by Mihali Moore, Camera Assistant
I thought I had been to remote places in the past, but this trip proved that there is always somewhere further and more isolated than you think. Two flights, a long drive across politically unstable territory, a choice of a four hour trek through jungle or a three hour trip on a rickety truck. An experience that we were told (and can confirm) was like your shirt going through a tumble dryer with you still wearing it! Having trekked for a few hours, it was getting dark and the sound of the truck was music to our ears – or so we thought! After ten seconds of driving aboard, I instantly regretted it. It was terrifying. I lost count of the times I thought it was going to tip over. Perhaps the chap next to me had the right idea. Reeking of whiskey, I don’t think he was worried about anything. Luckily the truck got stuck near the camp and we gladly walked the last twenty minutes by foot. The truck would later be rescued by our pachyderm friends and brought to its final destination.
Nonetheless we arrived safe and sound in the evening to the camp that would be our home for the next two weeks. Our fixer had done an impressive job. We found a selection of individual tents with camp beds, cooking equipment, tables, lights and even power sockets in each one. Mod cons in the deep jungle. Not bad at all!
The next day we met some of the elephants for the first time and carried out a recce of the area for filming spots. I had never been this close to these animals before and was instantly struck by their majestic grace. Wary of our presence, you could tell they knew something was up. We also had the pleasure of meeting the elephant contractor. With his penchant for whiskey and the way the others behaved around him, it was clear he wanted to be perceived as the boss. During our numerous encounters with him, we would find ourselves having to respect his customs and offers of whiskey, whilst listening to his thoughts on what the world would be like without water?!? On the subject of water, it had started to rain. Monsoon season was round the corner and the chances of nicely backlit elephants working in harmony were looking slim.
It was amazing to see how these creatures worked. They can understand up to 65 commands and push heavy logs around as if they were twigs. Each elephant has its own mahout, a young man who perches atop the elephant and ‘drives’ him. Using commands and pressure with their feet, the mahout can direct, steer and command the elephant at a remarkable pace. Keeping up with them wasn’t easy and it’s clear that using the elephant is the only way to get the job done. Ramprashad was our main elephant and he was an impressive size. Whilst slightly apprehensive of us at first, he soon warmed to us and even let us ride him for a bit. In fact all the elephants seemed to accept us quite quickly. At one point I remember standing on a track in a melee of elephants that were trying to push a laden truck up a muddy slope. All I could see was wrinkly skin. I looked at Robin Cox, our cameraman, (to whom I was tethered). He was breathing in deeply and arching his back, desperately trying to fit into a gap between the dense jungle face and an elephant’s belly.
What I found remarkable is the mutual understanding between the mahout and elephant. The elephant will only work for a few hours and if it doesn’t want to do something it quite simply will not. The mahout diligently washes and feeds him each day, which strengthens the bond between the two of them. Each evening the elephant is released into the jungle to roam free. The next day the mahout must look for the animal, which, despite its freedom, won’t have gone far. The chains go on and the elephant knows it’s back to work, a true example of beast and man working in harmony. It was a real privilege to see this unique and rare tradition in action. You’ll get to get to see the reason why we were filming this partnership in 2011. Hopefully we provided a good story for the series!
by Robin Cox, freelance cameraman, Human Planet
Snow covered our footsteps as we retreated from Pidmo. It had been snowing on and off for a week, the flat roofs of every mud brick house were thick with it and the residents acknowledged our departure as they shovelled their rooftops.
Three days earlier we had advanced downstream on the frozen Zanskar river from Zangla, a mere 8.5km, with the intention that we would progress further the next day to begin our filming. The Chadar, or “sheet” as the iced river is known in winter, had proved to be in poor shape that day. Sections of solid ice gave way frequently to slushy margins and became impassable so we had to resort to the river banks, ploughing through waist deep snow. It was exhausting in the extreme, no step ever finding a sound footing. Two of our heavily laden porters had been ekeing out every bit of open ice when they overwhelmed the thin crust and crashed through. Climbing out, soaked to the skin, they marched on before they froze. No surprise then, that on our arrival at Pidmo morale was low.
The week’s snow had wrecked the length of the Chadar, a hundred avalanches had swooped down onto the ice, puncturing the river’s skin and damming its flow. The pressure then built beneath the surface of the ice and blew huge holes in the ice sheet, as though a giant’s fist had struck it. Water had flooded over the ice, flushing loose shards down stream till they piled up like flotsam against the snowy dam. Some less fortunate than us had been walking on the river when the avalanches occurred. One man, a worker building a new road in the valley, was trapped under an avalanche and sadly perished; others had been forced to wade up to their waists through the icy flood waters to reach safety.
Our mission was to film eleven children and seven fathers as they walked the six day trek along the frozen river from Zangla, a 4000m high mountain village in the Zanskar region of the Tibetan Plateau. Their destination the town of Leh, where the children were being returning to school after the winter holiday. This yearly pilgrimage is routine for the people of the area. The Chadar forms a seasonal highway through stunning gorges, allowing relatively easy access out of the mountains, impossible by road during the winter months when the mountain passes are closed by snow. It is usually traversed without great difficulty and we ourselves had walked upstream on smooth firm ice just a week before with smiles on our faces. The river had been alive with local people marching in both directions, carrying goods of all kinds.
We had been told that in living memory there had been no deaths in avalanches and only two deaths due to drowning when the ice had given way in the spring. We had felt confident that our return trip would be just as easy. To be extra cautious we had left an extra week to make it down the river well before the end of February when traditionally the ice begins to melt and the Chadar becomes perilous. This year the un-seasonal snow had changed everything, and it began to seem as if our film was ill-fated.
Now we found ourselves in retreat – a great caravan of fifty porters carrying our 600Kg of film kit, camping gear and supplies. Days earlier when we started optimistically from Zangla, we had begun to hear the bad news… ‘the worst Chadar I have ever seen’ said one local when we arrived in Pidmo and dissent began to spread through our porters. A meeting was held with the fathers and guides while the porters had their own out in the snow, a shop stewards meeting of a kind. The consensus was not good, nobody was willing to go further so a retreat back to Zangla was the only option.
The river was torturously hard going so we walked on the road, relentlessly trudging in deep snow, navigating a path by telegraph poles, a beaten army returning from battle. The 8.5km took an aching six and a half hours; it was last light as we clawed our way into Zangla and back up the steps of Stanzin’s house, one of the fathers with whom we were staying. We collapsed - the altitude and snow had pushed us to the extreme. Too breathless to talk, David the director asked me to phone the producer, Mark Flowers, back in the UK to let him know of our retreat. Over the next 24 hours a plan to evacuate by helicopter formed and we contemplated abandoning the film.
There was only one chance to save the situation. The fathers told us that given a good spell of clear cold weather, just maybe the ice would heal and we could try again. We decided to sit it out. Next morning the sun shone in a deep blue sky. Hopes were raised and rescue postponed. One clear day followed another as we eagerly awaited news of an arrival from downriver that would signify it was once more passable. We played ball with Stanzin’s daughter and son, Dolkar and Chosing, on the rooftop whilst our guides kept an eye on the distant river. We washed our stinking thermals and waited… but no-one came.
Fears grew that the Chadar was finished for the year. We were washed around in a sea of consternation, trying to find a way to rescue the film before we were evacuated. Finally we formed a plan: we would film with just Stanzin and his two children walking as far as they could before being forced to turn back by the obstacle that lay somewhere downstream… at least we would have something to show for our toil. So three days after returning beaten to Zangla we set out once more for the river. We followed the trail of a snow-plough clearing the route to the road builders’ camp to bring home the dead worker’s body. Like a funeral procession, we followed the rattling machine to the ramshackle camp; the atmosphere in the camp was sobering. The porters again began to lose heart and more negotiations followed. Having successfully talked them round, we set out early the next morning.
It was icy cold, -30C, a bitter but sweet climate in light of our prayers for the Chadar to be safe. We clambered over the avalanches in silence, spread out to minimise risk, and advancing as fast as we could to get past the east facing slopes before the heat of the rising sun caused further falls. By lunchtime we had arrived safely back on the frozen river. The section we found ourselves on seemed solid enough, but as we ventured downstream the havoc the avalanches had wrought on the river became obvious, and there were still monumental obstacles out of sight for still no-one appeared from downstream. We filmed for two days, making the most of the weather until we reached a pool of open water only negotiable by means of clambering over a narrow rocky ledge. What seemed impossible for us to negotiate, seemed a breeze for the kids, but we felt we could go not go further with our equipment and returned to camp for the night. It seemed our story was over, all that remained to do were a few shots the following morning and then we would retreat to await the airlift. We had done our best in the circumstances.
I awoke the next morning to the familiar sleeping bag, iced by my night’s breath. There was much chatter in the camp and the chef was singing and shouting, which was not unusual, but there was a good vibe in the air. We gradually surfaced, squeezing into our rock hard boots and many thermal layers. Nick, the sound recordist, (always first into the mess tent for hot tea with chef) was greeted by good news. Max, David and I joined him and heard it too. That morning, at the crack of dawn, two men had arrived from down river, they had made it, the ice was apparently back, rough in places but sound and passable… suddenly our story was saved. Later that morning, twenty-one days after leaving Leh, we began to walk the Chadar to school with Dolkar, Chosing and Stanzin and the real film began. I have never known such a roller coaster of a shoot, or ever been away so long and achieved so little with the very real prospect of coming home empty handed.
We reached the school in Leh on the last day of the holidays and proudly sent Dolkar in her crisp new uniform with her brother through the school gates to begin their new term. Mission complete, we headed for the comfort of a hotel. Father Stanzin turned on his heel to start the return trip back to Zangla. He was only halfway through his journey, but as usual he took it in his stride.
by Mark Flowers, Producer/Director Rivers/Urban team
The most heart-stealing and downright soul- enhancing benefit of working on a Human Planet shoot is the children we encounter while we are filming. It’s unbelievably refreshing to step outside of a regulated, fast-paced and impersonal modern, urban society and meet people who live in a more open, communal and for me personally, a far more “Human” way.
The children we met during our trip to film living root bridges in one of the most remote areas of North-East India were fantastic – cheeky, smart and funny.
To the young people who live in isolated hill villages in the rainforests of Meghalaya, the arrival of a gangly bunch of giant, pale-skinned strangers, brandishing weird black boxes, screens and cables, was the most surprising thing to happen in a long while. The circus had come to town!
Within minutes of us stepping out of the cars, there were bright eyes at the windows and small hands waving from the homes we passed. High pitched “hellos” echoed all around while tiny toddlers stood dumb struck for a few seconds in doorways and then exploded into howls. Dogs barked and sulky, caged cuckoos crooned from dark corners.
Whenever we set up to film very quickly we were surrounded in a small lava flow of children, far to shy to talk to us individually, but en masse, well that’s different, isn’t it? Whenever we got the camera out we were mobbed!
The funny thing was that we were hoping to shoot short stories for our sister production, working title “Little Human Planet”, showing how children live in different parts of the world. This depended on the little people we were hoping to film behaving as if the camera wasn’t there: Fat- chance!
We soon realised that if we were to get any shots that looked even vaguely natural, the crowd of children needed to be distracted, and that meant entertaining them. Guess who had to do the entertaining: Me. Yikes!
Just so you know I am a greying man in early middle age. I am not a totally serious person but as a director on location I have a role to play out, a reputation to maintain. I have to be seen to be in charge! Usually you’d find me in earnest conversation with the team, or looking sternly down my monitor checking that each shot is right.
I didn’t have a white rabbit, I don’t know any tricks, so the only thing I could think of to do instantly was to sing! it was raining too , I had an umbrella – so I started with “I’m singing in the rain” but soon moved on to nursery rhymes to keep the “show” on the road.
I am not sure if the footage of the crowd and the children will end up being used as everyone looks very surprised or is laughing, but the most magical thing is that the little children joined in with me. Incredibly in such a remote part of the world they knew “Baa Baa black sheep” and “Twinkle Twinkle little star”! The memory of singing in the rain with little children holding technicolour parasols is a memory I will always cherish.
Here is a clip. Unbeknown to me, Richard our cameraman turned the movie camera on me and caught me during my act. Enjoy!