Whenever I am walking around and I see a camera crew, I have the vague suspicion that they will ask me to be in their show. I had that feeling in Lima, Peru when they were filming what looked like a TV high school drama. But they didn’t ask me. And when I walked past the film crew in Odessa, Ukraine, they didn’t ask me either. In fact, Valeria and I walked to the center, I walked around and I was nowhere near their filming when the story begins…
I was taking pictures and videos at the Potemkin steps when a middle-aged woman came up to me. Earlier, someone had offered to take my picture, then wanted money for her hard-luck story, so I was a bit reticent. I said “I don’t understand” in Russian, but she persisted. I figured I’d make an effort, as she seemed particularly interested in making her point.
“Televisor” “Television” “Dom” “House” were some of the things she said as she pointed to my digi cam and made a gesture about a bigger camera. It began to occur to me that she was referring to the earlier camera shoot, so I stopped what I was doing and went along. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were shooting. Earlier, I asked Valeria what the guy was shouting and it was: “It’s not my money!” So I really didn’t know what I was in for. The woman tried finding out basic information from me as we walked. I think she wanted to know if I was alone. I tried to explain that I was an English teacher, but I don’t think she understood.
We arrived at where the professional set-up was happening. A little craft services table. A policeman or two. Lighting equipment, things to reflect light, cameras, etc.
The first woman showed me to another woman as if I were some great prize that she had found. The people around nodded in agreement that I was such a prize. The 2nd woman spoke some English and asked if I wanted to be on a TV show. I said sure, so she said to wait a minute. Some other people were sitting and presumably waiting to do the same thing, so I figured it would be a little bit.
In literally one minute (or less), I was brought over to where the action was happening. There was the main actor who explained the deal, next to a big display with Cyrillic on one side and “Hug A Tree, Get A Prize!” on the other. I asked if someone could film with my camera. They said sure and shuffled it around.
The actor told me that I would be walking up and they would ask me if I wanted to hug the tree to get a prize. I asked if it was going to be OK in English and he responded that there wouldn’t be any sound. It then occured to me that this was exactly the sort of hidden camera shows that I see all the time on foreign late-night informercials and on bus rides in South America, with these situations with no sound but over-the-top laugh tracks.
He then said that I would hug the tree, he would handcuff me to it, then walk away, I would yell for help (with no laughing), then maybe sit down, then the second part would be when he would come back, show me the key and point to the camera, at which point, I would laugh.
And then we were off. I went to my mark, came up to him as two hot women flanked the sign. He asked me in English if I wanted to hug the tree to get a prize. I said sure and hugged the tree. As I hugged it, he grabbed my hands and said it wasn’t the right way. I looked to see what he was doing (even though I knew he was handcuffing me), and it became clear I should look the other way, so I looked back at the women/sign as the handcuffs were tightened. Then they all walked off.
The guy stood out of the camera’s line of sight and told me to yell for help. I started yelling at passersby and they smiled. The guy told me not to laugh. Then, a new hot woman came up and spoke to me in English, asking me what was wrong. I tried to pantomime as much as possible, telling her to try to take the handcuffs off. She said she couldn’t do anything and walked away. Meanwhile, I had turned from one side of the tree to the other and back. Then, I was told to sit down, which wasn’t exactly comfortable, as I was handcuffed to a tree. I was told to cry, which I did in a sort of weak way, but the guy seemed happy with it.
The guy came back and showed me the key and told me to kick at him, which I gladly obliged. Then he pointed at the camera and I laughed. Off went the handcuffs. I went with the 2nd woman to go sign my name (after they took down only my first name). They gave me a 5 note. Which is about 65 US cents.
As I walked back to the Potemkin steps with the original woman walking back with me, she pointed to the money and smiled, saying “Chupa-Chups”. As funny as that is, you can (almost) buy a whole Twix ‘Xtra with that, so the joke’s on her.