stitching together all the diverse landscapes and villages and cities Ibn Battuta encountered on his epic pilgrimage journey from Tangier to Mecca. But beyond just the locations, there are first-class artisans and technicians in Morocco and the people are universally welcoming, kind, intelligent and resourceful. Oh, and by the way, the food is...is...is... ...words fail!
WHAT DO YOU LIKE or appreciate MOST ABOUT INDIA?
Overwhelming is a perfect word to describe India and I would add, adventure! India is truly an adventure, from the time you arrive until you leave. No matter where you are, from north to south and east to west, your senses are being bombarded or entangled or seduced. I love the extremes you find there, like the mad chaos of old Delhi, and the truly paradisiacal tranquility and beauty of the backwaters in the south, near Cochin. I’ve worked in India extensively and still marvel and wonder at how it is possible that such a place can actually exist!