The day started out not so great. I woke up at 6 am thinking that it would be dawn and that I could easily film many container ships on the river from the balcony of my 7th floor hotel room. Unfortunately this was not to be the case– not only was it too dark at 6 am, there were no ships. I waited for 2 hours and still no ships. I left the hotel hoping that my luck had not run out. And as I am slowly learning, I didn’t need to worry at all: today turned out to be one of the most intense and visually stunning days of shooting I have had on this project– and quite possibly the best shooting day I’ve ever had, period. Not because I did such a good job or felt good about my work, but because I couldn’t fathom the enormity of what I was seeing.
The day began at a shipping and logistics company in Savannah called Supply Chain Management, run by Wynn Cowan. I met Wynn and his workers at 8:30 and right away went to their warehouse where cotton was being unloaded from semi-trucks like the one that was loaded yesterday in Cameron. (When Carl Brown’s cotton eventually arrives at the Port of Savannah, it will arrive at SCM first.) I filmed the unloading and stacking of bales from many different locations: cotton from Louisiana and Georgia and of course South Carolina. Each large bale stack in the warehouse had its own personality: some were wrapped in dirty plastic and may have been from last year’s crop; some where bulging out of holes in their plastic wrap where samples had been excised. What was consistent was the smell: that very distinctive woody and linty cotton aroma. After capturing the unloading process, I filmed the artfully swift loading of 88 bales onto a container that was bound for the Port of Savannah. It took about 20 minutes. Before the truck drove off I got inside the container and had Wynn and his people close me up inside for 20 seconds. I wish I could find a way to put a microphone and recording device in one of these containers to capture the sound of it moving across land and sea. When I first had the idea for this film I thought I would move every step with the cotton, including traveling with it on a ship. I regret abandoning this idea.
After the truck drove off for the port gates, Wynn showed me how to track a container. Each major shipping company has its own website where one can enter the container number and trace its movement and location. When Carl Brown’s cotton has a container number, I’ll know which ship it ends up on and where it stops when it’s on the way to China. I’ll also know when it arrives, but given the chaos of the port environment in Savannah, I wonder if it will be possible to see it unloaded from the ship in Shanghai, in a port that is many times larger and more complex and where I won’t speak the language. But a lucky star has undeniably been lighting the way so far: Carl Brown has led me to Jordan Lea who has led me to Wynn Cowan who today led me to Danica Grone, the Manager of Port Relations at the Georgia Ports Authority.
When I left Wynn and the warehouses at Supply Chain Management I drove to meet Danica at the port. I signed in with security and then Danica drove me onto port property. As soon as we got past the gate the port opened up into the most incredible expanse of geometry and color; I did not know where to look or how to begin to capture the largeness of this scene. My first question to Danica was: can we go into the little cab at the top of the crane where the operator loads and unloads the ships? Danica laughed and told me if she’d known in advance I wanted to see that, it would have been possible. But then she took out her cell phone and low and behold she had the number of the guy who could give us permission. He invited us to come straight away to one crane and said he’d take us up. Danica hung up with him and said: You must be incredibly lucky, because this is a very rare thing. So the first place we went was the inside cab of an enormous crane. We took some stairs and then rode an elevator to the top where we entered the cab. It was a tight squeeze for me; the operator sits over the controls and looks down the entire time. I could barely get my camera past the controls and couldn’t see very well in the viewfinder, but the whole experience was just awesome– being up so high in the sky, looking out over the marshland and then down onto the top of a metal ship packed full with “boxes”– the name I heard spoken so often today.
To call a shipping container a box seems to dismiss its characteristics: heavy, corrugated, modular, disguising its contents. To me, a box is something a cat plays with. Danica and I spent the next three hours together as she drove me from one end of the port to the other so that I could see all the action. As the afternoon wore on the place became more and more awesome to me; each turn around a bend yielded another scene of activity and movement. The whole place echoed with the sound of metal and the simple melody of giant cranes and lifts as they backed up and repositioned themselves on top of box after box, shuffling and restacking and eventually lifting them onto trucks bound for the port’s edge where the giant claw of a crane would pick them up as if they were cardboard and gently release them onto the ship.