Most Capitol staffers are kept more than busy enough by their day jobs. But last year, while serving as legislative director for Assemblyman Guy Houston, Keith Ochwat moonlighted managing a documentary project being filmed in China.
While Ochwat spent long days staffing bills and long nights raising money and keeping track of expenses, his creative partner, Chris Rufo, was dodging the Chinese secret police.
“You see the guy who is always hanging around your building,” Rufo said. “When you leave, he leaves.”
Over nine months of filming, Rufo sought to slip the eyes of the authorities by growing facial hair, hiding behind buildings and jumping on and off of buses. He came back with the footage for “Diamond in the Dunes,” a documentary set in an area of western desert area of the country that was only conquered by the Chinese government in 1949. It tells the story of a baseball team from Xinjiang University, made up half of local Uyghurs and half of ethnic Han Chinese.
“He really stood out like a sore thumb, so it was easy for the police to keep an eye on him,” Ochwat said.
Ochwat left the Capitol when his boss termed out in November. These days, the documentary gig has become a more than fulltime job. But while working in the Capitol might not teach you how to lose a tail, he said many of the people and project management skills he learned have proved invaluable in his new work.
Another thing that has been valuable has been the connections he made.
Rob Flanigan—chief of staff for Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Riverside, and a political consultant with the Flanigan Capitol Group—has signed on as executive producer. Flanigan is working with to get corporate sponsorship for a travel series Ochwat and Rufo are producing called “Roughing It: The Great Pacific.”
This follows the pair’s initial effort, “Roughing It: Mongolia.” With Rufo doing the filming and Ochwat serving as host, they spent months traveling around Mongolia in 2006 on a shoestring budget of $5,000. Ochwat tried his hand at the ancient art of throat singing, visited artists and shamans, and even took on a champion Mongolian wrestler—briefly.
The film ultimately played on more than 150 PBS stations around the country and was seen by half a million people. One of them was Flanigan. Assemblyman Houston happened to be a client of the Flanigan Group.
“I go in for a meeting with Guy Houston, and Keith is sitting there,” Flanigan recalls of their 2007 introduction. “I knew he looked familiar. We started talking and then formed a business relationship after that. It was kind of random.”
The pair hopes to leave this spring to begin filming “The Great Pacific.” The eight-part series will include visits to Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and East Timor.
Ochwat will submit to more “painful and embarrassing experiences,” as Rufo gleefully put it. These will include trying to hunt and gather alongside tribesman in New Guinea. They’ll also spent time with “boat nomads” in Singapore and the Poco-Poco people in Borneo, one of the most isolated cultures in the world.
The pair say their influences include Michael Palin, the former Monty Python member who had a second career as the hapless yet open-minded host of a popular British travel show that took him to the Himalayas and the Saharan Desert. They also cite the films of Werner Herzog, the German director known for spending months in remote locations such as the deep Amazon.
They also say they have little in common with the current crop of slickly produced travel shows now crowding cable television. Most of those shows shoot an episode in a week; Ochwat and Rufo say they try to take at least a month in each location.
“A lot of the best ideas come up while we’re there,” Rufo said. “Anything that’s in a travel book, as much as it might say it’s not on the beaten path, it’s not anymore.”
Ochwat also said that even as they get more skilled, they’re hoping to keep the organic feel of their productions. He said that he was told by a public television producer that it was part of their appeal.
“He said I think the reason this is going to work, and has worked, is that ‘the everyday viewer sees you as the guy next door,’” Ochwat said. He added, “We know what the other shows are doing, and we’re not doing it.”
If “Great Pacific” proves successful, they’re evaluating ideas for another “Roughing It” cycle. The leading candidate is to follow the 30th parallel around the Arctic Circle, from Greenland, to Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska.
But before that, they’re hoping to finish post-production on “Diamond in the Dunes” and get it onto the film-festival circuit. While on the surface it’s a film about baseball—and possibly about politics—it’s also an intensely personal story.
It follows the life of team captain Parhat Ablat, a Uyghur. He doesn’t just have the job of keeping the team together through tough losses and ethnic tensions. The film also shows his daily struggles with poverty, his unrequited love for a woman who mistreats him, even a bout with tuberculosis.
“Any good sports movie is always about something besides sports,” Rufo said. “What’s going to draw you into an hour and a half film is the characters. It’s about his personal struggles with his society and oppression.”
He added: “People who watch documentaries want to see a film about a reality they didn’t even know existed.”