All photography © Bruce Parry
Explorer and former Royal Marine Bruce Parry made his name living with some of the world’s remotest indigenous tribes; making ground-breaking documentaries for BBC that turned ethnography into prime-time TV. Join WanderOwl as I chat to Bruce about his first feature film Tawai, the decision to swap Mediterranean lifestyle in Ibiza for an isolated hamlet in mid-Wales and his exciting new ventures.
You seem to have gone through quite a change, from what you call an institutional upbringing (boarding school), successful career at the royal marines, to leading expeditions and finally living with tribal people the world over making fascinating ethnographic documentaries. Did you always want to become an adventurer and explorer or was it a slow burn infatuation with the world around you?
It was definitely a slow burn. I always enjoyed the outside world and being active. At school I really liked what we call an adventure training, which included climbing, kayaking and these sorts of things. I loved reading about Scott and the Antarctic, Whalers and Pirates, so I guess I always had an imagination for adventure but I didn’t think I would be one. It felt so far away and seemed like an impossible dream. My sights were very fixed on joining the Marines. It was only after that, that I then got into these other realms.
Your father was a major in the Royal Artillery, is this why you decided to join the Marines?
Not really. I didn’t want to go to university and I didn’t want to be under the control of home. But the main reason was that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the toughest thing imaginable. I was very physical and the Marines felt like the hardest thing out there.
You are most known for your hugely successful BBC documentaries (Amazon, Tribe, Arctic). For your latest documentary “ Tawai – A voice from the forest” , you decided to cut the “BBC umbilical cord” and do it by yourself, why?
All these series that I have done with the BBC gave me a very strong indication of what was happening in the world. I realised that we in the first world countries were a massive part of the problem, especially in the way we consume. Carrying on making TV shows if they weren’t talking directly about this tidal wave that is about to land, just didn’t feel right. I was also really interested in these subtly different and alternative perspectives on life; like altered states of consciousness, which of course are either dismissed by science or illegal in the UK. I wanted to explore other ways of organising society, which would be challenging for an institution that is very embedded in a particular way of being. So, whenever I tried to pitch these types of ideas to the BBC, they weren’t that interested because it was slightly outside of the mainstream.
What were the challenges of doing it independently?
It was a very difficult journey and still is. I always knew it was never going to be a blockbuster but if I had any idea what it was going to be like I would never have done it. It is just a very hard subject and not everybody is that interested in it. I guess time will tell whether I was ahead of the time or maybe I was just left field a bit.
With all the discussions and media attention around climate change, I think Tawai is a very timely film.
We definitely got stuff in there that’s needed to be talked about.
The initial title of the film was Quest, what made you change it to Tawai?
Originally it was my personal journey that was the central theme of the film. Later I realised that with all the footage that we had, if it ended up being all about me, we weren’t going to be able to say all the things I actually wanted to say. So, I took me out of it a little bit and I guess the title changed in relation to that.
In your previous work you used to explore and immerse yourself in the lives of indigenous groups you were visiting. But it was from an outsider’s point of view. Tawai feels very different, more deep, philosophical and personal. Would you agree it is somewhat critical look at our Western culture, ourselves as individuals and our society through the prism of Penan way of being?
A hundred percent. All I wanted to do was to invite an audience to reflect on ourselves. I guess any journey begins with self-reflection. I felt this was the first step; to accept that we are part of the problem and realise that there are other ways of being, that are really exemplary and beautiful. Tribal people hold the keys to so much of our potential future success.
What was it that stood apart with Penan people of Borneo.
They were the last group that I lived with when I was making my Tribe series. Everything I thought I knew about tribal people was completely missing a massive piece of the picture and the Penan offered that to me. Every other tribe that I visited, although they look ancient, in relative terms they are actually quite recent. Their way of life is very similar to ours in that they had hierarchy, competition and aggression etc. When I was with the Penan I realised that it is a very recent change for humankind which only came about in the last 10,000 years and actually 95% of our time on the planet we lived as egalitarians. I think it was only because I had lived with all those other tribes before that I was able to really discern what it was. When I met the anthropologists Jerome and Ingrid Lewis I learnt that it isn’t just the Penan, but everyone who lives before the agricultural revolution and domestication of plants and animals. We have all grown up believing that we’ve always been hierarchical, patriarchal and aggressive but actually it isn’t the case but no-one is talking about that.
In our Western culture we are very protective over our privacy, with the Penan everything is very transparent, no walls, no secrets…
I think there’s so many factors that come together that allow them to be that way but one of them is this unified sense of identity. They all have a similar belief system, they share everything not only physically but also emotionally. They are not having to deal with the problems that we have with the nuclear family, where all the stresses of the parents are absorbed by their children and we spend the rest of our lives getting over them through therapy, medicine and meditation. Here is a group of people that don’t have to deal with that because everything is shared emotionally amongst the group. If a family is having a hard time the kids just go next door and it’s all spread out. What really struck me was how important it was for the community to bring up children rather than individuals or parents. In the way we live it is very hard not to pass on all the traumas.
You have recently moved from your long-term base in Ibiza to Wales to start your new venture. Could you tell me about the community project, why did you choose Wales and what was it that sparked the idea.
I wanted to live in a community and Wales definitely had the best laws for turning rural land into community land. I also felt a desire to come home because I realized that if I wanted to be a part of this narrative of change, here, where I am originally from I could have more influence. But the project is still a work in progress. I have lots of interest but I haven’t opened the doors as yet.
How did you find the spot?
Actually, I came to this place straight away when I came back to the UK on a foraging excursion. I was very interested in learning how to forage as a way of reconnecting to the landscape. And so I ended up coming to this house and falling in love with it and then a few years later hearing that it was on the market.
You often say that you are very privileged to live the life you do. What do you think you get out of living this style of life as opposed to a more traditional one?
Which type of lifestyle do you mean, the one that I’m about to live or the one that I have been living?
Well clearly there’s a privilege in the way that I was living. Having a varied, exciting life and money is what many people grow up wanting. But the reality is that it isn’t the answer to the deeper happiness of existence and actually living a life with more meaning is more important. Through all the programs that I made I was becoming very aware of my lifestyle impacting on the world. I realised that if I just shifted my mind set to something else I could still live an extraordinary life, but do it in a way that was more in alignment with my new beliefs of my new understandings. Hopefully by following this new path and letting go of all those things that I used to have I am hoping I can be an example of change that might influence and inspire others, who knows…
So are you planning to quit travelling for good?
Well, interestingly I have just accepted another job with the BBC. So, I am going to re-enter that world and go back to the Amazon. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go because my journey is here with the community project. But I have realised that it could be beneficial especially now when the whole world is looking at the Amazon.
Lastly, were there any particular books or films you enjoyed when you were younger that brought forth the idea that world was something to be explored.
Bruce Parry: I definitely grew up with that explorer excitement mentality but a lot of the stuff that I was reading was from a different era. It was all quite egoic like climbing Everest or ‘first to the pole’ and I’ve really reacted against that since then. We have a different understanding of the world and the people who live there and I am much more interested in everyone coming together in different ways and realising our similarities rather than planting a flag. These days I am much more into alternative films and books that challenge us and make us think differently. There is lots of good stuff on filmsforaction.org. That’s a good place to start I think.