The explorer and documentary-maker made his name living with indigenous populations in remote locations for his Bafta-winning TV series Tribe — now he’s revisiting one of them for his first feature-length film, Tawai
ESQUIRE: What’s with the name Tawai?
BRUCE PARRY: Tawai is a word used by the nomadic Penan people of Borneo.
It’s about an inner feeling of connection to landscape. It’s not in our cultural lexicon because we consider ourselves as superior to nature, so we can’t translate it. It’s a group that I lived with before that
I wanted to revisit; I felt that within my experience of living with indigenous peoples there was some really compelling insights into other ways of experiencing the world that I hadn’t expressed enough in my films, and I wanted to investigate more. ESQ: What was it about the Penan people that got to you so much?
BP: They were so different to every group I’d been with, and I really couldn’t put my finger on it. They had no leadership, no shaman, no ownership and almost no sense of competition. When I’m hanging out with my mates there’s banter, but when you deconstruct that, what is banter? It’s quite often about me being a bit funnier, or placing myself in the group. That wasn’t there. No banter! And, of course, we love banter. We’re British for God’s sake. ESQ: We hesitate to say “spiritual journey” but there’s a bit of that — how come?
BP: I did a TV show going across Greenland, pretending to be Captain Scott of all things. It was three months of getting out of my tent and pulling this sledge with a group of people I couldn’t talk to because the wind’s blowing. It was Groundhog Day, because it’s white and flat as far as the eye can see: no green, no red, no birds, no foliage, no hills, no nothing. The first week is fine, the second week is, “This is a bit weird,” and after nine or 10 weeks I went mad. I’d been so addicted to stimulation that suddenly having this massive deficit I couldn’t control my mind. I had friends around me who said, “Bruce, you’ve got to learn to meditate.” And I was like, “Fuck off. It’s bullshit.” In the end I only went to shut them up, and then I had a massive, massive experience. ESQ: Part of the film was shot at the Kumbh Mela in India, where you bathed in the Ganges with sadhus. Was that eye-opening? BP: I did actually have this most amazing experience in the Kumbh Mela. It’s like a supermarket of spiritual leaders, with tens of millions of people, all naked, who’ve been preparing for this for days and days and days. When I went out into the crowd for the first time, I saw a horse, and I had this really strange experience of the horse talking to
me, a sort of “Oh my God” awakening. ESQ: Sounds trippy! Were any illicit substances involved?
BP: These guys smoke quite a lot of ganja, so one time I did it with and one time I did it without. It was more accentuated with the ganja, yeah.
Tawai is out on 29 September