Magazine article Geographical

BRUCE PARRY: ASKING QUESTIONS: In His Prime-Time TV Series, Bruce Parry Bought the World of Papuan Cannibals and Amazonian Hunter-Gathers to Our Sitting Rooms by Joining in and Living Their Lives. but, as Paul Presley Discovers, in Parry's Big-Screen Debut, He Returns to the Tribes That Struck the Deepest Chords with Him, Searching for a More Profound and Universal Understanding of How We Can All Live Together on a Crowded Planet

Magazine article Geographical

BRUCE PARRY: ASKING QUESTIONS: In His Prime-Time TV Series, Bruce Parry Bought the World of Papuan Cannibals and Amazonian Hunter-Gathers to Our Sitting Rooms by Joining in and Living Their Lives. but, as Paul Presley Discovers, in Parry's Big-Screen Debut, He Returns to the Tribes That Struck the Deepest Chords with Him, Searching for a More Profound and Universal Understanding of How We Can All Live Together on a Crowded Planet

Article excerpt

Right from the beginning, TAWAI: A Voice From the Forest feels like a very different project to what we've become used to from Bruce Parry. After 15 years of making documentaries that fell under the label of 'extreme' - going 'native' with tribes around the world, joining their cultures, their lifestyles and rituals, however brutal and hard-wearing they were to experience (let alone for viewers to watch) - TAWAI begins with a slow, contemplative hike along a forest stream in Borneo. Sweeping drone footage, haunting musical strings, and Parry earnestly musing on the nature of being at one with the environment.

In the film, he's on his way to reunite with the Penan - one of the last remaining nomadic hunter-gatherers in the world. Parry last encountered the Penan in the final episode of his BBC series Tribe, and meeting with Parry today, in the far more mundane surroundings of a members' bar in a central London arthouse cinema, it's clear that the Sarawak-based tribe made perhaps the biggest impact on the way he views life today.

'I chose to go back to that particular group because they were a sea change from any others that I'd ever been with,' he says. 'They had gone through this huge shift that nearly all humans have been through at some point, that transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, from nomadism to settlement, and this just felt to me like a really interesting place to start our journey of enquiry.'

In the film, as Parry heads along the forest trail, he explains how this nomadic group have been all but forced into a dramatic lifestyle change. How they've finally had no choice but to put down roots as their forest habitat is slowly but steadily being taken over by logging companies authorised by the Malaysian government. The inevitable, unstoppable march of 'progress'.

Parry explains how, from his initial encounter with the group, he felt that something was substantially different about them compared to anyone else he'd met. As the scene develops and he relates his reasons for returning, it's clear that these people affected him on a much deeper level than mere curiosity. 'It's not in the film, but I was in floods of tears as I was walking down the river going to meet them,' he confesses, hinting at the emotions that form the film's core.

'I knew that I hadn't been in contact [since filming Tribe]. They'd adopted me. I was this person that was in their "house" and then I leave to go on to this very dynamic, fast-moving life. But they're left asking "Where did you go?" There were three elderly people who were in Tribe that had walked for three days to come and meet me to say: "Can you help? We are losing our land. You are British, can you please help us?" So, my journey back there was mostly me reflecting on things such as "Have I been a good son? Have I been a good brother?"'

His reunion with the nomads is touching. An elder of the tribe recognises him straight away and, as they embrace, he unloads a torrent of genuine emotion onto Parry. He's at great pains to assure the 'adopted' son that they are healthy and happy and that all is well, but it's clear in his eyes that it's a front. This is underscored by a conversation with the elder's son in which he states, 'We must only tell him [Parry] the good things, not the negatives'.

The Penan are seeing not just their home being cut away, but their very way of life. 'The trees are going because of the logging industry. There's a potential dam on their doorsteps. There's also an oil pipeline going through,' says Parry. 'They're living in a metaphorical gold mine of riches but they've got no rights to their land. The Malaysian government isn't interested in them. So they know their days are numbered, because a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle just isn't compatible with a static, farming lifestyle.'

FINDING HIS VOICE

In Tribe, Parry's goal while embedded with each different group was to absorb himself into their lives, to become one with the people. …

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