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06Aug2014

To the ends of the Earth without a guide

‘Place our presenter at the heart of a tribe to learn ancient skills, before he embarks on a death-defying challenge in the bush / forest / wilderness / open ocean.’ A standard sort of a brief. Luckily, Hazen Audell is a tireless adventurer so the death-defying challenges were looking good. Finding suitable locations and tribes, however, would be a different matter.

Many will be familiar with the reality of twenty-first century filming. Visit a tribe, pay your money and they’ll obligingly remove their sunglasses and T-shirts so you can pick up a camera and leave with an impression of the past. You’re as likely to enter the jungle and find a flat screen TV and petrol engine as you are a bow & arrow and a grass hut. But there are still people out there proud of how their ancestors lived; people determined to educate their own children in the old ways and shelter them as best they can from the new world.

Finding such communities - with at least one foot in the past, but a willingness to participate in filming - is not easy. We required a major portfolio of skills handed down by the ancients: boat building and hand-line fishing for sharks; blow-gun manufacture and tree-top monkey hunting . . . Not to mention ice climbing in animal skins, big game tracking on foot and eagle hunting on horseback. A tall order by anyone’s standards.

Which is why, in our quest to find these very special people, we went to the very edge of the travelled world. And a then a bit further. Every shoot was an expedition in itself, venturing far into the back of beyond with everything we needed to survive for two weeks in the bush - and of course to make a TV show while we were there. Pelicases were crammed with bags of rice and packet soup as well as batteries, cameras, spare batteries and spare spare cameras. Flights and scheduled transport dried up quickly and we switched over to canoes, 4x4s and skidoos. We dodged flash floods, armed bandits and rogue elephants to complete our journeys and once there we lived in the humblest of shelters, in which massive spiders came as standard.

Probably the most challenging shoot was in the Reef Islands, nearly 10,000 miles away at the far end of the Solomons. We’re talking way, way out in the Pacific Ocean, on the fringes of Polynesia and Melanesia. Getting to Brisbane – a hefty journey for most people – was merely day one. Four further days of scheduled and charter flights, cars, trucks and open top boats stood between us and our final destination. With over 20 holdalls and pelicases strapped down under tarpaulins, we endured several hours of stomach-churning rough sea that left the crew as green as the palm trees for which we so desperately scoured the horizon. But we made it. Waiting for us was an extraordinarily friendly people, offering the warmest of welcomes to their heaven-on-earth island of white sand and clear waters.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the journey that made this shoot difficult. Or the fact that we then had to get the presenter to fell a tree, carve out his own dugout canoe and then take it out hand lining for man-eating sharks. Or even ‘Island Time’, which meant things usually started hours later than planned. The real difficulty was the lack of a fixer. The fixer is often make-or-break for a shoot. But by finding a tribal community so far removed from the modern world we had also turned our backs on all the tried and tested filming spots in the Solomon Islands. And all the known fixers.

So we freestyled. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with gestures and a lot of smiling. We successfully negotiated ourselves a camp cook and kitchen helpers, fresh fruit for breakfast, fishermen to catch us our dinner protein and porters to carry tripods and pelicases. We found that fixing it all ourselves helped us engage with almost every member of the community, lending the whole experience a far sharper dimension of reality. It also helped with finances across the spectrum: the community received every penny of our location budget and our costs were lowered.

Of course I wouldn’t recommend this route for every shoot but on this occasion it enriched the production, the community and indeed our own personal experiences in ways we could never have imagined. A potential nightmare became a filmmaker’s dream. 

This article first appeared in Broadcast 17th July 2014

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