Archive for April, 2011

The Making Rivers and Oceans

Renee Godfrey, Assistant Producer on Human Planet, explains her favourite part of making Rivers and Oceans.

One of the most magical ways of living with rivers is found in the Khasi Hills of North East India; an environment, during monsoon season, engulfed by raging rivers. Searching for the secrets the deep Khasi tribal valleys and villages hold is a dream come true for any adventurous film maker.

Once a part of Assam in Northeast India, the tropically lush and verdant massif of Meghalaya stands proudly above the pancake flat plains of Bangladesh. As the Southwest Indian monsoon moves its moisture laden way up the Bay of Bengal and over Bangladesh, the Khasi Hills are the first major landmass it meets. Huge teams of nimbostratus clouds tower and linger with excited intent at having reached their destination – one of the wettest places on our planet.

With each twist and turn of the road, new and magnificent vistas are revealed. There is an air of mystery to the geography – its tropical forest draped in orchids, misty ridges, impossibly steep and seemingly inaccessible gorges, and moody rivers all begging to be explored.

During monsoon, the Khasi are faced with dealing with biblical amounts of water falling from the sky. Their traditional villages magically appear from nowhere through the enchanted forest, all cope wonderfully with days of downpours.

While the crew are all kitted out with umbrellas and waterproof jackets, Khasi society is lacking in such Gortex items, rather the women weave curved bamboo and palm leaf rain shields or ‘knub’ to protect themselves from the beatings of rain. There is also one, very unique and magical Khasi solution to coping with the rainfall; one that the Khasi are particularly proud of, and that is what I have come in search for.

During monsoon, the rivers intersecting Khasi villages swell greedily and become raging rapids washing away anything in their path. Faced with the problem that man made bridges and walkways of concrete or wood rot and are destroyed by the forces of water, the Khasi have come up with a unique and organic architectural solution using what mother nature provides - they have learnt to make living bridges from tree roots.

Ficus elastica, or more commonly, the Indian Rubber Tree, is a loyal and useful character in the colourful cast within the forest canopy. Perched wisely on huge boulders or alongside riverbanks, the ficus trees sit, adorned with party streamer like aerial roots. Each root shoots out in medusa style fashion, on a mission to find soils with greater stability. Well rehearsed in the shifting moods and flows of the rivers, the help of these loyal root tendrils keeps the ficus trees standing strong. By encouraging the aerial roots across impassable rivers and gorges, bridges form and areas once impassable became accessible.

To find the root bridges takes dedication and concentration. An impossibly steep and knee numbing descent takes me down through layers of forest into the enchanted Khasi world.

Local villagers have made tiny steps down the steep gorge slopes, plunging into the heart of the forest - hundreds upon thousands of pebbles smoothed by years of Khasi feet trotting up and down.

Each pebble marked by footprints of times past, each with stories to tell as they take the weight of the local tribes.

As I hop across streams, sway dramatically over rickety steel bridges with heart in throat, too scared to look down at the white water below, my curiosity drives me on. These bridges of ornate organic architecture are hidden within this fairytale forest and these endless paths will, I know, eventually unveil their wonder.

Three hours into the trek, a small perfectly manicured village, Nogkriet appears at the end of the steps. Just beyond Nongkriet, I look up and am transported into an unbelievable scene; a mix between Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings – colourful spiders look on from silvery webs and at any minute I expect to see fairies dancing around the bamboos. There in all its magical glory is the 200 year old Umshiang double decker root bridge. Sitting with an omnipotent grace, the bridge is bejewelled in aerial roots of all shapes, ages and textures – like a Monarch draped in regal gold – the ficus; treasure is equally as impressive and precious.

The Khasi of Nonkriet village have trained the roots of one single ficus tree on two levels across the river; the result, a surreal double decker root bridge sketched into the forest landscape like some sort of magical computer generated graphic on mother nature’s stunningly crafted film set; nature’s magic.

Renee Godfrey getting to know the local Khasi women. 
’the local women pass by on their way to the rice paddies and stop to stand and stare with as much wonder for the blonde haired foreigner, as the foreigner has for their root bridges!’


The Great American Grassland

by Brian Leith, Executive Producer of Human Planet

Choosing which stories to film for Human Planet was demanding: ideally we wanted to show our audiences something new and surprising – something they’d never seen before. That’s why we often went for dramatic eye-popping moments from half-way around the world…but there were also times when we could have chosen stories from right under our noses – stories which we’d all heard about, but which were just as amazing as anything you’d find 10,000 miles away.

For the Grasslands episode I kept thinking about a filming trip I’d made 15 years ago in one of America’s most beautiful – if surprising – landscapes: the high plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. This was the old ‘dustbowl’ country of the 1930s, the flat-as-a-pancake lands which had been settled in the late 19th and early 20th century with grants of free land to anyone prepared to try and make a living there.
And the settlers came! Those were troubled years in Europe and tens of thousands of immigrants came to this promised land, grateful to have the chance to make an honest living growing their own crops on their own land, enjoying freedom and the open-armed welcome of their newly adopted nation.

But it wasn’t easy. This was also a brutal land – suffering extremes of weather and climate on top of a thin soil which (if truth be told) was never really going to support much wheat or livestock. It was classic Human Planet: people pushed to the very limits of their ingenuity and bravery, attempting to forge a life for themselves in the most trying of circumstances.
And we all know what happened. The winds came, the topsoil blew away, and grasslands that were never really capable of growing vast fields of grain on such an intensive scale turned to dust, along with the dreams of those settlers, many of whom were forced to move on westwards towards another promised land.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The people I met on those plains 15 years ago were the descendants of the dustbowl survivors – the ones who’d stayed and stuck it out. They’re among the most impressive people I’ve ever met: hard-working and determined, people who know their land – its potential and its limitations – much better than most of us. They are as impressive survivors as anyone we filmed for Human Planet.

I’m often struck by how it’s just such people - with tough lives – who often show the greatest generosity and kind-heartedness. I made one or two friends on that filming trip who remain friends to this day: people who persuaded me to stay and enjoy a good meal and a conversation rather than drive back to my distant motel.

When Explorers Collide

by Dina Mufti, Assistant Producer on Mountains/Education Producer of Human Planet

After Human Planet took the UK by storm, the series is now coming to the US this Sunday on Discovery at 8pm. We are so excited about the US launch and we hope you will enjoy watching the series just as much as we enjoyed making it. We’ve so many production tales to tell I wanted to share with you why having the chance to work on the Human Planet project is so rewarding for me personally. I was 11 years old and I was walking through the cobbled streets of Lisbon holding my father’s hand looking for the tomb of Vasco da Gama. In 1497 the great Portuguese explorer had set sail with his crew in search of the end of the world. I can recollect looking up at his tomb as my father explained all this to me and from that moment on I wanted to travel.

Human Planet production team members Tuppence Stone and Cecilia Hue with 10 year old Shede, a Tubu girl who crosses the Sahara in a camel train searching for water - featured in the geography class films.

When I came home my geography classes at school took on a whole new meaning. The maps and photographs of mysterious people around the world became three dimensional, brought to life by my dream of sailing with Vasco da Gama discovering the world and its diverse characters. My father had used a clever trick - by enlivening my imagination, my geography classes suddenly became exciting and I wanted to learn more. The way people lived their lives around the world and the different environments they lived in became more intriguing and, most essentially, became connected to my own.

Dina Mufti on location in Western Mongolia with and 16 year old Berik, a Kazakh Eagle Hunter.

Passing on knowledge that opens the minds of young people - from a father to a daughter or as a programme maker to an audience - is one of the richest rewards in life. So when I was asked to re-edit some of the Human Planet stories that you’ll see in the series for geography classes in schools, old da Gama and I brushed the dust off the sails and were on our way again. And we had a gift - this time the pictures were not painted by flat maps and text book descriptions but by the awe-inspiring footage from the Human Planet series.

Dina Mufti in the Human Planet edit suite.

Through central characters children will be guided through genuine experiences and learn valuable lessons about survival and management within our changing environment. From their classrooms they can begin to voyage - and ask important questions that will affect their future and shape the world they live in. Like me, padding across those cobbled streets so long ago, they can become explorers - and set sail with Vasco da Gama… something tells me he would be pretty happy about that…

Wherever the Human Planet crew travelled, children were constantly curious. Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

Human Planet comes to US on the Discovery Channel at 8pm on April 10th.

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