Magazine article American Cinematographer

"The Boat People" as Filmed for CBS

Magazine article American Cinematographer

"The Boat People" as Filmed for CBS

Article excerpt

The filming of this desperate human drama, as it unfolded in raging seas and upon hostile shores, tested all of the skills of the crew intent upon documenting it for tens of millions of television viewers

If you saw THE BOAT PEOPLE, chances are you are never going to forget that poignant CBS News documentary that appeared on prime-time last Jan. 16. Among the millions of Americans touched by the film was Governor Robert Ray of Iowa, who immediately contacted President Carter and offered to resettle an additional 1,500 Vietnamese refugees in his home state this year.

That brought to mind a comment made by Greg Cooke, a contributing news photographer for 60 Minutes and CBS Reports documentaries. "There are times when I think about trying to become a news producer," he says. "I had an opportunity to do that and have produced a couple of 60 Minutes assignments. However, I always come back to the fact that, as a news cameraman, there is always the chance I will touch people's lives and give them a view of something from a perspective no one will see quite the same way as I see it."

THE BOAT PEOPLE illustrates that feeling as much as anything Cooke has ever done. And that's saying a lot. Cooke has piled up some very impressive credentials during his career in news photography. He got his first job at KOOL-TV, in Phoenix, while he was still in school.

Cooke worked as a news photographer at KOOL-TV and KTAR-TV, also in Phoenix, from 1964 to 1969. He spent 1970 at KMGH-TV, in Denver, and soon afterwards signed on for an 18-month stint in the CBS news bureau in South Vietnam.

Cooke has been working as a contributing news photographer for CBS since 1972. Among the recognitions he has received is a first-place award for the documentary category of the 1976 TV News Photography Competition of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). It was for THE GUNS OF AUTUMN.

Though his home is in Denver, documentary and 60 Minutes assignments often take Cooke and his crew to locations around the country and the world. Recalling THE BOAT PEOPLE, Cooke says, "We had just returned from a 60 Minutes assignment in Nicaragua when we received word from CBS news producer Andrew Lack that we had an immediate opportunity to shoot film for a documentary about the plight of the boat people-the desperate refugees pouring out of Vietnam, seemingly forgotten and unwanted by the rest of the world."

Cooke had just gotten his equipment through customs at the Los Angeles International Airport. "I checked everything back through again and booked us on the next flight to Malaysia," he says.

The story was red-hot. A few weeks earlier, more than 200 refugees had drowned when a ship carrying them foundered after being turned away from port. Thousands of refugees were known to be languishing in camps in Malaysia, while many others were stuck on all manners of boats. Enormous pressures were building between the persons willing to take desperate measures to escape from Vietnam, and those in neighboring nations dreading the implications of absorbing the tide of refugees.

Press from around the world were clustering in Malaysia, probing for opportunities to visit refugee camps and to speak to officials. "Normally, we would have expected to spend as much as a month on a project like this," Cooke says. As it happened, he and his crew, soundman Jim Camery and assistant Vie Circhirillo, were pressed into action almost immediately after their plane landed. During the following five days, they went through a whirlwind of activity, which included a visit to the island of Pulau Bidong, where some 23,000 refugees were encamped, and the witnessing of hundreds of survivors wading ashore into a hostile crowd after their rickety ship was beached.

There was no time to plan or to reshoot anything. For many of the most important sequences, literally every frame of film had to count. "Out-takes were a luxury we didn't have," Cooke says. …

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