A new series of BBCZ’s Under The Sun aims to revamp the image of TV anthropology, as Tom Lappin discovers from series editor Alan Bookbinder.
The anthropological documentary in the past has come close to being the last outpost of Empire. Far- flung tribes performed exotic rituals in front of the cameras. while an upper-crust commentator voiced patronising banalities in the background. dressed spiritually. if not actually. in pith helmet and khaki shorts.
BBCZ‘s award-winning Under The Sun comes from a radically different cultural perspective. These films may be set in distant and obscure locations (apart from one very funny and poignant study of the French military academy at St Cyr). but they eschew the ‘wildlife‘ approach of yore to offer an infinitely more human insight into unfamilar cultures. For once the subjects are viewed as fully-rounded people rather than uncivilised eccentrics.
‘ln a broader sense Under The Sun is an anthropological series.‘ admits series editor Alan Bookbinder. ‘but what I'm really trying to do is tell good human stories about unfamiliar cultures. Above all I want the filmmakers to get close to their subjects and tell a story about an individual or a small number of individuals that sheds light on a broader culture. The old method of taking a bird‘s-eye view. to give you an illustrated lecture about a tribe. doesn‘t work any more. that‘s old-fashioned. What we need to do in order to convey something about the culture is to make a kind of emotional connection between the subjects of the film and the viewers sitting in their living-rooms. i want people watching the programmes to engage with the people in the film. to be moved, amused or provoked or disturbed. to feel a common humanity despite the huge differences in culture.‘
To this end the filmmakers involved have had to exploit not the subject peoples themselves but the anthropologists who have cam'ed out years of research in the regions covered. ‘We had to piggy- back in on the anthropologists.‘ confesses Bookbinder. ‘The point is to have someone with the expertise. the language and the trust. The man who took us into the Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea had been working there on and off for 25 years. He‘s the only anthropologist who spoke the exact dialogue ofthe valley. and the tribe opened up to us only because of him.‘
The films themselves evolve from lengthy research periods spent looking for a narrative angle. Bookbinder is keen for the action to happen on screen. for the dramatic stories to unravel before the cameras. ‘We have to position ourselves so we are going to be there when it's happening.‘ he explains. ‘The film about the French military academy is a
year in the life of one particular officer. and another story much later in the series. ('lii/(l ()j'T/ie River. about a young Indonesian boy. was deliberately
filmed at the end of his school term documenting his journey back through the jungle. Women Of'l'lie Yellow [furl/z follows one woman from the birth of her third baby to the point where she is forcibly sterilised by the Chinese for having too many children. We came across her in the research and arranged to be there in time for the birth. and we knew there would be great pressure on her. but didn't
‘We should tackle subjects that might appear sensational but have a good reason for existing within that culture.’
know what the outcome would be. We knew that the sterilisation was a strong possibility and were able to follow the story through right tip to the operation.‘
Compulsory sterilisation is by no means the most controversial story featured in the series. Tabloid interest seems inevitable in (hum/inns ()_f"l‘lie Flutes an intriguing. and possibly disturbing. account of the Sambia tribe. Their culture includes a ritual whereby young boys practice oral sex with older warriors in order to gain the semen that is required for them to attain manhood.
‘lt's an astonishing story.‘ says Bookbinder. ‘and one that‘s very difficult not to find strange from a Western point of view. The point about it is that the Sambian culture has its own way of looking at the
The Dream Girls of Japan open the Under The Sun season
world and an internal integrity that I hope we‘ve conveyed. Also. within that society there are now people saying “hey we shouldn‘t be doing this". But I quite see that a film about young boys being taught to suck off older males is bound to get attention.‘
That sounds something of an understatement. but there is nothing remotely sensationalist about the story. and there was never any question of making changes to the ﬁnished film. ‘Everyone was aware that this had to be lilmed delicately and we obviously didn‘t show it explicitly. liven within the tribe itself they represent it in a symbolic way. The flute becomes the symbol of a penis. and we do see boys taught how to suck a flute. which is fortunate from our point of view because we can portray the act in that way. We should tackle subjects that might appear sensational but have a good reason for existing within that culture.‘
In the end the films' mission is to understand. to find out what drives other cultures and to explore the similarities they have to Western values as well as the differences.
‘To some extent the films have to be from a Western perspective in that the filmmakers are Westerners.’ says Bookbinder. ‘but I'm very keen that the people who make the ﬁlms give voice to people we don't normally see on television. We're not trying to give an evaluation of these cultures, we're just telling the story. Let these people explain what it means to them. and see what the viewers make of it themselves.‘
Under The Sun begins on BBCZ (m Sunday 26 June at 8pm with Dream Girls.
68 The List 17—30 June 1994