Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Documentary in the making

Westwood couple work to tell story of explorers

        Flickering images of African tribesmen from the 1920s dance across a TV screen in a darkened living room.

        They wave at the camera, inviting the viewer to step from today into yesteryear, from living color into black and white film, from a home in Westwood into sub-Saharan Africa.

[photo] Connie Galanopulo sits in his Westwood home with a frame from his documentary-in-the-making.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Constantine Galanopulo aims a hand-held remote at the TV. The dancing stops. The tribesmen freeze.

        He points out two white men. Americans James Wilson and Francis Flood stand out in the crowd. So do their motorcycles, signs of modern life in an ancient world.

        In 1927-28, this pair of Nebraska farm boys rode across the untracked lands and sands of Africa.

        Constantine, or “Connie” as the independent filmmaker answers to at home, lingers over the image of James Wilson.

        Connie wants to tell his story in a documentary. The film has been the Westwood man's quest for 12 years. He hopes to do it as honestly in the 21st century as James Wilson wrote and spoke about 20th-century Africa.

        My bet is he will. Connie has taken James Wilson's story to heart. He's doing this for love, not money. Any proceeds go to a foundation set up in James Wilson's name and dedicated to the preservation of erosion-preventing native grasses.

        To Connie, this tale is a travelogue wrapped around a journey of universal discovery. At a time when Africa was a European colony and civil rights were but a dream in America, the team of Wilson and Flood realized that all people are created equal and should be treated that way, at home and abroad.

[photo] Jim Wilson and Francis Flood sit on the motorcycle they rode across Africa on in the 1920s.
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        James Wilson put his forward-thinking views into a book about his African adventures. Three-Wheeling Through Africa came out in 1936 and became a best seller. The author then went on the road with Francis Flood, lecturing and showing films and slides of their trip. Their late-'30s tour even stopped in Cincinnati.

        After the book's success, James Wilson went home to obscurity in Polk, Neb. He raised corn and a family. His films and photographs landed in his barn's loft.

        They would have stayed there — if not for Connie and his wife, Carlene.

        The Galanopulos are bookworms, regularly visiting Duttenhofer's Books in Clifton. One day in 1989, Connie dropped by and found a copy of Three-Wheeling Through Africa.

        The title caught his eye. The writing captured his imagination.

        “It was innocent, naive,” Connie recalled. As straight as a Nebraska highway, the book's prose is free of the cynicism spoiling so much of what is written in today's smug, know-it-all age.

        After work, when Connie came home from making TV commercials and Carlene arrived from her job as a nurse at University Hospital, they would read chapters to each other. The more they read Three-wheeling Through Africa, the more they wanted to know about the author.

        “We're not usually like that,” Carlene told me after Connie turned off their VCR. “We don't call people up or track them down just because we read their book.”

        She wanted to assure me they're not stalkers. “But we read these fantastic stories about these two guys running out of water in the desert, about Jim playing 'When The Saints Go Marching In' on the banjo to communicate with African tribes. They were at death's door time and time again, but they never gave up.

        “So, we wanted to know if all that really happened.”

        It did. James Wilson confirmed every last detail in 1992 when Connie and Carlene visited him at his corn farm in Nebraska. They tracked him down by phoning every Wilson in the state.

        Connie and Carlene spent two days filming and interviewing James Wilson. That's how they learned of Francis Flood's death, decades earlier, in the '60s.

        Minutes before they were to leave, their host told them in an offhand fashion: “By the way, I have some film of the trip up in the barn.”

        They found can after can of film, 30 hours in all. The film was highly explosive and rank.

        “Each can,” Connie recalled while holding his nose, “stunk like 10 skunks and 10 cats stuck in a box.”

        Keeping the car windows open, they drove straight back to Cincinnati. Connie started making arrangements to transfer the film to videotape.

        Working three jobs to pay the mortgage and the cost of making a documentary, Connie is nearly finished with the transferring portion of the project. He still must interview James Wilson's sons about growing up with an explorer for a father.

        There will be no more interviews with James Wilson. He died at the age of 94 in 1995.

        Connie plans to take the footage from Africa and blend it into the interviews he did in Nebraska.

        “That will make a one-hour documentary about the journey, with Jim telling his story.”

        To finish the film sooner rather than later, Connie could use some help. If he could receive funding from a grant or an angel gives him free studio time to edit film, the documentary could be ready in about 18 months. Then it could show up in theaters, on cable TV or as part of the PBS series, The American Experience.

        The documentary could even lead to a feature film. “It's the perfect buddy picture,” Carlene noted.

        “There's no sex in it, no dirt, no lying or cheating on the part of the two main characters,” she said. “It's a great adventure story with a happy ending.”

        James Wilson and Francis Flood made it home safe. They lost 50 pounds between them. But they gained a lifetime of timeless tales.

        Connie and Carlene want to make sure these stories are not forgotten. They are tales worth telling, with lessons worth learning.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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