by Elen Rhys, Producer, Little Human Planet
When delightful Dale Templar told me that Human Planet had been commissioned, my brain immediately started working overtime. Waw, what a great opportunity for a children’s spin off on CBeebies. Surely, if they would be filming humans in far flung and remote locations around the world, they were bound to be meeting children too. What a unique chance to work alongside this huge landmark commission to create something special for the BBC’s youngest viewers. And basically, that is how the CBeebies commission, Little Human Planet came to be.
Little Human Planet is a little sister series to Human Planet. It consists of 16 x 5 mins programmes that will be broadcast during the same period as the main series – but of course, at a time when 3-6 year olds are at their most attentive.
It’s a simple idea with a simple format. Each programme follows a typical activity in the life of a child from around the world – a glimpse to a CBeebies viewer of how their counterparts live, wherever they may be. On reflection, an unspoken celebration of what makes children different and what makes them the same in a colourful and often surprising voyage of discovery.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to pack my passport to film the sequences. This was done by the brilliant Human Planet location teams. Yes, we liaised closely together regarding style and vision, understanding that certain things like nudity or blood and gore couldn’t be used. Naturally, this proved difficult in certain locations where few clothes, if any are worn and hunting for food is the norm. I was never sure what I was going to get, only crossing my fingers they would meet some children and film some magic moments . I’m used to having a bit more control, so this was quite difficult for me but I soon realised I needn’t have worried.
Each time a team came back with special Little Human Planet labelled footage it was like the anticipation and excitement of opening Christmas present. Who would, Dan Young, my editor and I meet this time? Could it be Dua, a six-year-old girl who lives in a tree house in a jungle in Papua or mischievous four-year-old, Carlos Eduardo, who lives on the flooded banks of the Rio Negro? Or how about four-year-old Shoree helping her dad build a ger home in Mongolia, or three-year-old Edjongon, who walks long distances each day to collect water from a well in Mali? Even though I have never met these fascinating characters, I feel as if I know them. And though the children’s experiences, circumstances and environments differ hugely, I learnt that at heart children are all the same and their smiles are universal.
Yet, paradoxes come to light. Without generalising, many of these children and families have very little, but yet, seem contented where community and sharing is a way of life. It taught me a lot and got me thinking..As a mum to a six-year-old, have we in the Western world lost our perspective ?
I am honoured, grateful and proud to be a tiny part of the Human Planet family and I hope there will be more opportunities like this in the future. If so, can I please come next time?
Dale Templar – Series Producer
Here’s hoping - Elen!
Little Human Planet is one of spin-offs programmes and extras that are part of the Human Planet . We have already had a post from our team at BBC, Radio Three working on Music Planet and in a few weeks we’ll have one from our BBC Learning team. They are using our footage to make programmes that will be used as teaching aids in scools.
by Roger Short, Producer, BBC Radio 3
Yes indeed, as Andy Kershaw tells us on his promo video, filmed recently in Papua New Guinea, he and Lucy Duran are currently travelling the globe for a new eight-part series of world music programmes. Music Planet will be a companion series for BBC One’s major new natural history project Human Planet, presenting the music of some of the cultures featured in the TV series.
As I write, Andy is on his way to Thailand, there to join producer James Parkin and engineer James Birtwistle for a trip that includes Laos and Burma; tomorrow Lucy Duran and I, with engineer Martin Appleby, head off on a rather shorter haul to Galicia in northern Spain – this is for a feature on how the local traditions are influenced by music from across the sea (and did you know there was a mass migration of Britons buying villas in northern Spain in the sixth century, bringing Celtic culture to that part of the world?).
Just as Human Planet shows how people relate to their landscape and environment, in Music Planet, we’re showing how all this is reflected in the local music. So far Lucy has visited Madagascar, Kenya, Greenland and Mali, and Andy has been to the Solomon Islands as well as Papua New Guinea. There’s plenty more before the series broadcasts early next year. If you’re interested, we’ll let you know how we get on…
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!
by Robin Cox, Human Planet Cameraman
Mamadou is our “David”. He’s only sixteen, with a small but strong frame, delicate features and a gentle demeanour. He is perfect for the role. Our Goliath is an elephant, a bull, one of a herd of desert elephants that share with Mamadou the watering hole of Banzena on which they both depend for survival in Mali’s arid Sahel desert. His arsenal is just a small handful of sticks.
A year ago Mamadou met his Goliath in a pitched battle on the shore of the lake. Having been without water for two days, his herd of fifty cows were gagging for a drink but the elephants had got there first, and they were not going to move aside. What followed in the moments afterwards we fortuitously captured on film. It was not the story we planned for the shoot, but it was perfect. Immediately after the battle was won, Mamadou and his cattle had drunk their fill and man and cows vanished back into the Sahel. Unbeknown to him, our “David” had been cast, and a mission had begun to seek him out and film more of his story. A search was launched across the many small nomadic settlements scattered over miles and miles of desert. A photo of our wanted man was presented at each stop and finally, after three days, he was found. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, he was terrified, and he went into hiding for fear that he might be in trouble for his stick missile attack on the elephants. He was soon found again, reassured and eventually talked into letting us tell his tale.
I am here in Mali a year later to finish the sequence. Not present on the original shoot, I am introduced to Mamadou. Like many we have left behind around the world, he has become pretty well versed in the techniques of film making and now, having been able to see the previous year’s results, he is beginning to comprehend what on earth it is that we are trying to achieve. He knows that when I (the cameraman) say “speed” and the director says “action” it means that he should be doing something. Whether or not we have succeeded in conveying adequately what that something should be is another matter! Most of all he knows that hearing the phrase “just one last time” means it will probably not be the last time and it will most likely be ages before we are happy with the shot.
Generally we communicate without words and I act things out or use crude signs… faster, slower, closer, quieter, gentler. It’s a source of constant amusement for all. Much of the communication between us is by facial expression alone. Amusement, bemusement, anger, frustration, exhaustion and a myriad of other feelings are almost always clear to see in each others faces, with no need for translation. These things are universal. With these aids and cheeky smiles, we’ve got to know each other, and had some fun in the searing heat, sandstorms and mud.
Mamadou is in many ways as civilised a young man as you are likely to meet, gracious, kind, and intelligent. He carries himself with dignity despite a life spent in the desert living a nomadic herder’s life which I can only really describe as “old testament”. However he is wholly uneducated, quite unwashed and crudely dressed. Despite all this he is just as much a modern man as any one pacing the streets of London – just without all the gab, garments and gadgets.
On many occasions I have had the notion that I recognise something peculiarly familiar in a person, a characteristic, an inflection in the voice, sometimes combined with a facial expression, and it is like déjà vu. Today I realised that Mamadou is reminding me of someone. As he’s the only African cattle herder I know it’s not somebody just like him, but it is somebody just like him. There’s a theory, so I was once told, that there are only twelve (or was it twenty?) character types in the world. It’s rather simplifying things I know, and I don’t think anyone has ever successfully catalogued them, but my experiences this year of meeting so many far flung strangers have often borne it out. And Mamadou is reminding me of someone.
This sort of thing happens a lot, yesterday for example…. We’re out in the desert looking for lake-bound elephants when Meddi, our local Mali elephant expert, speaks to us through the door of the car. His gun is slung over his shoulder, he’s wearing a long cotton gown and a blue turban, his skin is dark, coarse and leathery from the relentless sun, he looks, and is, utterly exotic. As I listen to the conversation, ears half closed and not understanding hardly a word, I suddenly realise he reminds me so much of an old acquaintance from London, a Glaswegian red-headed accountant. I recognise him absolutely as being just like him, both the same type, and suddenly I know him so much better. Of course, the appearance of the two men could not be more different, but they share the same somewhat glazed look in their eyes, they have the same uncertain smile and both speak with a soft but deliberate tone. Their physiques are even alike, as though their flesh has grown upon their character, they are both lean and stringy. In so many ways they could be brothers.
This phenomenon has happened many times in the past few years with Human Planet and other projects. I have met a Nepalese porter who is just like my Wiltshire builder, hunted whales in Indonesia with a man much like my uncle Malcolm, met a tribal wife in India who reminds me of a nun from my convent school days and fixed fog nets with a Chilean man who reminds me of Pavarotti! I’ve begun to seek out the likenesses. First I recognise something familiar, sometimes instantly, sometimes gradually, then I rifle through the people I know, and have known and try to find the link. With no visual reference I hold up their characteristics in my mind like a photo, seeking out the person in my nomadic life who I know is just like them, though sometimes they fail to come to mind, like a forgotten tune. I am still working on Mamadou, but I know I know someone else just like him and I’m sure he won’t be a cattle herder.
by Cecilia Hue, Assistant Producer, Deserts and Grasslands team
I’ve had to do a few strange things on shoots. But playing hide and seek with a herd of thirsty desert elephants – and discovering the back of a cow was the perfect hiding place – well, that’s a first.
To get close enough to film the desert elephants of Mali, who make up for their poor eye sight with an incredibly developed sense of smell, we have to draw on new reserves of cunning – that means foregoing sun lotion in soaring desert temperatures and ensuring we are downwind so they don’t spot us and decide to charge. Or, even worse, disappear into the Sahel, a strip of sub-Saharan land that stretches for 2400 miles from Mauritania to Sudan.
The games we have to play are frustrating for the cameraman, Richard Kirby, who has filmed elephants before in Kenya and in India, and has always managed to get right up close. Learning the hard way that these elephants are very wild and camera shy, we’ve ended up having to shoot from a distance of 40 metres.
After driving for three days across a barren and unremarkable landscape to the sounds of Salif Keita’s album ‘Folon’, we’re finally in the elephant reserve of Gourma, south of Timbuktu and are rewarded by the amazing spectacle of Lake Banzena. It’s the main source of water in the region at this time of year, and the place is teeming with wildlife. I’ve never seen so much life concentrated in one place before – thousands of cattle dotted around the lake, millions of quelea birds performing a beautifully choreographed ballet around us, and several herds of elephants busily slurping water and rolling around in the mud. It’s stunning. I feel very privileged to be here.
Luckily, not all the stars of our show are such tricky customers as the elusive elephants. Mamadou, our character and cattle herder, is a joy to work with, even when I ask him to do the same thing several times in 45 degree heat so we can film the action from different angles and get it right. Yet simply passing on instructions is no easy task. Often on location, I can speak the language spoken in the country but this time it’s different: there are about 20 different ethnic languages in Mali and not everyone speaks French.
Mamadou speaks Fufulde, the language of a nomadic tribe called the Fulani. So every time I speak to him my sentence is translated from French into Tamashek and then from Tamashek into Fulfulde. It’s way too complicated, so I decide to learn a few key words: ‘Alekate’ – ‘please do it again’ – comes in very handy. And all his hard work pays off. He’s really pleased with the shots.
It’s my second time in Mali, but this time I’m here to direct my first sequence for Human Planet. And it’s a tough shoot – whatever could’ve gone wrong, for some reason, has. Two generators break down and fry our camera chargers so we aren’t able to film anything for a couple of days – we experience the mother of sandstorms and our fixer goes down with a kidney stone and has to be evacuated. And then it starts raining and all the elephants abandon the lake and our filming set! All this happens in one long day!!
Every day throws a different challenge at us. But I try to keep smiling all along and I have to admit that, if it hadn’t been for the amazing spirit and efforts of the team around me, Richard, Sophie, Abbie, and our fantastic fixers and drivers we wouldn’t have made it!! S o when we finally get the sequence in the can we are all exhausted… but very happy indeed.