Rebecca Wilson attended the opening night of Bruce Parry’s environmental documentary at the Watershed to find out what we can learn from the both the groups Parry stayed with, and from his own conclusions.
Bruce Parry’s new feature-length documentary, ‘Tawai’ takes the Western viewer to the jungles of Borneo, to a tranquil Saddhu community in India and very briefly to the Amazon river, evaluating what we can possibly learn from the way these nomadic, hunter-gathering and philosophical communities live.
Parry first visited the nomadic Penam in 2007 as part of his BBC series ‘Tribe’. 10 years later he reconnects with this community in Borneo to see the changes to their way of life after palm oil companies have deforested and contaminated their home—their religion and life source. The Penan have been forced to permanently settle in longhouses and in this foreign static environment they must think about the future; as they learn to sustain themselves through agriculture, they find themselves reminiscing about a past when their land was untouched by outsiders, longing for the forest. This feeling of belonging, of trust in sustained life, of comfort and respect in the large trees of the forest, is Tawai. (Queue atmospheric music).
Although Parry’s narration is unnaturally stiff and the subtitles rigidly translated, it is clear watching their warm reunion that Parry has been accepted by the Penam. He is embraced and welcomed back to the community, they share everything with Parry and show him much affection, to which he consistently shows appreciation—either thanking them softly or looking gratefully into the camera, which gets slightly tiring.
His more profound ideas are disseminated in small asides and often speak of the personal rather than the collective. An Indian guru takes a homemade broom from Parry’s hands and shows him how to sweep with inner peace, tranquillity, patience. Parry confesses to the camera that he enjoys the rapid sweeping, which releases his inner tensions. As he and a Penam friend look over the destroyed forest, Parry narrates the responsibility he feels for his own harmful contributions towards pollution and deforestation. A Penam man hunts with senses heightened, a type of alert concentration rare to see in the globalised world. Parry explains how his own mind cannot focus, instead it flits from physical discomforts to what he’ll be having for dinner.
Although these musings may be interesting and insightful, the format remains awkward. To sit next to subjects and analyse their differences to a camera for Western consumption feels rather Attenborough-esque: without the latter’s soothing voice or animals as the subjects for comparison. Perhaps I am being too sensitive, but I feel as if I’m at an anthropological exhibition, as viewer and narrator are set firmly apart from those being viewed.
Parry greets, thanks and generally converses with the Penam in snippets of their language, which is refreshing to see after watching so many documentarians (ahem, Billy JD Porter) who disregard this simple but invaluable detail. The cameramen equally do not avoid showing the presence of technology and of seemingly Western habits that the subjects have adopted, such as smoking cigarettes and gaming. This breaks away from the idealised representation of “untouched tribes” and “purer ways of life”.
We feel close to Parry through his emotional narrative— when he explains, for example, that he had never felt so accepted, so part of one whole, as at the Maha Kumbh Mela festival in India. Naked gurus, pilgrims and devotees congregate and bathe in the Ganges at one of the largest congregations of humans anywhere in world. It is visually astounding and I can only imagine the shared energy between sages, mystics and men. But I can’t help noticing the fully-clothed women, behind Parry and his new friends, who aren’t bathing.
In all, ‘Tawai’ deploys all the popular techniques of environmentally-focussed cinema: bird’s eye shots soaring the viewer over vast jungles; ambient sounds heightening our sense of awe and environmental wonder; voiceover narration discussing ideological concepts about our place within the natural world. However, the film is not ground-breaking nor unique, it did not inspire me into environmental action nor will it reach a population of skeptics and capitalists. Rather than a universal message, this film is a personal quest of understanding and a tribute to those respected by a soul-searching explorer.
You can still catch the film at the Watershed every day at 17:50 until the 5th October.