[18 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
One of the most enduring trends of the modern satellite and cable television era is the popularity of niche stations, such as Travel Channel and History, which peddle easily-digestible series of mini-documentaries about the world’s most unique people and least visited corners to their legions of curious, sofa-bound tourists. Surprisingly, the popularity of these shows has gone beyond the number-one-destination-when-flicking-through-the-stations-after-a-hard-day’s-work market, to realizing decent sales in DVD stores, with entire seasons of Man vs. Wild finding their way to the shelves of many a family’s entertainment center as often as the latest Michael Bay release.
Edge of Existence is the latest quasi-survival, kinda-anthropological show to make it to Amazon. It was originally shown on the granddaddy of all the armchair-explorer networks, the Discovery Channel, back in 2007. Its host, Donal MacIntyre claims an even older pedigree in the documentary game, as a populist investigative journalist who will be familiar to fans of British television as a presenter of various shows on the BBC and ITV.
In Edge of Existence, he spends each of the series’ four episodes immersing himself in different cultures, all of them societies removed as far as possible—both geographically and technologically—from the rest of the world.
The groups of people he goes to live with (usually for a period of a few weeks) get more interesting as the episodes progress. His first host-family is a group of Bedouins living in the Arabian Desert in Oman. Here he learns how to ride a camel for days across the sweltering terrain, and then tries entering one in the local camel races.
His next adventure is in Papua New Guinea, where he lives with the praying-mantis worshipping Insect Tribe, and learns how to hunt the massive crocodiles that inhabit the local swamps. On his next journey, he opts for taking a journey across Bolivian Andes, rather than staying with just one group of Quechuan Indians, so he can trace the journey of the region’s most valuable resource – salt, from the areas vast flats – from it’s extraction to it’s final destination in remote mountain villages where it is traded for corn and fruit.
His last journey is his most unique, as he heads to Borneo to try and make contact with the Bajau Laut, a group of sea-gypsies who spend almost their entire lives on the ocean. He is eventually allowed to join a family on their boat, and joins these nation-less fishermen as they free-dive to get the fish they need to survive.
It’s all filmed capably in lush colors, and the sound crew seems to have gone above and beyond in the getting the noises that suffuse the various environments they visit to pop on the soundtrack. Judging by the credits, the ‘crew’ often consists of as little as the host and just two additional members, and the scenes they manage to capture, from blissful morning shots of the Arabian dunes to the bright tones of the seas off of Borneo where the Bajau Laut spear glittering sea-creatures, are all the more impressive for it.
MacIntyre, as our guide through these journeys, has the handsome face and gregarious nature common to the hosts one usually sees on the BBC or Discovery. At the same time, though, he’s also sort of doughy and not a little bit effeminate, which makes him slightly more relatable to the average viewer than the supermen who plunge into the wilderness on many of these programs.
His commentary generally revolves around his amazement that people can thrive in the conditions he experiences (the heat of the desert, the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the Andes) and his own difficulty trying to emulate their practices. He avoids judging the tribes that take him in as much as possible, although he laments the subservient position of women in many of their hierarchies, and occasionally worries about negative influences from the wider world, such as alcohol or encroaching industries.
The give-and-take these cultures have with the outside world is one of the most fascinating parts of watching Edge of Existence. For example, it’s surprising to see the way the Insect Tribe have integrated the use of motorboats and flashlights into their traditional crocodile-hunting practices, while still clinging fiercely to their hut-dwelling, subsistence-based way of life.
The Bedouins in Oman likewise pick-and-choose what they want to take from the modern world. They can afford to buy a truck and let their 11-year-old son waste its gas by driving it around their compound all day, but still find their camels a much more useful form of transportation for trading with the fishermen across the dunes.
The Bajau Laut, who apparently have only ever allowed one Westerner other than MacIntyre to observe their daily habits, present a slightly sadder case. Gas-engines allow their boats to travel more quickly and reliably between their fishing grounds, but also force them to catch more fish and spend more time on land (which induces a sensation not unlike sea-sickness for many of them) in order to get hold of the oil they need to run their motors.
The show doesn’t overly-romanticize the lives of its subjects, despite MacIntyre’s never-ending wonder at their unique abilities. Most of the people he meets are destitute and have to perform back-breaking labor just to eat. While the achievements of these age-old-cultures are trumpeted throughout the series, the downsides of life amongst them are not hidden.
MacIntyre points out that the Bedouin are frequently malnourished, thanks to an extremely unvaried diet that the human body cannot quite adapt to. Likewise the Bajau Laut—despite centuries of free-diving history – still have no cure of their own for ‘the bends’, the dangerous pressure-change induced sickness that still afflicts even their most experienced divers, and for which their only recourse is prayer.
Although each episode is more than satisfying, the show’s biggest drawback as a DVD set is probably it’s brevity; it’s only four episodes long in a world where just one season of Bear Gryll’s show has 15 episodes or more. There aren’t too many extras to be enjoyed here either, just a short biography for MacIntyre and some CIA World Factbook style rundowns on the countries he visits.
A behind the scenes feature would have been interesting, given how far the crew travels just to get to some of these locations, but with such a short series, that probably didn’t seem justified to any of the producers. Another possible extra could have been a look at the soundtrack, which relies heavily on electronica and ambient music, helping the show standout that much more.
Edge of Existence is a solid documentary series that would be a great addition to anyone’s collection of History and Discovery Channel DVDs. But it’s a quieter pleasure than many of its colleagues. So if you’re looking to see a man scaling a volcano without ropes—rather than watching one swiftly run out of breath while cutting salt blocks – this may not be the DVD for you.
On the other hand, if you want to see some truly unique sights, like dozens of sea-gypsies diving for minutes without oxygen while corralling vast hordes of tropical fish, then this may be right up your alley.