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"Real Wealth Is in Family"

An Interview with Donal MacIntyre

In Spring 2009, three years after filming Edge of Existence, Donal MacIntyre shared some reflections on his cross-cultural experiences from the series in an interview for this DVD release. We spoke to him by phone from the BBC in London.

Q: Tell me about the origin of the series. Why did you want to do Edge of Existence in the first place?

MacIntyre: When the production company came to me and asked, "Do you want to live with tribes, engage with them, and tell their stories to other people around the world?"–well, that's not something you're going to say no to in a hurry. For me, the series afforded the opportunity to get close to cultures that are fast disappearing and hugely under stress. I was very keen to meet these tribes. It hadn't been done before. But at the time, it seemed particularly important because technology has been changing the world so fast. I wanted to get a snapshot of these worlds before they changed into something unrecognizable.

I was also very keen to honor the phrase "Edge of Existence." I thought it was a marvelous title for a great journey. These cultures are some of the oldest in existence, but they are very much on the edge of our technological world at the moment. It was an exciting journey at a very appropriate time.

Q: How did you identify the peoples and the families with whom you would live?

MacIntyre: Our team of researchers was hugely experienced and spent a lot of time with locals on the ground. They went out in advance, met people, took pictures, and spent a great deal of time talking to anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts–people who had a history with these tribes and had spent some time with them before.

Q: How did you prepare yourself–physically, emotionally, and intellectually–for each of these four experiences?

MacIntyre: Psychologically, I had to open myself up to any and every experience. To be upbeat and enthusiastic and open-minded is the first thing. I tried to get plenty of rest beforehand so that the irritations of travel and exhaustion wouldn't impact upon my natural enthusiasm. But I found myself not quite fit enough for the rigors of the journey. Physically, I got thinner as the demands of the series took their toll on me. I was a changed man from my time with the Bedouin to my time with the sea gypsies. The journey stripped me of some of my puppy fat. Across the series, that's pretty recognizable.

Q: Was your preparation for one location more arduous than it was for others?

MacIntyre: Oh, yes, I think I misjudged the preparation for Oman, and it told onscreen. I was overweight and not fit for the environment. I thought that the heat wouldn't take the toll on me that it did. And I found myself with an incredibly sore posterior, not having spent my life on a camel.

For the sea gypsies, I did an awful lot of training. Although they spend their lives on a boat, they also spend a lot of time on the reefs–free diving, fishing, and pulling huge nets. That was probably the toughest existence, tougher even than living with the Insect Tribe in Papua New Guinea. Certainly, it's a difficult lifestyle, and so many of them die so early. You can understand why.

Q: How many people were in your crew?

MacIntyre: It varied from location to location. In Papua New Guinea, there were two sets. We had a local crew, whom we relied on as facilitators to bring us provisions, give us the local picture, and arrange transport up the Sepik River. Our regular crew ended up being the producer, a researcher, a cameraman, a sound technician, and me. It was a small team; it doesn't really get much smaller than that.

There were certain times when we had to call in a bigger team. For filming the sea gypsies in Borneo, we had an underwater cameraman and an assistant producer who had done some work with the sea gypsies before. But by and large, the crew was quite small.

Q: Were there any women in the crew? Since gender defines a person's role in so many of these cultures, how were they accepted?

MacIntyre: In Borneo there was a woman in the crew. Initially, I thought that having women in the crew would've been a help in Oman, and then I understood that perhaps it might have been difficult in a predominantly Muslim country. But I hadn't expected the women of the Bedouin to be as strong and forceful characters as they proved to be. They were certainly stronger characters than any of the men I met in the families. The women seemed to rule the families with a rod of iron, which turned my preconceptions about the role of women in Islam on their head.

There were times, certainly, when I felt that I could easily have traveled with my wife, as a couple, or with my kids. We could've thus explored other areas of family life. Inevitably, there were some occasions, such as in Papua New Guinea, where the women seemed uncomfortable talking about their world to a man. My wife, Ameera, spent a little bit of time with me in Borneo. Although it wasn't on camera, she certainly forged a link with some of the settled sea gypsies on Omadal. And I realized that there's something to be gained by traveling as a family. Women and children can break through some conventions and get a little deeper inside a culture than a male white presenter.

I think if would do another Edge of Existence, I would do it as a family exchange. That might prove to be even more illuminating. There is a need for a broader range of interlocutors to act as bridges between the worlds. In the modern age, the best bridge between civilizations is the family. Nothing connects cultures more closely.

Q: What precautions did you take for your safety and the safety of your crew?

MacIntyre: Naturally, we all took all the necessary health and safety precautions. But simply living in the environment, you have to take a degree of risk. Certainly, in Borneo one of the biggest risks was piracy in the Celebes Sea. But I came back from Borneo with scabies and lice. When I was there, I was keen to walk barefoot on the reefs, as the sea gypsies did. My feet got cut to shreds. I arrived back in Heathrow Airport in a wheelchair, suffering a foot infection from the reef.

In order to engage with tribes like these, we certainly tried to live as they did, and these are the normal risks you take. We tried as much as possible to eat as they did, within safety measures. When you're out hunting wild boar with the Insect Tribe, you're using bow and arrows and running through the woods. A stray arrow could've gone anywhere, or you could've been mowed down by a wild boar or trampled by a cassowary. You're in a very dangerous environment. You can't explore it and still think of it in ordinary terms. For example, the insects were so prolific that the minute you lit a candle, it was smothered by flies and other insects. It was incredibly uncomfortable. But our discomfort was nothing compared to the joy that we felt as a crew to share in these extraordinary moments.

Q: What motivated the people with whom you lived to participate in the project?

MacIntyre: The chiefs and the elders in the various communities were aware of the dangers of contamination and problems that can always befall tribes when they bring strangers into their midst. That's taken as a given. There is always a bargain to be made, but there was never a financial bargain. If you're a visitor, you must bring a gift. These communities are more interested in getting a goat, for example–the traditional gift among the Bedouin. So, yes, we always returned the hospitality of our hosts.

We also wanted to leave something positive behind for them. We gave various tribes building materials or medical supplies, as requested. The Insect Tribe requested materials for a school roof. In Bolivia, I had been given this explorer's watch, and I left it with Fidelia [the Quechuan Indian teenager]. So we repaid the hospitality given to us. It was an extraordinary privilege to be allowed into these families and into these communities. When we left, there were tears all around, both among the crew and among the people we lived with. We tried to leave a positive footprint.

Q: Did you have any further contact with any of the other families after the series?

MacIntyre: Members of our production team have maintained contact in some cases. Indeed, in 2007, we brought the Insect Tribe back to London in a kind of reverse anthropology project. Since we had put them under our anthropological microscope on Edge of Existence, we thought that they were entitled to visit London and observe our world. And they told us in a very humbling, remarkable fashion about the deficiencies they saw. They were very disappointed in how we treat our elderly and the poor, for example. They gave us a glimpse into our own world. And, in the end, they left London with the same sense that you'd leave from a weekend in Las Vegas–a sense of wonderment, awe, and excitement, but also eager to get home.

Q: Did the people in these cultures have any expectations of you, as an outsider or Westerner, that surprised you?

MacIntyre: I think they expected us–me, in particular–to be softer than we were. They expected us to crumble, in a sense. It was particularly true with the llama rustling in Bolivia and the camel racing in Oman. You know, I was undoubtedly the fattest, widest, and oldest camel jockey in the history of the Arabian sands. This wasn't a contrived sequence. It was a real camel race, a derby, in front of sheiks and eminent elders, on perhaps the most vicious camel. The only concession to television was that, in order to get the shots, I was required to do it twice! And then, of course, they wanted me to do it three times, and I said, "No! I did it twice and survived." I wasn't just worried about me on the camel. I was worried about other people around that makeshift racecourse in the desert. Other people had been injured in the past by camels going out of control in the hands of jockeys who were far more experienced than I was after only two weeks in the desert.

Also, the pride of the family was at stake. If I had messed up or hurt anybody, they would've been humiliated. In the end, I got a resounding cheer and a lot of respect, because they were obviously aware that I'm not an experienced camel jockey. Mohammed and his family, who had taught me to ride in such a short time, wanted to savor my minor success on the beast.

Although we were always cautious, the one thing that the people never faulted us on was our enthusiasm and willingness to work hard. They knew our limitations. This was their environment, and they appreciated us pushing our own boundaries.

Q: How did your experiences with these cultures change you, personally?

MacIntyre: When I was with the Insect Tribe, I was getting married on my way out to the Borneo sea gypsies. I was going through quite a personal vortex at the time. I remember talking to some of the elders, off camera, about family issues and crises and that kind of thing. And I found their advice very soothing. Certainly, it reminded me that real wealth is in family and friends, whatever kind of family that is. The strength that you get from the community is the greatest strength you can ever really achieve. In the anonymous world in which we now live–where a lot of us hide from our neighbors–you certainly lose a sense of community. My journeys certainly reminded me how important it is.

Q: How do you think the series changed the families or the tribes with whom you lived?

MacIntyre: That's a very interesting question. When I've filmed with gangster families in the UK, I found that we changed them for the better. People with no aspirations ended up having aspirations. They see a way out of the ghetto when before they had none.

Many of the tribes–particularly the Bedouin–are so confident and brash, nothing we ever did contaminated them. I think they were amused and actually respected us. We left them with a sense of brotherhood. As much as people fear Islam, I think they felt more open to Western culture. They certainly recognized that people all across the world are all the same.

In Papua New Guinea, every different tribe along the Sepik River has a different language. In that sense, a tribe that lives five miles up the river are nearly as foreign as we are to them. But certainly they recognized, for every grumpy person in the village, there's a grumpy person in the crew. For somebody who's enthusiastic or bubbly in the crew, there's always a mirror character inside the village. Although the world is a very big place and we come from such different parts, essentially, at the core, we are all the same.

Q: Were there any particularly memorable incidents that didn't make the series' final edit, due to time constraints or other reasons?

MacIntyre: MacIntyre: Inevitably, there's so much that could've been included. In Papua New Guinea, I had a discussion with some of the women in the tribe about whether they were jealous of the other wives. And after a little coaxing, one or two admitted to being a little jealous of the first wife or the third wife. There were times when their husbands would pay more attention to another wife than to them, or vice-versa, and they were jealous, as you would expect. And the story was really told in their eyes.

So much is said with the hands and with the eyes. The early travelers made it across continents with nothing but smiles and an open hand, you know. I was always taught by my security experts in the Congo, if I was kidnapped, the open hand and bright-eyed smile are universal across the world. This nonverbal language will get you far. Our language differences never separated us.

Children understand that instinctively. There is a kind of arterial root that connects kids. They can make friends in an instant, over nothing, really–just kicking a ball around. Everything is so simple for them. To be a successful traveler, you could do an awful lot worse than just putting yourself in the position of a wide-eyed, enthusiastic child.

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