Up Close with Director/Cinematographer Daniel McCabe of Grasshopper Republic

Photo: courtesy Daniel McCabe and Taskovski Films.

Grasshopper Republic, a stunning work of cinema verité-style documentary appearing at DocNYC next month as a part of its Kaleidoscope Competition, is the work of director-producer-cinematographer Daniel McCabe. McCabe, in his work as a photo/video journalist, has covered gang conflict in Honduras, Kenya’s 2008 Post-Election Violence, the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2008-2015), from where he spoke with Film Obsessive. His first feature-length documentary film, This Is Congo, premiered in 2017 at the prestigious 74th Venice International Film Festival and has won numerous awards worldwide. 

Grasshopper Republic is McCabe’s second feature documentary. It tells the story of those harvesting grasshoppers—a highly prized delicacy—in the forests of Uganda, where trappers brave difficult conditions to capture and sell the insects. Juxtaposed with the actions of the trappers are remarkable close-up shots of the insects themselves, carrying out their own daily tasks with a similar urgency and ethereal beauty.

McCabe spoke this week with Film Obsessive Executive Editor J Paul Johnson to discuss his new film, his background in photojournalism, and his future projects. Scroll below for the full video of the interview. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Film Obsessive: Daniel, welcome. And for our audience yet to see Grasshopper Republic, can you tell us a little bit about what they should expect?

Daniel McCabe: First and foremost, thanks for having me on here, Paul. Grasshopper Republic is a feature documentary about the balance between man and nature. And it follows a troop of Ugandan grasshopper trappers for several seasons as they hunt an elusive swarm of grasshoppers which they’ll catch for food. It’s not about sustenance; [the grasshoppers are] quite a delicacy. In Uganda, it’s this great treat—if these trappers catch this swarm at the right time and in the right place, they could make a year’s pay in one night. It’s a bit like gold rush prospectors.

It is a bit like gold rush prospectors! And I think viewers will notice that, especially when they see some of the contraptions that the trappers use to catch the grasshoppers. One of the things people are going to notice first is the truly arresting visual imagery of the insects themselves. At times, your film takes us down into the insect world on a really granular level. Can you just tell us a little bit about what’s involved to do that close-up photography?

It was really important to us that we not only captured the reality of these human trappers, but the grasshoppers themselves are one of the main characters. So we wanted to be able to get right down on the level with them, which was quite difficult. I’ve never worked in macro cinematography before, and it was a bit of a challenge, but with some good advice and a solid team and a kit of specialty macro lenses, we were able to do just that.

A close-up image of a grasshopper.
A close-up image from Grasshopper Republic. Photo: Taskovski Films.

Of course, it never would have been possible without Ugandan entomologist collaborator Francis Sengendo. You know, when we began making the film we had these wild dreams of like, All right, we want to film these grasshoppers as close as we can, but we never imagined that we’d actually get that close. And that close, I think, is millimeters away. It was tricky, but it worked out.

And then there’s a parallel too, with the work the insects do and the work that the humans do. That, I think is also a really interesting part of the documentary. The documentary unfolds without an overt narration, without any traditional talk-to interviews, lower-thirds chyrons; it’s a direct cinema-like experience. Could you talk a little bit about what that requires in terms of filmmaking? Because that strikes me as a special challenge in its own right.

We saw this as an experience and we wanted to create that environment where we just drop the viewer right in there and we let them do the work, so to speak. It had twists and turns, but I think withholding the information and letting the viewer discover it felt right in the process. These trappers, they spend months in the field trying to catch the swarm and most of the time they don’t [catch any]. We wanted to reflect that in the viewing experience. I hope that came across again, like I said, it’s meant to be an experiential kind of nature film-meet-sci-fi situation.

With a little bit of a thriller aspect at times as well! Your primary point of view character, Siraje, is one of the trappers. And I’m just wondering how you came to meet him, how the two of you came to trust each other, and what you can tell us about that part of the process as well.

Siraje Lubwama Ojuku, the Lead Trapper in Grasshopper Republic.
Siraje Lubwama Ojuku, the Lead Trapper in Grasshopper Republic. Photo: Taskovski Films.

Well, the film itself was inspired by one of our producers, the very talented photographer, Michele Sibiloni. And he spent six years on the ground photographing to create the photo book Nsenene which is the Ugandan word for grasshopper. Being friends with him and at the time I was based in Eastern Congo and Michele was in Kampala, Uganda, from time to time, we would hang out and he would explain to me this project he was investing himself into. And to me, just the imagery he was showing me, it was so out of this world that it felt like a movie. It felt cinematic. When he completed that book, we jumped right into the film. He had done a lot of this groundwork. For us, the process is unique.

But it’s one that I like to follow in the work I do, where often we’re trying to focus on a destination, but our characters and our stories usually end up poking us from behind. The way it worked out is Michele and I went into the field and investigated these different trapping areas, hot zones of grasshoppers that he had discovered over the years. And did just that. We immersed ourselves in the trapping environments and just tried to meet people.

And Siraje actually, as we passed through one of his trapping sites, he was immediately shouting at us to “get out of there!” But over a couple of days or perhaps a week, we became friends with him  and explained to him what we were doing. Because I think for these guys, it’s very curious for them like “Why are you here? You want to make a film about grasshoppers or us?” We had to be very clear and careful with explaining why we were there and how we wanted to collaborate with them.

I’m wondering too, were there moments in this process where you perhaps either felt, Oh no, I don’t think we have a film here. This is not going to work. It’s too dependent on things that are happening beyond our control. Or if there were moments where you felt completely convinced: Yes, we’ve got it. This will actually make a documentary in full.

You’re hit the nail on the head! It was exactly these ups and downs in the three seasons we were with this trapping team. And the season is about mid-October to late December. I think we had a total of 110 shoot days. Only two of those days did that swarm arrive! We’re expecting nothing to happen. This event that we were hoping for, that we had been told about, this event that we’d seen in some of Michele’s photos was just not going to happen. Sometimes we’re like, okay, this is a story about how it’s not working out. These grasshoppers are, this whole process of harvesting them is changing. But with a little luck in the instincts of Siraje knowing when and where to set up his traps, we managed to get really lucky.

It was unknown until the end then of course, in the editing process, our phenomenally talented editor, Alyse Ardell Spiegel, and she’s one of our producers as well, was was in the field with us, which brings a great advantage in the post side of things, trying to weave these stories of these trappers and then create the stories of these grasshoppers who aren’t exactly the most cooperative subjects. That was a whole other ball of wax. That’s where the film really started coming alive and we’ve started seeing these comparatives that she was building between the insect world and the human world and how we’re connected and how we’re separated as well.

I do need to compliment her on the remarkably taut edit of the film. I only get to see the end product over on my side. But it is a film that, even while it takes its time immersing us in the insect world and letting us get to know what the trappers do, it still moves really quickly and logically. I’m wondering at what point in this process you and she start letting the key themes evolve. Because Grasshopper Republic is more than just a story of a grasshopper team going through their seasonal process.

In the time we spent with them, we started noticing certain things that were very important. The grasshopper swarm is a swarm of reproduction and that comes after the rainy season or during the tail end of a rainy season when there’s a vegetative boom. It had a lot to do with it. We knew from the trappers’ experience that the cycles of the moon also impacted the way the grasshoppers reacted. We knew that we wanted to have these elements in there. It was important as we were doing this without narration and removing a lot of this info. We wove it in visually. I can’t take much credit. Alyse and I would talk about these themes and how we wanted to do, but she’s such a force that she would go off and find these things in the footage and build these different scenes.

It was a long process. Our rough string out with all these hours of footage was three times longer than the final version is. There’s a very rough string out and then we had to start condensing and figuring out where and how we were going to build this arc where we’re taking three seasons and kind of crushing it down into one to make it feel feel like it’s a cohesive moment.

And the work that those folks are doing is quite dangerous too! You can see the impact on their skin. The rashes are gruesome to behold and really just astonishing that they would endure that. Do you worry about your own and your crew’s personal safety when you’re out there?

Worry maybe isn’t the word. We threw ourselves right in there with them. I think that’s a big part of building trust between us and our subjects. You know, we have to be right there in the trap site at night with them, every night just trying to live like they’re living. And for sure, all those insect bites we all suffered, and the lights also are very damaging to the retinas of our eye. So we try our best to have protective eyewear, but trying to wear welders’ goggles at night just doesn’t work. So you have to be with them and do your best to protect ourselves, which sometimes didn’t always work out. But, but in the end, it was completely worth it.

I imagine trying to operate a camera at night in Uganda is difficult enough without having to wear welders glasses as protective gear!

Also getting to if something’s crawling on you, not just hitting it, because a lot of these insects that came with the grasshoppers are either venomous or they have caustic chemical agents [on them] that would actually create one of these burns. You just get really calm and kind of let it happen. And, you know, it’s a combination of where your instincts are, like I’m going to try and cover myself up, but then they get inside and you can’t get them out. Everything we learned from the trappers themselves, they guided us and took us into their team and taught us how they do it and how we should do it. Complete collaboration.

A small Ugandan boy covers his eyes to avoid a green fluorescent light.
A young Ugandan boy at the harvest in Grasshopper Republic. Photo: Taskovski Films.

Where and when can viewers look forward to seeing Grasshopper Republic?

Right now we’re in the beginning of our festival run. It’s a very unique film as you’ve seen. I think these types of project take time to make their way around. Later on. in mid-November, we’ll be at Doc NYC. That’s exciting. We’ll have our New York City premiere there, and hopefully onto many more festivals. And ideally, it finds a great home on a streamer on a television channel where people can access it.

I hope so too. It really deserves to be seen by as many people as is possible, Daniel. What is the next film that you’re working on?

I have a couple of ideas in the works here in the Congo. There’s a lot going on and it’s very complex. Decades and decades of conflict and you have incredible natural resources and animals. Right now in the scouting process of something. But again, just like on Grasshopper Republic, I’m trying not to have a narrow vision of what this can be. And I’m just going to be here for some months meeting people and talking to people, and trying to let the story find me, not quite sure what it’ll be. This is the process that we use and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Hopefully this one will.

I hope so too. And I know from interviewing many documentary filmmakers over the years that it really can be an exercise simply sometimes in patience, in letting the story unfold and come to you. And I really liked your metaphor of your subject tapping you on the shoulder from behind. How did you get started in this line of work? I know that you’ve done other documentary projects. 

I began as a photojournalist originally for a smaller newspaper in upstate New York. And then I went on to take on more independent freelance foreign assignment stuff. Eventually I was based in Nairobi, Kenya in the early 2000s. And in the process of working for these newswires, I found myself covering a conflict in Eastern Congo in 2008. And around the same time, I wasn’t really feeling the passion for journalism and the technology of recording video, especially on these digital SLRs was available. I made a switch into filmmaking in 2010 with the documentary This is Congo, which was my first feature. And it took some time. It took about five years filming and another few years to edit, which was a dose.

But I was hooked and still am. I love the experience, this work, the responsibility of storytelling, the collaboration with people from other countries, other cultures. For me, it’s super rewarding.

I don’t know what else I would do if it wasn’t this.

Well, thank you for doing this In particular, Dan! Grasshopper Republic is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, truly immersive and thought provoking. Thank you for speaking with us at Film Obsessive today and all the best with your next endeavor. And here’s hoping that Grasshopper Republic has a long and strong festival run and finds its way into many people’s homes and theaters.

Thanks so much Paul. Thanks for having me and on behalf of my whole team and all the characters involved. Yeah, thank you to everybody who will hopefully be able to watch it.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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