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9th October 2017

Review: Tawai

An at times touching depiction of the effects of deforestation is hampered by Parry’s poor direction

Former marine Bruce Parry has won several BAFTAs for his work on tribesman-centred BBC documentaries, such as Tribe and Amazon. After a six-year break he is back, this time on his own, to revisit the nomadic Penam tribe when news of their forced settling reached him. Various unnecessary detours, interference by Parry and a bumper runtime detract from an at times touching portrayal of the first-hand effects of deforestation.

Ten years ago, Parry first met the Penam people of Borneo in his tv show Tribe, where he went on hunting trips and slept in a makeshift village until it was time to move on. All that has changed now and the Malaysian government built ‘long houses’ for them to live in, on the edge of their ancestral homeland. In order to protect this land, the government asked for proof of their presence in the area, but as a nomadic people their presence is so unnoticeable that they could not do so, and thus their land became fair game for loggers. Heartbreaking though this situation is, Parry is not content to let the audience reach their own conclusions, and hijacks the narrative to champion his cause that modern society is suicidal and we must revert to the way man used to be before consumerism took hold.

No matter where his journey took him, from Indian gurus to a Scottish neuroscientist, Parry insists on getting between the camera and its focus, blocking our eyes from discerning our own truths. Where Tawai excelled most was in the scenes where he took a step back and just observed, allowing the tribesmen to go about their lives. The transition they undergo such as planting fruit trees to ensure food for future generations is starkly different to their original beliefs, to live and feel the moment. Once again the message is distorted to suggest that relinquishing all possessions is the only way to be truly happy, an unnecessary extreme in the search for self-fulfilment.

This heavy-handed approach spoils the inherent profundity present in the documentary. As we follow the Penam people the luxuries of the western worlds seem to have seeped into their way of being, wearing traditional clothes, smoking cigarettes and even watching television. Particularly poignant were the watches they wore on their wrists. A people who knew when the fruit on the trees was ripe by the call of the birds who feasted upon it now relied on time for everyday life. Pure scenes like these, where the imagery inspired critical thought sadly composed a minority of the total length.

Tawai is undoubtedly stunning in its visuals, a clarity of picture usually only seen in the Planet Earth series. I’m sure that within the 600 hours of recorded footage there are the makings of another documentary, with sincerity and lightness of touch. Life is about appreciation, not possession, but taking that to such an extreme alienates almost all those who watch.

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