“The Man Who Lives with the Tribes” Talks about Why This Is Not Enough

By Shosha Adie • BSc Anthropology

Bruce Parry started his talk by pouring water, the ice clinking against the sides of the glass as his hands shook. After a moment, he clears his throat to speak, the seven hundred people filling the chairs of the Royal Geographical Society’s auditorium creaking forward to listen.

“Hi guys,” he says after a moment, followed by a nervous chuckle reciprocated by the crowd. He tells us, “I’m not used to talking in front of so many people… But they said you’re sweet, are you sweet?”

Any person who can win the hearts of a dusty audience with lines like this must have a certain level of charisma, and Bruce Parry certainly fits the cut. After living in Spain for ten years, the BAFTA award-winning documentarian, indigenous rights advocate and former Royal Marines commando officer has finally come back to the UK, where he grew up. After leading numerous treks from the Amazon to the Arctic, and spending months at a time in environments completely polarised from our own, he comes back to tell us, “There is no pristine hiding place anymore,” and that, “we’re in this together and in the best place to be part of this change that the world needs”.

This change he talks about is not about single-handedly trying to take on world hunger, or climate change; it is much more embedded that that. It is about all of us uniting in taking responsibility for the role that each of us has already played in these global disasters, instead of dissociating ourselves from the guilt by rallying the blame. Despite not being “a professional anthropologist,” he tells us his privilege of experiencing so many cultures made him think he “could wax lyrical about human nature.” Yet, the more he learnt, the more he realised he was wrong.

This realisation, of something missing, was one of the driving factors which led to his first attempt at both producing and directing for his latest, and first feature- length, documentary, Tawai: A voice from the forest. Though he warns us this time not to expect to see him “drinking blood and jumping cows”, he hopes to present “something much more poetic.”

Attributing some of the inspiration for this film to Daniel Everett’s book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (2008), where the pursuit of happiness, and a role reversal, means a missionary becomes a convert, the film presents a journey for reconnection, and a rejection of the individualistic society which puts ‘the self’ at the centre of consciousness. This film manages to motivate others to reflect upon, and contest, their own worldviews, without being propagandistic.
The title ‘Tawai’ is a term used by hunters and gatherers in Borneo, to describe an inner feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves – being interconnected; being at one with nature. The Penan, one such group, who have watched Borneo’s forests fall prey to consumerism and have been unable to have their land rights recognised by the Malaysian government, explain it to us like this: “Trees are like humans… If the really big trees die, so do all humans.”
In order to try and answer why we don’t have a word for this feeling in ‘the West’, Parry consults various experts from home along the way. On screen, experimental psychologist Dr Iain McGilchrist sheds some light on a cognitive basis for why we see the world differently by discussing the parallel functions of our brain. Our own Anthropology Department’s Dr Jerome Lewis, alongside his partner Dr Ingrid Lewis, gives further insight into the effects of consumerism on egalitarian groups and societies.

Though the film focuses on what we can learn from the lives of persecuted indigenous groups, featuring both the Pirahã, from the Amazon, and the Penan, Parry doesn’t just look to small-scale societies for answers. At the end of the film we see him consulting the wise family of Mahant Jagadesh Giri, who teach him how to translate this feeling of ‘oneness’ within himself. He finally achieves this running naked with 30 million other pilgrims on the ‘Maha’ Kumbh Mela festival, at what he notes could have been the largest gathering of people the world has ever seen.

Parry openly admits, his need to help the people he’s worked with is not necessarily run on an altruistic desire, but in fact correlates directly to his own happiness. He is often asked how he can live with himself, flitting around from place to place, when he leaves his boot-prints all over his hosts’ lives, who are already struggling to maintain their identity and integrity in the face of extinction. To this he can only ask people to look at the greater picture, and then realise his presence is a mere blip in the timeline of the effects that globalisation is having on small-scale societies.

“Everyone thinks I’m one of the tribe, even my BBC tagline is “Bruce Parry who lives with the tribes” – but despite meeting all these people, deep down I realised I’d always felt kind of superior in a way. [When I eventually decided] to try on a different hat and experience the world from their eyes… I mean I knew I could always take it off again later… but from that point, as cliché as it sounds, my whole world changed.”

At 6:30pm tomorrow, Thursday 12th October, Parry will be running a Q&A at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, and UCL Anthropology students should have been emailed a discount code to put in at the top of this list – https://hearstlive.co.uk/esquiretownhouse/buy-tickets/#day-1. It is really worth going to listen to his experiences, even as a non-professional anthropologist, as he has experienced a great deal and learnt a lot from the same people that are featured on our reading lists as subjects, not authors. As well as this, you will get a chance to ask questions about his theories on collective consciousness and mindfulness.

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