At 27, Noah Pink is part of the first generation to grow up with hip hop. That he was a white kid in Halifax didn't matter: American bands A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots were his gateway to the sound when he was 10, and hip hop is music he still loves.
"It had a pretty profound effect on me at that age. Not only from a musical standpoint but from a social standpoint - what interests me about hip hop is how it spread across the world so pervasively."
Kids in Zambia are no less susceptible to the influence of hip hop. When Pink shot his short feature there, the influence of the music was immediately obvious. He saw drawings of rapper 50 Cent on walls everywhere.
"Over there you're not disconnected," he says. "There's the Internet, cellphones. You're in it, you're just a little further away."
From Halifax to Zambia and now to Cannes. Pink is bringing his film ZedCrew - a 45-minute drama about Zambian rappers looking to make it big in America - to the Director's Fortnight this year. A showcase for new and developing filmmakers, the Fortnight has screened films by the likes of Werner Herzog and Spike Lee - not to mention Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan.
"It's still pretty incredible to think of the people who have been here before me," says Pink.
Then again, ZedCrew was inspired by far more impossible journeys: It was after reading a news story about stowaways arriving by ship in Halifax from Morocco that Pink and co-producer Christopher Porter, conceived their story - about three buddies in Lusaka, indoctrinated by modern Horatio Alger stories such as HBO's Entourage, who decide to move to New York. Getting there proves to be the problem, so they stow away in a shipping container.
Pink decided to shoot in Zambia - and to use locals, not actors, as his leads. He found Zambian musician Alvin Fungo, a.k.a. Hong the Lyricist, via MySpace. Fungo brought in a number of the other actors, friends and acquaintances. "Choosing non-actors for ZedCrew started with needing to find someone who could actually rhyme," says Pink. "My lead couldn't be a fake."
Africa wasn't unfamiliar to Pink. At 21, he spent six months studying history in Senegal. His friendships with classmates showed him just how much, despite all their seeming differences, they had in common.
"Maybe the climate, the culture and the history of this country is different, but my friends aren't," he says. "They have the same dreams and aspirations as me, but different circumstances. This idea bothered me and stuck with me all the way to making ZedCrew. I wanted to write a story about guys my age with dreams I could understand, but with a completely different set of socio-political obstacles up against them."
And this isn't the first time Pink has put his interest in Africa on film. After finishing a history degree at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Halifax - where he was introduced by a mutual friend to Jacob Deng. A former Sudanese Lost Boy who came to Nova Scotia as a refugee in 2003 (one among thousands of boys and young men displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War), Deng had started an NGO to build a school back in his home country. Six months after they met, Pink made Wings of Hope - a documentary following Deng home to Sudan 18 years after he left by foot.
Since then, Pink has worked as an assistant on the film Shake Hands With The Devil, joining the crew in Kenya and Rwanda for part of the shoot. He's also worked for a British NGO called Transaid, making a documentary about trucking in South Africa and, last summer, another doc on transportation problems in Zambia, which is currently suffering an epidemic of traffic accidents.
It was in Zambia that Pink and cinematographer and co-producer Christopher Porter (who has worked on Breaking the Waves, Down by Law and Brokeback Mountain) decided to shoot ZedCrew. With a shoestring budget, the pair shot on the fly using equipment from the Transaid doc: "We had one camera, one microphone," says Pink. "Our boom pole was made out of a paint stick, jerry-rigged to the microphone with metal clasps - we couldn't get a boom stick, Halifax was out of them."
The real challenge for Pink wasn't just completing the story within budget, though, it was getting the details right. He had spent enough time in Africa to get a feel for the culture and the music that inspired his film - but he's still sensitive about telling a story beyond his own experience. So he didn't actually write the script until he was in Zambia.
"Before I wrote the script I wanted to talk to my actors to make the script feel like their own, to make it feel real," he says. "Being on the outside, I wanted to wait until the actors were really comfortable with it. It's an overused word - organic - but it was a really fluid process."
The fluidity included the actors slipping into languages they used on a daily basis, a mix of Nyanja, Bemba and English. Pink told them to pretend he wasn't there, to speak as they'd actually speak. "It took a little bit of work but once they got comfortable, it was natural."
ZedCrew first screened at the 2009 Atlantic Film Festival in a rushed edit. But the positive reception there convinced Pink to re-edit it and submit it to Cannes.
"We knew it was a long shot, but then the whole film was a long shot."
Special to The Globe and Mail