“Return to Cameroun” began in the summer of 1988 when I interviewed my mother and four aunts at a family reunion in Cincinnati. Bittersweet and affectionate, the interviews reveal the conflicts that any missionary’s child comes to know: the privilege of growing up in a foreign culture, the pain of being separated from one’s parents for a long time, the longing to keep memories alive.
A year after those interviews were filmed, I traced my grandparents steps to Cameroun. It happened when Aunt Winifred told me, almost casually, that she and Aunt Esther, were joining a tour sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. I called Fawn Yacker, the cinematographer who shot all the interviews in Cincinnati, booked passage for us both, and spent two weeks in December 1989 traveling by bus through southern Cameroun.
The highlight was a two-day visit to the village of Elat, my grandparents’ former home and my mother’s birthplace. We had an amazing moment when we arrived and saw a half-mile-long receiving line waiting to greet my two aunts, the long-absent daughters of Fred and Roberta Hope.
Shooting in Africa is never easy. Customs officials threatened to impound our equipment at the airport in Douala, Cameroun. Local police frequently interrupted production — despite the fact that I carried a document from Cameroun’s Minister of Culture and Information giving me permission to film. Also, because the tour was church-sponsored, we were always at the mercy of a rigid itinerary. We rarely had the luxury of setting up equipment. More often, it was guerilla filming. “Shoot and run.”
Returning to the United States, I spent two years working on “Return to Cameroun” when time permitted. As a film critic and arts reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I could only spare weekends and vacations. Twice I took a leave of absence from work. I really loved it: I made two research trips to the Presbyterian Historical Archive in Philadelphia, where I found medical records, missionary journals and early films shot by my grandparents’ missionary contemporaries. I visited Flat Rock, Illinois, the little farm community where my grandfather Fred was born and reared. To augment the film’s visual texture, I acquired several old films about Africa from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and worked with an archival-film expert (a detective, more or less) to find more material.
Serendipity had a big role in the production. A year or two into the process, Aunt Winifred mentioned a box-load of my grandparents’ personal correspondence that she had saved. The letters, written home from Africa – first to their parents, in later years to their daughters — numbered in the hundreds. They’re an amazing record of my grandparents’ lives, describing their daughters’ early childhood, the vagaries of surviving a tropical climate, Camerounian cuisine and the delicate relationship between missionaries and the local Bulu people. Selections from those letters are read in “Return to Cameroun” by Gena Rowlands (“A Woman Under the Influence”) and the late Pat Hingle (“Batman,” “The Grifters”).
The making of “Return to Cameroun” didn’t’ lack for drama. In October 1991, a firestorm devastated more than 3,000 homes in the Oakland hills – among them the residence of filmmakers Vivienne Verdon-Roe and Michael Porter. Vivienne, an Oscar winner for her documentary “Women – For American, For the World,” had converted her guest house into an editing studio, and rented it to me for my work on “RTC.” Although months of work and dozens of videotapes were destroyed, the loss wasn’t absolute. Luckily, master copies of all the footage were in my bedroom closet.
Starting again from scratch, I rented a video-editing system and installed it in the basement guest room of my home in Oakland — less than a mile from where the firestorm was contained. Veteran film editor Jennifer Chinlund came on board in 1992 and for five months we worked closely on the final cut.
I was lucky in finding gifted film professionals to work on “Return to Cameroun.” Composer Mark Adler wrote the evocative original score – I like to say he gave the film its heart – and Richard Bock designed and edited the sound effects. Vola Ruben art-directed several scenes. Bob Johns at Video Arts in San Francisco was the on-line editor. Bob’s efficiency, artistry and expertise were a huge boon to the project.
And big kudos to cinematographer Fawn Yacker, who captured wonderful images of Africa and its people, and Lauretta Molitor, our sound recordist for the Cincinnati interviews.