Documentaries / Events / Screening Culture / Travel / TV Shows

Human Planet: Through The Lense Of Timothy Allen

Human Planet

Human Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photographer, Timothy Allen, who captured a wide array of stunning images for BBC 1’s highly acclaimed Human Planet, has been doing talks over the past three days in Scotland and I was lucky to attend one in my home city of Perth. I was quite anxious when I booked my ticket on the same day as the event as my ticket read number 49; it would be such a shame if he gained a low turnout. To my surprise, most of Perth’s arts and nature folk turned up in full force so the Concert Hall was near enough packed.

As much as I live for the awe of society and looking into countries which seem more like a fantasyland than a true way to experience life, I have never really sat down and watched the documentary series. The closest I have got is watching An Idiot Abroad. Allen spent his talk detailing some of his marvellous stories he experienced with Human Planet during his time abroad and romanticising the world outside of our urban community. He structured his talk by highlighting his favourite story from each episode, alongside four of his favourites overall. He was very informative and humorous about the journeys he told and he made it easy for a general audience to understand, rather than going overboard with technicalities. When the talk began, the warm yellow lights of the Concert Hall were dimmed down so that you could still see Allen pacing horizontally, but your eyes were hooked above the stage on the projection of images Allen had captured from his journey. It was basically a really good looking CV in the sky.

Human Planet was aired in 2011 and it spanned eight episodes covering ways of life in the: Oceans, Deserts, Artic, Jungles, Mountains, Grasslands, Rivers and Cities. Out of all of these nature documentary shows, to me this one seems the most appealing because I’m more interested about people and how they live, rather than the mechanisms of animals. I’m going to cover here Allen’s favourite stories from each of the eight episodes.

From the first episode on Oceans Allen’s favourite segment of the trip was when they visited the Bajau people near Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world located north of Java, Indonesia. The nomad sea gypsies here have no nationality and they live on house boats in the middle of the Ocean. Like how we suffer from sea sickness; they suffer from land sickness. In his talk Allen concentrated on a man called Sorbin. He is a fish hunter under the sea and when the filmmakers followed him for three days the longest they timed him for holding his breath was a staggering 4 minutes 30 seconds.

Out of all the talks the Desert themed one was my favourite because it demonstrated a humorous role reversal of gender. Allen discussed the Wodaabe tribe in Niger and how the country is home to some of the most beautiful people in the world. The women carve their faces into tattoo like structures and although in our culture this would be disproved of, on them it looks gorgeous. Although, it is the men we need to concentrate on. In Niger they take part in the Gerewol festival, which can only be claimed as a beauty contest. Young men dress up and paint their faces, making sure that they have white eyes, white teeth and a symmetrical face as these are the most sought out characteristics. For around five days the festival takes place and the men dance and sing watched by a crowed of women. On the final day the judging panel, made up of the wives of previous winners, decide on the best male by having them all standing in a line while they examine them one by one.  It’s like some dystopian version of Take Me Out!

We are then transported to Greenland for the Arctic episode. They chose the town of Ilulissat because it was on the Western edge, meaning it is the first place to catch the sunrise in January. The first day of sunrise is a special occasion where they tend to hold celebration parties, however, the photo Allen provided to us showed the sun shadowed behind the clouds, which was not that impressive. So, instead Allen described to us what went down at the airport. Previously someone explained to them that when it reached approximately minus 39 degrees, boiling water would turn to snow. While they were waiting at the airport the temperature suddenly dropped to -39 degrees so they decided to try out the theory. Right enough, through a video clip, we saw the moment when a cup of water was launched into the air and its contents were turned to snow.

Although Allen talked about children catching and eating the biggest tarantulas in the world in Venezuala, I want to discuss another story that the photographer highlighted as one of his favourites from the Jungle. This is when Bayaka men would make it their mission to gather the prized possession of honey, for its sugar, in the trees of the Congo Jungle. One man would stand at the bottom of the tree, lighting a fire in the leaves so that the smoke would divert the bees. However, as the climber would reach such heights as 40 meters, this smoke from the leaves would cause no effect. Thus, the burning bush would be levered up to the climber and he would have to carry it himself to ward of the insects. It seems crazy how these men would risk their lives for the sugary snack, but it seems worth it to them in the end. Despite having to secretly eat their share surrounded by bees in the trees as they would never see it again once their wives and children got hold of it!

In the steep Semien mountains of Ethiopia are one of Allen’s favourite farming families. Usually when the team move from place to place they bring food with them so they can trade. However, since the food is so dense there it meant that they had to instead bring food to cover their own journey. Here the family are suffering from their crops being eating by Gelada monkeys. These mammals have been assessed as a Least Concern rating by the IUNC foundation, so although they are not an endangered species, it still means that the farmers are unable to kill them as this would result in jail. Instead, they have to spend time fending them off.

The Grasslands episode concentrated on the dangerous Donga fights which take place between Ethiopia’s Suri tribesmen. Here villages would come together in order for the males to fight against one another. The images which complemented Allen’s talk highlighted the aggressive nature of these fights with both men whacking each other with sticks. This can cause such injuries as broken bones and damaged eyes. When filming, the team would have two bodyguards from the tribe protecting them, and one of them accidently got hit and he went crazy. However, after the fights have finished everything turns into a harmonious state; it seems to be more of a cultural event rather than hatred towards another village. During his travels Allen tries to be involved with the culture and this tends to include tasting delicacies of the region. They drink cow’s blood in Ethiopia. It was warm and tasted of claret wine.

Catching fish becomes quite a challenge when you are at the Mekong River during monsoon season. Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and during monsoon season the water volume swells to at least 20 times its normal size. This means that despite there being more fish to catch, it becomes very difficult to get your hands on one. Fish hunter, Sam Niang, has created a tightrope across the river so he can get to one of the 4,000 islands of Laos and back home again. His tightrope isn’t the easiest of bridges and it has resulted in seven tourist deaths after they attempted to walk the rope.

The mosque of Djenne is a spectacular site. This sequence was meant to be used for the Cities episode, but it was paired up for the Rivers instead. This mosque and the houses surrounding it are made entirely of mud. It is the largest mud-building in the entire world, so rightfully enough it was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Annually the people of Djenne come together in a festival to repair parts of the mosque that have withered away during the past year. In the early morning the Chief of the mosque will signal that the mud is ready and then everyone will participate in maintenance work for half a day.

Timothy Allen gave a good insight into our world and through his pictures we were given a slight glimmer to what is out there. Although I don’t want to paste these photos here due to copyright reasons, I hope you visit his portfolio by clicking here to visualise some of his stories.


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