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 Rachael Kinley, Researcher, Oceans and Jungles team
Of the three months that I’ve been on location for Human Planet Oceans shoots, over half of this time has been spent waiting for fish to appear. Off the shores of three continents, from sunrise to sunset, we’ve searched the open seas desperately hoping for some ‘sign’ that they are on their way.
First it was waiting for migrating mullet in Mauritania. The idea was to film with the Imraguen people who inhabit the Bank D’Arguin National Park and fish the huge numbers of mullet that pass through their waters each year. Every day for two weeks we optimistically headed out to sea in the fishermen’s dhows, but the mullet never arrived. Was it the moon, the wind or the water temperature? We will probably never know but after much debate we reluctantly decided to call off the shoot.
Then we moved on to Laguna on the coast of southern Brazil to try again to film a similar story. It was hard to decide when was the best time to go as the local fishermen seemed to have wildly conflicting ideas of when the mullet season actually occurred. In the end we embarked on our trip in mid May and although at first it looked as if we were going to be unlucky for a second time, after spending three weeks on location we finally managed to film fishermen hauling in impressive numbers of fish.
OK, so we were successful, but it was touch and go for quite a while and I swore I would never go on another shoot that depended on fish turning up. But what do you know, this October I was off again on another wild fish chase. This time it was off the coast of Palawan in the Philippines, sailing for fourteen hours a day for seven days with deep sea diving fishermen desperate to land a big catch. Sitting out at sea on a boat in the tropics, overlooking palm tree fringed sandy beaches, is not the worst place in the world to be left in limbo, but after days on end of no filming opportunities and burning our budget, even paradise can lose its appeal. But as so often seems to be the case on Human Planet shoots, on the very last day we finally managed to net something spectacular enough to make the cut.
We had what we needed, but I was dismayed to hear that even this catch was half the size of those that the fishermen said they used to get. The problem was not that the people had been lying to us about when and where the fish come in, nor that they had lost their traditional skills, but that there are no longer plenty of fish in the sea. Although newspapers and documentaries such as End of the Line tell us that global fish stocks are declining, as we still see plenty of fish on our supermarket shelves, it is all too easy to ignore the warnings.
I myself was aware of the problem, but it was really brought home to me by witnessing first hand how barren the seas of the world have become. At first the persistent lack of fish on our shoots seemed little more than the annoying bad luck that can plague any film shoot, but talking to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on maritime resources, I have become increasingly aware that diminishing fish stocks are becoming a huge problem affecting millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Having seen just how hard the lives of some of these people are already, I hate to think how they will survive if the fish disappear altogether.
Dale Templar – Series Producer – Human Planet
Heartache for Haiti
About six months ago, I sent assistant producer Willow off to do a recce in Haiti. We were looking for a place to show the huge destructive force of hurricanes and Haiti is regularly caught in the path of the worst storms that sweep through the Caribbean. Ironically, we never filmed in Haiti; in the 2009 season the hurricanes chose other paths. It was a bitter-sweet failure for the series. Willow and I were both aware we’d wasted time and money but also felt secretly pleased that the people of Haiti had escaped yet more devastation and destruction for another year. We could never have imagined the cruel twist of fate that would hit them just months later. Of all the places on Earth for a earthquake of this magnitude to hit. On her trip , Willow was given an insight into the desperation, poverty and hopelessness faced by the majority of the Haitian population. Hours after the earthquake, she and I talked on the phone, both unable to take in the enormity of the disaster. She had been there, I had made films after the Kobe Earthquake in Japan and in Banda Ache following the Boxing Day Tsunami. The hearts of the Human Planet team go out to the people of Haiti. Maybe, just maybe, something good will come from this.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Jungles/Oceans team
My journey as a “soundie” began in the hot, Sahara desert of Algeria. (For those of you who may be wondering, a “soundie” is the job of a sound recordist. On this shoot, Willow – who is our assistant producer on Oceans and Jungles – stepped in to help the Deserts team, who on this occasion were not able to take a professional recordist on location – from Dale Templar – Series Producer) In a melting frustration of entangled cables, dying batteries and conflicting noises, I remembered the words of a soundman from another trip some years ago. Pete was, he admitted, on a perpetual quest for silence. I understand now as I had not before. Pete, I have joined you on your quest for silence: pure, empty silence. Even the quietest moments in the Sahara have been full of sound.
I have had to learn quickly on this journey. Firstly, as you might expect, the world of sound has nothing to do with the look of things – I am all about the noise. So there I stand, like some style-less parody of a desert cowboy with my cable lassoes, gun mic on hip, dark rim of a fading sun hat and the closest thing to a trusty steed being a stubborn donkey. He looks at me with discernible mirth, flicks his long ears and lets out a bellow. I re-set my levels.
The other lessons follow: that the boldest person on screen may not speak with the most confident or eloquent voice; the quietest voice may give the most melodious song and the softest whisper can echo noisily. I learnt the hard way that children can scream very loudly on a football pitch when a goal is scored - my mixer and I are still recovering. I wouldn’t say I’ve come to love my cables but I appreciate velcro and cable ties more than I would ever have thought. I’ve developed sympathy for the soundman’s plight of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time as I dodge my own shadow, the cameraman, my trailing cables and the football back on that pitch. The look is still not a good one but I have rediscovered headscarves – headphones bulge under that hat and I hold my boom at jaunty angles. I redefine myself – at times I am On Speed and dynamic and at the flip of a switch, I transform to Off Speed and phantom powered.
My soundie guise lends me a proximity and a pass into another world with the tune of water flowing freely from wells and the rasping breath of the wind on sand. At times, you wish for greater distance. Roads many miles away rumble into uninhabited landscapes and people’s voices appear over an empty horizon. There is also definitely something rather uncomfortable in the intimate sound of a stranger heavily breathing into your ears.
There may be times when I wish for silence but with my headphones on, I have discovered a secret world of unimaginable sound – the orchestra of the garden with its palm percussion and insect chatter, the varying pitches of a simple stringed instrument, waterfalls of pouring tea and the subtleties of the dawn song.
And by the way, whoever burped during morning prayers, you know who you are and so do I.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Oceans/Jungles team
9th October 2009
This time a year ago, I flew to La Paz in Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world and there, short of breath and cheeks full of Andean colour, I began life on the Human Planet team. I type this blog now under the stifling heat of the Algerian Sahara, many miles from those early cool heights.
Sometimes it is good to stop and reflect. There has not been much time over the last year for moments to look back – so much looking forward into the matrix of kit lists, itineraries and budgets that the months and the countries can go by.
This October evening, we gathered on a carpet outside under the date palms and the eager gaze of the local well workers who we have been filming with. Swirls of white turbans and the excited movement of children surround a small screen as we play out clips of what we have filmed over the last few days. They watch the images and the sounds they have patiently repeated in order to get just the right shot, in the right light. They laugh and we relax. This is one of the best moments of film-making, sharing the work of crew and contributors. We hope all our ridiculous demands make some kind of sense when seen on screen, and we too begin to understand more as questions bounce between us.
The claustrophobia of the small tunnel where we have been filming opens out into the warm evening. Small glasses of sweet mint tea are passed about amongst the comments. Filming is a demanding and long process which the workers have participated in with huge patience and good humour. In order to give them a glimpse of how the final film may come together, as well as a chilly insight into another underground world, we put on an edit from an Arctic sequence. There we are, warm in the evening air, watching people wrapped up from icy cold. There are gasps when I say that the temperature there is thirty degrees below Celsius. The days here in the desert are usually thirty degrees above and not unusually much higher. Beneath the arid surface of the Sahara, the workers here have dug through thick red clay to make tunnels to feed an ever-growing irrigation system. They cannot believe the effort of these distant Arctic dwellers as they dig into frozen crevasses. They are even more incredulous when they realise why. What the Inuit consider a gastronomic delicacy, the workers of the Sahara struggle to imagine edible. The frozen walls of an igloo protecting those inside from the cruel cold of the Arctic belong to another world, far from the rich red buildings of this small village, where people seek shade from a relentless burning sun.
Yet, further North, the Arctic is beginning its own dark turn to the winter once more. This year on Human Planet has spanned continents and captured moments of incredible feats, emotion and beauty. As the workers leave to sleep before they are called to prayer again and back to their work, I contemplate a year which has taken me to a frontline in the Simien mountains, above Greenlandic glaciers, into the path of avalanches, under sea ice and onto its floe edge, from Arctic darkness to midnight sun, from the green of a desert oasis to the barren hillsides of a Caribbean island. Like the Andean heights where I began, it takes my breath away.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Oceans/Jungles team
Leaving Haiti I say my goodbyes and hope that I don’t visit the people that I have come to know again this year. For the first time after a recce, I really do hope that I don’t come back. Because if I do, it means the people of Haiti will have been hit yet again by a destructive storm.
For many people, Haiti is synonymous with violence, gun fire cracking over destitute slums, the sound of voodoo drums, a dark mysticism. When I said that I was coming here, some friends looked at me with envy and said that they had always dreamt of going on holiday to Tahiti. Those who heard right looked at me with curious interest and concern. Their eyes were full of the preconceptions that spring from a country whose history begins for many with disease and exploitation. More recently, it has been written by the devastating statistics of its poverty and the language of disaster in the face of social unrest and tropical storms which have hit the country. And so I set off, with the envious gaze of the mistaken and the worried glances of the better informed.
Recces are one of the best parts of this job. You get to be professionally nosey and personally privileged in places that you would never visit otherwise. This is certainly one trip that I would not have imagined making and it still does not feel real until the doors of Port-au-Prince airport open. The tensions and aggressions that I expected to meet me in the Haitian capital are nowhere to be seen. I am struck by the apparent calm, masked in the chaotic bustle of the traffic and roadside. A bored UN policeman, a check point on a road dented with potholes, intercut with colourful tap-tap pick-ups crammed with people. Whilst I have a glimpse of the reality of life about me, I too am on the sidelines, looking out at the passing world. This feeling comes back to me time and time again on the trip. Perhaps it is the distance between the cool air-conditioned rooms of the hotels where we stay at night and the hot, dusty shacks that we visit in the day.
The shoot however will be an immersion, literally. Following a family through a storm and following floods is not something that is easy to plan. I have become an amateur storm chaser, scouring weather charts and learning the grammar of waves and wind. For all the guidance that I am given, there is no way to predict the track of the storms with any certainty. Had there been a way, the people of Gonaives would surely not have found themselves so unprepared for the four storms that struck the town last year, bringing deadly floods and taking lives and homes.
Mountains of dusty rubble dug from the houses still sit in the streets, flanked by blocked canals, lottery stalls and the wrecked shells of cars. At the edge of the ocean, a small group of fishermen gather, making boats and talking, as children and pigs run about amongst piles of empty conch shells. A little boy flies a kite, made from a plastic bag, over a cluster of ramshackle huts. On a door, the words “Site Ana” are sprayed. The settlement is new, named after the storm, Hurricane Hanna, that took the previous homes of the settlers. Children swim in the pools of water beyond, around the ruins of a building she flooded. Crude fishing boats sail out over former salt plots. Life continues in the remains of the storms.
There is an inevitability to the fate of the people who live here which is openly admitted. It is disarming. They have no choice but to stay, to adapt, to reclaim the small spaces of land, the snatches of life that they can. Last year, the families in some corners of Gonaives spent months living on roof tops. Neighbours who had houses with two storeys offered shelter to those without. Fear, loss and finally survival were shared under stormy skies. I still have no idea what story we will be able to tell this year but I hope that it is one which finds that same strength of humanity in the eye of a storm I pray never comes, even if the cold statistics say it will.
Dale Templar – Series Producer – Not so Natural Disasters
When Willow came back from Haiti last week and showed me the photos of Gonaives I was instantly transported back. I have location directed two films telling the stories of the aftermath of what we call a “natural disaster”. The first was the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. The second was the more recent tsunami, where I filmed in Banda Ache in northern Sumatra, the place where quarter of a million men, women and children perished. Like Haiti, Ache was already classed by the BBC as a “hostile environment” even before the disaster. As I travelled from the airport, which was inland and relatively untouched, we headed towards the coast. Soon the twin natural forces of both a powerful earthquake and the massive tsunami waves started to reveal themselves. I was prepared for the earthquake ruin, I’d seen so much in Kobe but I wasn’t prepared for the scene as I neared the coast. A few months earlier this had been a packed fishing community. Well over a kilometre from the sea shore, there was nothing, just nothing. The ocean had taken everything. When I saw Willow’s recce material the memories of Ache came back, I understood her confusion and disbelief.
It’s called a natural disaster for good reason but when you see it for yourself there is something so viscerally un-natural about it. Somehow it just isn’t right, isn’t possible. On both occasions I was telling the story of the people who had against the odds survived the very worst nature could throw at them. You come away with an insight into two of the great strengths on this Earth, the force of nature itself and the power of humanity.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Arctic/Mountains team
“Wake up Willow!” shouts a voice.
I pull off my eye mask and open my eyes. The sun shines bright above me. I look at my watch. Three o’clock in the morning? I sit bolt upright, lifting my head from the make do pillow. Reindeer hair sticks to my cheek. Simon the sound recordist mutters as he rigidly stares out ahead of us. Beth the researcher alongside us is, like me, struggling with sleep deprivation and the daylight. I am still trying to focus my eyes in the dazzling night of the Arctic summer. Suddenly I see the figures along the ice edge. Five men, spread out along the horizon, all poised, waiting…watching for their target.
Simon swears. We aren’t hunters but we know the rules. We mustn’t do anything, we mustn’t move, cannot move from our dogsled bed. I spot our tripod and camera, no cameraman anywhere nearby. I am filled with a dreadful nauseous realisation – this could be the moment that we have spent over a year working towards. Months of careful negotiations and awkward logistics all for us to sleep through our only possible chance of filming a narwhal hunt. We can only sit and watch in confused disbelief… At that moment, the silhouette of a whale crests the ice edge. I wonder how on earth I am going to explain this to the team back in Cardiff…
Surreal scenes like this are surely what you are supposed to wake from rather than wake up to. It’s late Spring in Northern Greenland , there is no reference to time as the sun never sets so the days blend into each other. In the full glare of the midnight sun this is a place where anything seems possible and where dreaming and being seem to meet.
The landscape itself is constantly changing as the sea ice melts and the winds reshape it continually. One morning it is a distant horizon and the next it reappears broken against the floe edge like shattered glass. Weeks of watching ice charts are no preparation for what life on the ice demands. We are four hours from the town of Qaanaaq and a world away from the scientific maps of metereology. The brothers we are filming read the ice because they have learnt that their lives depend on it.
Our camp of six sleds is set on a floating platform of ice, around five metres thick. We must always be ready to move in case the ice cracks and we find ourselves adrift in the freezing Arctic Ocean. All the hunters have a warning tale to tell. We live between the anxiety of the hunt and the ice watch and the monotony of no day and night and the constant of rehydrated food rations. We put sun cream on at two in the morning and wear sunglasses in our sleeping bags. We laugh with the hunters, with each other, to ourselves. We develop our own ways of dealing with the daylight and the long hours of nervous despair waiting for invisible whales to return.
What happened next after that first daylit night on the ice edge, only the film can tell. Finally coming back to the predictable shades of the British summer was itself like awakening from a distant dream.
Dale Templar – Series Producer
I think I have already moaned about the British Summer in an earlier blog, and believe me it’s easy to moan. Reading Willow’s account of summer life in Greenland does make we remember how lucky we are here in the UK. Living with 24 hour sunlight is really strange and does mess with your head and sleep patterns. I was lucky enough to spend time in Antarctica filming penguins – the cameraman and I had to wait until 3.30am to film the sunset! The flip side however is far worse; there are many communities in the Arctic as well as the scientists down South, who have to spend months of the year in total darkness. That would totally do my head in! I would suffer from SAD (Sunlight Affective Disorder) and seriously go mad!
I was talking this week to a producer from Glasgow. Apparently SAD is a real problem there and the Scottish Government is considering handing out vitamin D to people because of the lack of sunlight in the winter months. So, can you imagine what it must be like in Greenland? Anyway, I’m looking forward to viewing footage from central Africa next week. Now there’s a great place to be, 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of sunshine, the perfect mix for film makers.
by Ellen Davies, Production Manager, Arctic/Mountains team
My location is Cardiff and my office is on the top floor of BBC Wales which overlooks Llandaff Cathedral. Here I enjoy the comforts of my work place where so many of our day to day facilities are taken for granted. I’m comfortable. One of my teams are currently in Greenland, the other is about to head off to Mongolia (for more see below my blog). Geoff from BBC Shipping has a very soft, gentle voice and says: “Calm. Calm.” It works. I’m now calmer and I’m in the process of freighting my second shipment of kit to Qaanaaq, the most northern town in Greenland. Geoff simplifies the process.
We hire, purchase, gather and pack our kit with our wonderful Patrick Murray, Cardiff’s Technical Assistant on Human Planet (what would we do without Patrick?). For Greenland this includes a crane with hothead, a kayak with specially designed rig, camping gear, cameras, sound, first aid kit and enough warm clothes and sleeping bags to make sure the crew don’t freeze.
Getting the kit to our destination is quite straightforward – from Heathrow to Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq to Illulissat to Pituffik to Qaanaaq and onto Siorapualuk. Easy. (I can even pronounce these names now!) The kit gets there. It takes two days. The last ride is by helicopter where you would fly along the rocky coast line over icebergs and fiords. It must be pretty spectacular. The third shipment of kit travels with the crew and I’ve only booked a seven seater people carrier to transport three people and kit! Where and how do we accumulate so much? We’ve now exceeded over 1000 kgs of kit. The Arctic crew are out of the door and I’m already on the next shoot for the Mountains programme….
My Greenland team are filming two stories for the Arctic episode and one involves filming on sea ice that is starting the break up. Because of the dangers of trying to film the narwhals (sea unicorns) from the kayak and on the ice edge, we have a strict protocol – Bethan Evans (researcher) or Nicolas Brown (producer/director) must call me at 16.00 hrs daily. If I don’t hear from them after four hours, I then make contact to their local police. I look forward to my cup of tea after I’ve received their phone call. I can relax for another day. My schedule and two mobile phones rest on my bed side table and I warn my husband that I might just get a call. I put my phones on silent but vibrate.
Sometimes I wish I was the one going on these amazing filming trips but generally I enjoy being on the end of a satellite phone, the welcome voice of home for the guys on location. By working on this series I’ve really come to understand the incredible way people live in these remote environments. More than ever I appreciate the comforts of my home, my family and friends and the BBC office. Roll on 2011, when I will enjoy watching the fantastic footage and amazing stories on my 52” plasma screen in HD!
Dale Templar, Series Producer, A Return to the Last Disco in Mongolia
I don’t get out much these days, one of the few down sides of running Human Planet. On Sunday I am due to return to Mongolia to film golden eagle nests. I say “due” because I’ve just had a phone call from Dina, our researcher, to say the eagle chicks we wanted to film have been taken! Poor Dina! As I write, there are men on horses galloping around the western Mongolia mountains looking for eagle nests. They are seven hours ahead and if there is no joy soon we may have to cancel the shoot.
Anyway, back to my original story. If we do fly on Sunday this will be a strange return. The last time I filmed in Mongolia was in 1993, soon after Russia pulled out of the country. It ‘s still one of the most God forsaken places I have ever visited. The economic rug had been pulled from underneath the country – they’d been left abandoned. Ulaanbaator was a sad, bleak capital city filled with stark Stalinist buildings, empty shops, abandoned hospitals and truly disgusting food. No longer needed as a buffer zone with China, they’d been left to start again.
I had gone to make a film with Fergal Keane about the sewer children and spent a fair bit of time underneath the rat ridden streets of the capital. We had knives pulled on us, stones thrown at us, sewer covers slammed on us……. umm Mongolia, can’t wait to return. Thank goodness for the disco at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel !
Seventeen years on, I’m told Mongolia has changed significantly. I actually can’t wait to see it. The boy I filmed was called Batzayan, he will now be a man. Hopefully he will be successfully forging his way, feeding his children and keeping them warm as this now established democracy pushes open the doors of the market economy.
by Nicolas Brown, Producer/Director, Arctic and Mountains
“Is one of you Mr. Brown?”
Shock, blood rushes to my face. “Who knows me here? This is the most remote airport I have ever been to. (Have I done something wrong…?)”
We are in Ummannaq, which is nearly 600 km North of the Polar Circle, halfway up the West Coast of Greenland. The town sits on a tiny island (12 sq km) dominated by a towering rock called “Hjertefjeldet”, or Heart–shaped Mountain. It is easily the most picturesque fishing village I have ever seen – and the most far flung.
The woman in front of me laughs at my bewildered look. “My husband is Ole Jørgen Hammeken. He is friends with your father.”
Soon I am seated across from Ole Jørgen — the man my father calls “The Eskimo Errol Flynn”. The comparison is apt. Ole Jørgen has a stage presence that fills a room. A decade ago, he led my father on an expedition to the northernmost mountain in Greenland, now dubbed Hammeken Point. Ole is the first native Greenlander to be honoured as one the world’s elite explorers.
We laugh at the coincidence — Ole has been to my home thousands of miles away in Gypsum, Colorado, in the heart of the American Rockies. There he ate venison that we harvested from the forest behind our house. Now, totally unplanned, I am seated at his table, eating halibut harvested that morning from beneath the Ummannaq sea ice.
Weeks later, Human Planet takes us to Nepal. It is another place I have never been. Once again, I am greeted with a shock.
“You look like your brother…” muses a Nepali man standing before me. “But he is a strong climber—strong as a Sherpa. Are you?”
I stare into the beaming, mischievous smile so characteristic of Nepali Sherpas. A flash of recognition hits me. Put goggles on his eyes, an oxygen mask on his face—yes, it is Pemma Sherpa, who led my brother to the top of Mt. Everest last year. I’ve seen the pictures (it was my brother, Michael Brown’s, fourth successful summit).
I can tell that Pemma is going to push me. I’m not the mountaineer my brother is. I curse myself for not training harder for the expedition ahead…
When I started work on Human Planet I knew we would be exploring places I’ve never been before. But I never expected to keep bumping into people I know! In the famous words of my fellow countryman Walt Disney, “It’s a small, small world!”
Dale Templar, Series Producer – Icebreakers
Last week we had unfermented mud in Mali stopping a shoot, this week we’ve had sea ice breaking up far too fast in Greenland. Pushing complex filming trips back at the last minute is not ideal but bringing them forward can be a total nightmare and that’s exactly what it has been. Whether or not you believe the global warming theories, things ain’t what they used to be in the Arctic. One morning last week our “Queen of the Ice”, Bethan Evans got the call she never wanted from North-East Greenland. Overnight a big storm had come across the region and many kilometres of sea ice had been literally blown away – the team had to come and film “now!”, not in four weeks time as planned. With director Nick Brown away in Nepal (see above), the camera crew and safety co-ordinator booked to work elsewhere and flights every two weeks at best, we were starting from scratch. Willow Murton, our assistant producer had to drop the other story she was working on in Siberia and it was Arctic action stations. Somehow, I do not know how , we have an amazing team on location with one of the world’s top Arctic cameramen, Doug Allan. He had another shoot pencilled in for the series Frozen Planet that got cancelled due to weather! How lucky was that?
by Willow Murton
Assistant Producer, Arctic/Mountains team
I admit nothing made sense when we arrived over a week ago. Ungava Bay in Northern Canada is set between the jaws of Arctic sea ice. A town on the edge of two worlds – the fast moving skidoo driven modernity onshore and then the timeless pace of the moon, the tides and the unpredictable and volatile seasons beyond. We have come to film a sequence which shows just what dangerous depths people will go to to find food in the unforgiving Arctic winter.
As I type now, blizzards have blown into the corners of the windows, against the house steps and the bay is a distant place lost in white. Life here is governed by the weather and so is our filming schedule. We’re staying in the local teacher’s house and I am sitting at the kitchen table whilst in the rooms about me, the crew sleep ahead of the final weekend’s filming. Someone snores in the background. Patrice, our fixer, has pulled the short straw and is laid out on the living room floor in fitful, interrupted sleep in front of me. The storms have blown for two days now, keeping us from the world of sea-ice where our filming sequence takes place. House bound and impatient to return, thick down coats, giant boots and hats are piled expectantly below. Out on the sea ice, our filming kit is buried under snow and somewhere over the other side of the bay, our timelapse camera is hidden in the drifts. We can only wait…
Patience is all important when filming in the Arctic. Everything seems to take twice as long with a film crew and twice as long again in this environment. There are cameras to prepare and to warm up, gloves to find, radios to test, flasks to fill, skidoos to load and then we set off, in a convoy of skidoos, snaking over the frozen bay.
As much as we find ourselves looking on in wonder at the scenes we film, I catch the same curious gaze looking back at us at times. There is no denying it -we are a strange sight.
I wonder what is usual though about this job. Yesterday, Simon, the soundman, and I took advantage of the blizzards to interview our main characters. Lukasi is a small and warm worn-faced man. He has organised our time here with care and attention. He is also keen to talk as are the women we are filming with. They tell us about their lives here, how they have changed so radically from the days of their parents : from the days of igloo dwelling to the building of this modern town. Things are still changing fast, not least the climate. Lukasi wonders whether there will be enough snow here to build igloos in the years to come.
These warm-hearted people have welcomed us into their freezing cold world. We have also ventured with them, under the sea-ice itself in what will be a spectacular sequence of daring and drama. What lies out there beyond the sea-ice jaws yet within the grasp of Lukasi and the people who live in this small snow blown town, is an understanding of nature’s forces, generous at times, vicious at others. We have seen but a glimpse – we have a whole year of filming ahead in these Arctic worlds.
Dale Templar – Series Producer
Mud, mud, not so glorious mud.
Never a day goes by on this series where everything goes to plan. To be honest we would all get bored if it did. It’s always wonderful when we get the teams away on location. The risk assessments are filled in, the camera kit all packed up in lots of silver boxes, and the crew and production team poised like coiled springs. This was the situation last Thursday for the first shoot in our Urban episode. The team were off to Mali to film a mud city being re-plastered. Just as they were about to head off to the airport the researcher, Renee, got a call from the Mali fixer to tell them the mud wasn’t fermented enough to plaster! A two week delay and a huge amount of hassle and disappointment. Mud, mud, not so glorious mud!