A Conversation with Erik Durschmied

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many other creative professionals. But my inspiration doesn’t always come from the art world. I’m inspired by people who forge their own path. Artist or not, these are the people who inspire me.

Erik Durschmied’s story is so captivating that I wanted to share it with you. He’s not a visual artist but Erik’s worked as a cinematographer, producer, director and also an author, military history professor and he’s best known for his work as a war correspondent. I think Erik’s story is going to inspire you as much as it does me.

Listen to our conversation recorded at Erik’s home in the south of France:

Portrait of Erik DurschmiedCrista:      Erik Durschmied was born on Christmas Day in 1930 Vienna. He had a loving family and a happy childhood – until Hitler invaded his country. By the time World War 2 ended when he was fifteen years old, Erik’s family had all perished.

As a young man, Erik would emigrate to Canada to attend McGill University.  That’s where our story begins.

Erik :         I went to McGill. I went there because I got a sports scholarship. I was bored. I was hoping that I could do something else, and I was always fascinated by film. For the first little money that I had saved up, I bought myself a small camera, and I did some very small films. Then I wrote to Canadian film companies.

In Canada, there were three film companies. One had six people working, one had 11 people, and one had 26 people. The first two didn’t even call me back. I got an answer from that third company. They said, “Well, come and see us.” So I went to see them.

They said, “We need an assistant to an assistant cameraman.” I said, “Well, what is that?” It basically was carrying suitcases and getting coffee at 10:00 in Lily cups for the crew. That’s the way I started. I learned from the mistakes that the other ones made.

Crista:      Erik started at the very bottom. He slowly worked his way up the ladder but was frustrated that it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Erik:          They said, “We’ll take you as a freelancer.” As a freelancer, as I said, I did all sorts of the most boring, frogs in the jungle.

Until I saw a short article in the New York Times talking about this mystical figure in the mountains of Cuba. Nobody knew who he was. I thought, “Well, that’s a good story.”

Crista:      That mythical figure in the mountains of Cuba would turn out to be a young Fidel Castro.

Erik:          I had never did an interview with somebody of any importance. Sure I interviewed the local mayor when he opened a bridge or whatever. Sticking a microphone under his nose, and said, “What goes on?” But it was something quite different.

Crista:      Something quite different indeed. Erik took a risk that would decide his fate.

Erik:          I went to Cuba, and then I found Fidel Castro, Finding Fidel… and that’s the way it happened.

Crista:      As a young man, Fidel Casto had been studying law at university when he began participating in rebellions against Cuban President Batista. He was imprisoned and when he was released, he formed a revolutionary group and began leading a guerilla war against government forces.

When Erik went to Cuba in 1958, the rest of the world had never heard of Fidel Castro and no interviews existed.

In fact, both men were unknown when that fateful meeting took place, a meeting would not only change their lives, but change the world.

But Erik’s plan was crazy! He went to Cuba on his own, with no permission and no professional backing. He just went. It took months to make contact with the rebels, gain their trust, and then climb the Sierra Maestra Mountains to find Fidel.

Erik:          When I got to the top of the hill, I mean, it took me three weeks to get up there. I left with no money, no prospect, almost no film, an old beat up camera and an old beat up Volkswagen. That’s the way I went from the north of Canada to the south of Cuba. I had enough money to pay for the gas. That’s about all the money I had. I sort of lived off the land. Somebody gave me a piece of bread. That’s the way I made it up until I got into the rebel territory. Well, it wasn’t rebel territory. The army didn’t go in, and the rebels didn’t come out. Then they took care of me once they believed me, I guess.

Crista:      Can you believe the courage that took? Erik told me he was scared and he didn’t know what he was doing, but he did it anyway.

Erik:          So I came to the top of the mountain after many, many weeks. He saw me right away. I mean, it was easy to recognize him, because he was much taller than the average Cuban anyway. He said, “So who are you?”

I had everything prepared in my mind. I had worked for the New York Times, and I report for CBS. The BBC has sent me. I simply couldn’t do it. I said, “Well, I’m nobody.” He said, “Well, we all have to start somewhere.” That broke the ice.

Crista:      We all have to start somewhere, I love that. And it’s true. How many people spend their lives safely on the sidelines waiting for someone else’s permission or because they don’t know where to start? If you learn anything from Erik’s story, let it be this: “Start somewhere. Just start.”

Erik:          From then on, many, many evenings we sat together in front of his casa and talked about everything and nothing. I mean, what do two people that are 28, I was 28 and he was 32. I mean we talked about just about everything.

Sometimes he said, “Well, how do the Canadians think of us?” I said, “Well, I haven’t got a clue, because nobody knows who you are.” Castro was nobody at the time.

Crista:      Nobody knew who Castro was when Erik met him, but that would soon change.

Erik:          Well, at the time we first met, both of us were young. Both of us were, I don’t know, I guess he was an idealist, and I was a little bit less than an idealist. Because, basically I was bored with what I had been doing until then. That just looked some way of getting out of it all. He sounded like a sort of a character from Hollywood, a Sherwood Forest Robin Hood type. Nobody knew who he was or where he was. It was sort of just somewhere out in the countryside.

Crista:     Erik would spend months embedded with Castro in the mountains, helping him learn English to prepare for the interview. And that interview would catch the attention of the world because its timing was perfect.

Erik:          How it really happened at the end was a surprise to everybody, and most of all to him. I left him a couple of weeks before he actually won the revolution. It was the only film that he ever was shown in. I mean, nobody knew what he looked like even. Somehow or other, it just caught the attention of the world. I don’t know why.

Crista:      A few weeks after Erik came down from the mountains, Castro won the revolution, overthrowing the Cuban government. Erik’s interview would provide the world with their first look at this new charismatic leader. And that interview launched both men’s careers.

Erik:          We had total different careers. I mean, his career of course is, what can I tell about his career? Everybody knows it. My career, because of Castro of course. One night I was just a kid with an old Volkswagen. The next day, I bought a Chevrolet convertible, I remember. Which I never used, which is the funny thing.

The film was shown on the 28th of December, the 29th of December. He won the revolution on the 30th of December. I went to Moscow to do an interview with Khrushchev on the 2nd of January. I then left, and for the next six months I never came back. I just sort of traveled around the world. I saw Nasser and Ben-Gurion, and I saw Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai. All of a sudden, it was a sort of get on the carousel. Hooray. Hooray.

Crista:      As a child, Erik’s life had been forever altered by war when he lost his family. Conflict and war continued to be the theme of his career as he travelled the world covering every conflict from the Cuban Revolution to Afghanistan and the Iraq War. The New York Times would one day say about Erik that he had seen more wars than any general.

To me, Erik’s story is about the courage to follow curiosity and the pursuit of truth. As a professional war correspondent, he always knew where to go, he had an instinct that led him to the right place at the right time.

Erik:          I was never on staff anywhere. I was always as an individual, and I picked my stories. When I saw a story, I didn’t even ask them. I just flew there, and did the interview, or covered the event, a volcano erupting, a tsunami, a war. I got known as The War Man. Sometimes, it so happened that they tried to call me and said, “Listen, there’s a war going on.” I was already there.

Crista:      I’m inspired by Erik’s courage to follow his instincts. Aren’t you?

An artist’s front line isn’t usually war or tragedy but it is a calling to take risks. And a huge part of risk is understanding that you may not receive what you want as a result of your effort. That’s such a hard lesson.

Erik:          Well, I think one always takes risks. Especially in a profession like mine. Well, risk taking is something that, if you’re a war reporter, you better get used to it. It’s not so much that… I think more it is, will I succeed? Will I get what I really go after?

Crista:      Erik’s incredible career would become the stuff of movies, full of stories of adventure. These are just a few of the headlines from Erik’s many stories that I caught on tape as we were talking. Listen to this and you’ll get an even greater sense of how interesting this man’s career has been:

Erik:          I went to places which, reports from practically nowhere, places that nobody had even heard of. I mean, I went to Katmandu. There wasn’t even a hotel there at the time. It’s just a caravan, so I had lots of bedbugs. Then went from there to follow on one of the Himalaya expeditions. We are talking about the early days of journalism.

Crista:      His work would introduce him to all kinds of people.

Erik:          I was interviewed in Miami by two people who I then found out were actually CIA.

Crista:      And the adventures were incredible.

Erik:          The Russians took me into Afghanistan, for God knows whatever reason. I mean, I never asked them.

Crista:      Erik has stories like this:

Erik:          An armored vehicle came to the hotel, because it was really, it wasn’t very safe. They asked for me, and I said, “Well, they’ve probably come to arrest me,” because I’ve been arrested quite a few times in my life. Anyway, they said, “His Majesty wants to see you.” They brought me to the palace. The king gave me an interview..

Crista:      And he’s got stories like this:

Erik:          The most dangerous man in Europe as the Allied called him. Nobody has ever heard of him. I mean, he did things which, they were so afraid of him that they put Eisenhower under guard. They didn’t let him out of the hotel, because somebody had started a rumor that he actually was in town.

Crista:      This was one of my favorite stories:

Erik:          I went to Moscow, and found one of the super spies, who nobody knew where he was. One of the great ones.

Crista:      Basically, this is the theme of Erik’s career…

Erik:          I was there. I got there in time.

Crista:      Erik spent years going from one war to another, from one tragedy to another, from one adventure to another, interviewing the world leaders of the 20th century.

He told me that he did try to escape war, he worked for National Geographic for awhile. He made Hollywood films. But he was known around the world as Durschmied the War Man, and it was this work that always pulled him back.

Erik:          Now a tip for young people who want to get into this business. First of all, I will tell them from the beginning, “Don’t.” It can get quite frustrating and hairy. Sometimes you take silly chances. It’s not worth it, because when you really take it, you take a risk knowing that the people in Philadelphia or in Manchester, they watch either a football game or drink a can of beer, while you get your head shot off. Of all the films that I ever made, very, very few scenes are still in memory today. That’s the one thing.

The other thing is, don’t be a sightseeing journalist. My slogan was always, “Get in, get it, get out.”

Crista:      Even though Erik is retired now, he’s still on the job. Ever the professional, throughout our conversation, his ears were attuned to any disturbances to the interview.

Erik:          What about that plane?

Erik:          He’s got the afterburners on.

Erik:          I used to even be able to tell what kind of a plane it was. I mean, you have a B-52 sounds totally different than a Phantom….

Erik:          Oh, here comes a helicopter….

Erik:          That’s my frog….

Crista:      Erik’s story came full circle when he was invited back to Cuba to reunite with Fidel Castro. It was the 30 year celebration of the revolution and the party hosted thousands. Writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez found Erik in the crowd and told him, “Fidel wants to see you. Come with me.”

Erik:          He took me to the back. There was a huge line, it was like waiting for a funeral or whatever. When Fidel saw me, he sort of motioned to the guard, “Close the door,” and they closed the door. Then, he forgot about the 3,000 people. We just sat that forever and ever, just Marquez, Fidel, his right hand, if you want. He was his interpreter, and I. We talked about many years ago.

It was just sort of his abbraccio, as it’s called, sort of the bear hug. Then we just sat there and talked. He said, “What have you been doing the last 30 years?” I felt so stupid. I said, “What do you mean? What have I been doing? I mean, not much. I mean I know all about you, what you’ve been doing.” That was sort of the beginning of the conversation.

Crista:      Twenty years after that reunion, and fifty years since the first time he’d met Castro, Erik returned once more to Cuba. This time he went with a film crew to retrace his steps up into the Sierra Maestra mountains to what had been Castro’s rebel hide out. The resulting documentary is called Finding Fidel, and it is fascinating.

My favorite moment was when Erik is visiting a tiny one-room museum at the top of the mountain. There, he discovers the film camera he had left behind all of those years ago. Castro had allowed him to take the film that he shot, but not the camera. To see how moved Erik was to discover that camera again 50 years after it changed his life… wow. What an incredible story.

I’ve never known an artist to retire. But Erik taught me that it’s not just artists who remain curious. It’s people who love to learn and grow. Erik is now the author of several books and he’s working on a new one.

Erik:          Filmmaking and writing is almost the same thing. It’s a process that is in your mind.

I like writing, it keeps my mind going. It’s something I like doing. Curiosity obviously is part of it. Everybody writes about what he knows best.

Crista:      I asked Erik, who’s also worked as a military history professor, what can we learn from war?

Erik:          History repeats itself, in cycles, but it repeats itself. It’s like the stock market. Once it’s up, once it’s down, then it goes up again.

We learn nothing. People have never learned from history. That is one of the great things. People learn from just about anything. They build rockets to fly to the moon. They learn from failures of the rockets, but they’ve never learned from history.

World history has always been, with the exception of I think 290 years or something like that. Ever since 5,000 years ago, there was 290 years that were not without a war.

Crista:      Only 290 years without a war in the last 5000 years. Wow. Erik’s right, we learn nothing.

People ask me what Erik Durschmied is really like. In spite of all of his crazy adventures, Erik is a family man.

Erik:          I have a family. When you have a family, sometimes you… I give you an example. It happened in Beirut. Artillery was shooting, and I was standing on a highway. The highway, it was divided by a concrete divider. Now, the shell hit next to the divider, but I was standing on the other side. All the shrapnel flew over me and killed all the people that were on the sidewalk. I was a little bit shaken up. I come back to the hotel, and I call home, just to talk to my wife and say, “I’m fine, nothing happened.”

My little girl comes on, one of my daughters. She says, “Daddy, the budgie just bit me in the finger.” All I saw is my little girl with a bleeding finger. I forgot all about what’s happened an hour before.

Crista:      Thank you Erik for sharing your incredible story with us. If you want to learn more about Erik Durschmied and his work I recommend you read his books and watch the film Finding Fidel.

And if you want to learn more about The Working Artist, visit my website at theworkingartist.com

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Working in the international world of contemporary art, Crista Cloutier has spent her career selling art and marketing art to art galleries, museums and private collections. 

Using her professional experiences, Crista has created The Working Artist Masterclass, where she’s developed a global reputation as an artist’s coach. Crista can teach you how to be an artist; including how to sell your art, how to sell art online, how to sell photographs, how to price your art, how to succeed at art fairs, and even how to find your art style. 

Crista has worked with established, blue-chip artists to raise their profile and attract greater opportunities. And she’s also helped thousands of emerging artists to build a professional art practice. To learn more, visit https://theworkingartist.com

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