by Cecilia Hue, Assistant Producer, Deserts/Grasslands Team
This is my last filming trip for ‘Human Planet’ and I am going back to Mali, which has become my second home since I joined the Bristol team a couple of years ago. The journey starts with the most extraordinary beginning, the stuff of Hollywood movies. A volcano which no-one has ever heard of, with an unpronounceable name, erupts in Iceland and spews so much volcanic ash into the air that European air space has ground to a halt – the morning we were supposed to fly to Mali! What would normally take five and half hours by plane ends up taking over 100 hours! Our production co-ordinator Isabelle Corr cool as a cucumber, as ever, (see photo below!) cunningly devises a roundabout route via ferry to northern Spain, a drive to Madrid and two flights that finally land us in Bamako, Mali.
We are determined to make it in time for an event which only takes place once a year: a fishing festival in the desert, possibly the most dramatic sequence in the Deserts programme. Once in Mali we still have a two-day journey by road before we get to location. It is incredibly hot, 45 degrees (which for those who have never experienced it feels like having your head stuck in an oven ), we get punctures, and an incredible sandstorm which leaves the whole team caked in a layer of orange dust. We look as if we’ve all been ‘Tangoed’!
We finally arrive in the Dogon village of Bamba, built among boulders at the foot of an incredible 500 m high escarpment which cuts through the monotony of the Sahel for over a hundred miles. Everything here is parched as the dry season reaches its peak, leaving only one sacred pond full of catfish (which have retreated to this last haven as all the rivers dried up).
It’s 7am on Saturday 24th April. The day of the fishing festival has finally arrived. The Dogon are very superstitious. Women are not allowed anywhere near the sacred pond. As I am the only woman in the team I am gently ushered away from the scene by my fixer. I am told that I might lose my fertility if I stay. Frankly, I am not prepared to take any risks so I join the other women in the village. They are all busily getting ready for the celebration – braiding their hair and pounding millet for the big feast.
In the meantime, the crew is preparing to film the fishing frenzy which will last no more than 15 minutes and is unrepeatable for religious reasons. There’s no room for error. 4000 bare-chested men -including our character Amadou – have turned up to the pond the size of an Olympic swimming pool, armed with their cone-shaped fishing baskets, ready to charge in. They hope to catch a fish or two. If they do, they believe it will bring good rains and a subsequent abundant harvest for their family and their village.
Our character is fortunate to have made it to the festival. The day before, he almost got kidnapped from the film set by a mob of angry men from the neighbouring village. We had caused deep offence by bringing his fishing basket onto their territory. We soon discovered that the basket was a painful reminder of the village’s defeat against Bamba in the battle for control over the pond. We had made a terrible basket faux pas! We apologized profusely to Amadou’s arch enemies and were asked to give a small payment to repair the harm.
To see the full story of the fishing festival, look out for the “Human Planet” Deserts programme!