by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Oceans and Jungles team
There are places that you imagine you may return to and people you may meet again and then there are farewells to people and places you assume you will hold as a treasured memories. For me Aurelio village was one of those places; so remote, so distant, one of only two communities where the Matis of Brazil live. Set in the vast indigenous Vale do Javari reserve, it takes several days’ boat ride to reach the village, as well as many months of painstaking preparation. I had first come here to make the series “Tribe” and couldn’t believe my luck when I was asked to make a return trip for “Human Planet”– a rare privilege.
There is good reason to return to this remote corner of the Amazon for Human Planet’s Jungles episode. The Matis are true masters of the rainforest. Pete, our endurance fit cameraman, and I are reminded of this on our first filming day. An hour into the hunt we’d come to film, we are up to our knees, even thighs at times in swamp mud, soaked through by the unrelenting rain and all eyes on deadly poisoned darts being fired over our heads! Pete turns to me and asks if it’s all going to be like this?
Luckily it isn’t. Thank goodness, our second hunt is on firmer, drier ground. We follow the hunters into their world, immersed in the sounds and signs of the forest as we track monkeys in the canopy. For all the planning, there are still situations that happen which are unimaginable and that can never be relived. After many hours hunting with no success, we are about to give up when suddenly a troop of monkeys scatters across the trees. The hunters follow, taking aim in the tree tops. The camera’s eye is no match for the trained focus of the hunters. They find their mark fast and before long, they are tying dead monkeys together to carry them back through the jungle. Exhilarated by the speed and skill of our forest guides, we head back to camp just as the rain starts to fall.
Part of our return journey is by boat. There we sit, the two of us, blowpipes and cameras balanced on benches, monkeys at our feet and a group of hunters devouring the last of the snacks that we brought. Survival in the jungle is about taking the opportunities that it offers – and a camera crew’s rations are as fair game as anything else found in the canopy. Pete turns to me, waving the sandflies from his eyes, and he utters the words no traveller should speak: “Imagine if we got stuck here now”.
At that moment the boats motor clunks and we are indeed stuck – the hungry hunters and us up an Amazonian creek with no paddle! The boatmen, calm as ever, are quick in their evaluation of the situation. The motor is beyond repair but we are not beyond help. Bushe, the Matis translator who I also worked with four years ago, turns to me and instructs me to use the satellite phone to contact the village to arrange a rescue. It will be long soggy bug filled few hours before anyone can reach us. We ask Bushe what they would do without the BBC’s technological intervention. ”The forest has everything that the Matis need”, he replies and every Matis knows the paths that winds through the forest to the village.
We cover ourselves in insect repellent and lie back on the roof of the boat in beautiful resignation to the sunset and our eventual rescue. What passes in the next few hours is one of those gifts of disguised fortune – stolen time and experiences. Floating across the river, the boatmen set nets and within minutes, they have gathered a dozen fish for supper including piranha. Soon, we are back on the bank, in front of a bright fire, stabbed with sticks of fresh fish. We joke around the flames, laughing into the smoke. The fish is quickly eaten with the bizarre addition of fruit flavoured rehydration salts for those who prefer their piranha on the tropical tasting side.
Then we all wash in the river, as our socks dry on sticks over the embers. Laughing still, we clamber back onto our boat. The sunset darkens to a thick sky studded with stars and the sounds of the forest once more. Somewhere in the distance, a motor can be heard but for the moment, the jungle absorbs us entirely. It is so good to be back amongst my Matis friends.
By Rachael Kinley, Researcher, Oceans and Jungles team
There have been a few times when people, and their stories, have really choked me up on location. Often it’s in interviews, when I get the chance to ask people about their lives, motivations and past experiences. The anthropologist in me loves this pause amongst the frenetic requirements of filming, being able to linger in the moment, and ask personal questions that wouldn’t come up in day to day small talk.
My most recent interview was with Pikawaja, a member of an Awá-Guajá community living in Maranhão, Brazil. Many of the people in this community were first contacted by the outside world in 1980, but some members of the village were only reached as little as three years ago. Since contact, it’s been quite a rapid, and sometimes rocky, process of assimilation. FUNAI and the government have given them motorboats, television, a satellite dish, running water, refrigerators, cattle, horses, a health clinic and schooling.
Although at first daunted and perplexed by the stark and dramatic alterations to their lives, most Awá-Guajá now seem excited by the change. Signs of the influence of wider Brazilian society are visible all over the village; children play by acting out scenes from Rambo, teenage boys sport bleached-orange mohawks and girls have started to pluck their eyebrows. However, the Awá-Guajá are in an odd situation where they are offered tastes of the world outside their reserve, but are discouraged from leaving to embrace these wholeheartedly.
The childhood play and image-consciousness may be what’s seen on the surface, but I learn more about the increasingly complicated and more personal aspects of how the contact process has directly affected Pikawaja’s life.
Our interview begins slowly, following several relocations due to intrusive sounds from cockerels crowing and a pet howler monkey in desperate need to relieve itself. Once we reach a quiet spot, we (Pikawaja, myself, Willow Murton, who’s recording the sound and Antonio Santana, a linguistic graduate student who’s our key to Pikawaja’s thoughts) settle down to begin. As she starts, the softness of Pikawaja voice catches me off guard. When she speaks, she talks in stories, recounting events in a language where dialogue simply begins, without contextualisation.
Luckily Antonio is a master of the Guajá language and knows how to steer Pikawaja off one story onto another, to elucidate further information without breaking her flow. Her voice is quiet yet she doesn’t stutter or falter in her responses. Only once, she pauses mid-flow as her eyes glance to acknowledge her husband at the window behind me. He’s eager for Pikawaja to finish so that they can go hunting, but she stays to finish her stories. When he leaves, she recommences.
Pikawaja says that she was a young girl when the white people came and brought her family from the forest. She tells tales of gunfire and being scared that she would be killed. Without any change of tone discernable to my ear, she tells us of the personal tragedy of contact. After the white people came for them her parents developed a fever. With no medicine effective in treating the new diseases they were exposed to, they both died. She lost both parents and a brother.
Later, when Willow and I read through the translation, we are both hit by a wave of sadness. We retire early to our hammocks and painful thoughts spin around our heads. Pikawaja is now back in the forest, at a hunting camp, where she feels far happier and at home compared to village life.
Pikawaja’s is not an unusual story. Louis Forline, a leading anthropologist on location with us, who was worked with the Awá-Guajá for almost 20 years, tells me that the first Awá community to be contacted lost 75% of its members. It was mainly the elders who died, until they started to build immunity to common diseases. The Awá-Guajá have now been left with a very young demographic. With so few elders around, and a sentiment of looking to the future, their chosen village leader, who sports a fetching orange Mohawk, must barely be out of his teens.
There are now just under 400 Awá-Guajá remaining in the world. It’s estimated that around 60 of them are still uncontacted and live in the forests around where we were filming. They are currently in danger from poachers, miners, loggers and cattle ranchers who have accessed their territories and are ransacking parts of their reserve. And with part of the Carajás Mining venture’s 910km railway running along their doorsteps they really are feeling the squeeze. While FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s National Foundation for Indians, has a policy of not contacting Isolated Indians, there is talk afoot that it may be in the best interests of these last true forest dwellers to integrate them into a village, perhaps even the one we’ve been filming in.
After my interview with Pikawaja I can now start to imagine what it will be like for these uncontacted people who still live nomadically in the forest, if they too are thrown into a world of horse riding, action movies, film crews and the common cold.
The issues go far deeper than I can begin to summarise here. As Indian policy in Brazil is in a constant flux, Louis believes that prospects for the Awá-Guajá future are hanging in the balance. He’s keen to raise awareness of the Awá-Guajá and their current situation; hopefully our programme will prompt further recognition of their lives. FUNAI and healthcare organisations are among those working hard for the welfare of the Awa-Guaja, but they do not always have all the resources they need.
It’s a complicated tangle being played out amongst Amazonian groups – how to balance the changing influential factors in life and identity amidst an ever-changing set of attractions and influences.
by Ciaran Flannery, Assistant Producer, Rivers/Urban Team
Before we film Human Planet sequences sometimes we get to recce the stories first. These often are more fun and entertaining than a shoot because it’s just you and the locals without the pressures of filmmaking. One of the episodes I work on is the Rivers programme and no Rivers programme could be complete without a sequence on the mightiest river of all: the Amazon.
Recently I spent a few weeks in the Amazon researching stories about river dolphins. The Amazon is one of those places that is so immense and overwhelming that film alone cannot do it justice. The sheer volume of water must be seen to be believed. And one of the most intriguing creatures that inhabit these waters is the rare and usually secretive Amazonian river dolphin.
For the first couple of days I was travelling to spots a few hours outside of Manaus to test the visibility of the Rio Negro for filming underwater dolphin shots. I readied my snorkel and fins and slid into the water with my camera and housing, I soon discovered that you can’t see more than 2 metres. I knew the dolphins in this area were human habituated but you can imagine my surprise and slight shock when almost immediately a pink proboscis rose between my legs. Up close and extremely personal! The dolphins are used to getting fish handouts from the locals but were obviously extremely excited by the arrival of an underwater camera kit.
The following day the local guide and I set out to check out another dolphin location some 300 km away. Many hours down the track and about 40 km from our destination the Trans-Amazonian highway turned to a sea of mud. I then discover that our driver had never used a locking hub 4×4 system before. I was brought up in the American Deep South where I used to race and slide cars thorough mudded out parking lots (Dukes of Hazzard fashion!). Later I moved out west and was the proud owner of a hot purple 4×4 pickup which needed H4 traction in the deep sands of the Gulf of California and the deep snows of the Rockies.
For the first time ever my misspent youth suddenly became less misspent! I was able to instruct the macho Brazilians about the fine art of shimmying a truck forward. We managed another 5km but the mighty muds of the flooded Amazon proved to be more than our match and we were forced to turn back – 18 hours of driving and we only had 30 km to go! But at least I got to show the locals how a good ol’ boy from Georgia mudbogs.
Exhausted but safe back at the hotel the next day I got an instant message from a colleague stranded on a shoot in the middle of a blizzard in the Arctic. That’s too bad! I thought – might as well have another caipirinha at the hotel pool as I type my notes…