Bruce Parry: ‘We’re the most isolated, atomised and lonely we’ve ever been’

PUBLISHED: 15:23 13 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:31 13 October 2017

Bruce Parry's TAWAI

Bruce Parry's TAWAI


In new film TAWAI, Parry tracks down the nomadic Penan tribe of Borneo, as they tackle the encroaching deforestation that threatens to obliterate their home

Bruce Parry's TAWAIBruce Parry's TAWAI

He’s spent a good proportion of his adult life rolling up his sleeves and embedding in the traditions of some of the most remote and culturally preserved peoples on the planet. His series for the BBC, such as Tribe and Amazon, were widely celebrated and, after an absence of six years, he’s back, only this time it’s on the big screen.

This film is TAWAI, and it is an impassioned, sensitive rally cry; an urgent jolt to the senses. In his inimitable style, Parry tracks down the nomadic Penan tribe of Borneo, as they tackle the encroaching deforestation that threatens to obliterate their home. And yet, the prevailing message of TAWAI is that our society could learn a lot from this egalitarian, hunter/gathering tribe-in-crisis. “They are operating from a different system,” he says. “Meditating, hunting and gathering; they are more balanced and have more empathy. This brings about a state where they feel more deeply about how they interacting with all these things.”

“Maybe this was how it was for a long, long time,” he muses. “These guys have nobody. There’s no law. No leader. No shaman. No power structure. They are anarchists living in harmony. (Technology) makes it easier for us to hide from our problems. We have created this place where we can kind of do and create anything that we want, but we’re only slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that it might not be healthy for us.

“It’s like we’ve been in the sweet shop for so long; we’ve gorged ourselves; and sweets taste great, but we are so unhealthy now.”

Bruce Parry's TAWAIBruce Parry's TAWAI

Anthropologists Jerome and Ingrid Lewis enhance Parry’s view about the Penan. “They told me, ‘Bruce, by every means and tests by which scientists say these things, they have always come out as, by far, the most peaceful people on earth’.”

Where have we gone so wrong then?

“When I talk to indigenous Shaman, I say to them: ‘What do you think is the biggest condition of industrialised nations that you’re having to deal with?’ They say: ‘You’re all in your heads. You are all in your heads the whole time.’

“We’re living in the most interconnected time in history and we’re the most isolated, atomised and lonely we’ve ever been, so clearly technology is not the answer, but it could be an amazing tool in helping us break down these walls and barriers; stop the power lines of communication that used to always control us and have more peer-to-peer communication. I’m up for that.”

Bruce Parry's TAWAIBruce Parry's TAWAI

Reflecting further on our modern way of going about things, Parry continues: “We’re very good at throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because if the messenger isn’t perfect, we’re not interested in the message. That’s a fundamental flaw of ours, because there’s so much more nuance.

“People forget the fact that it’s the religious institutions that have brought these things. Over time, at one point, there was a desperate desire to try and bring about more cohesion within society, and that’s what that part of our society was trying to do.”

In terms of his relationship with faith, Parry walked away from his Catholic upbringing around the time of his mid-twenties. “I started out with quite a lot of belief. The belief didn’t go beyond my twenties. I’d say 25 or 26.

“I have been through a big journey. From a time of belief, to a rocky and a very complex time of moving away. I had one or two experiences that really clarified that it wasn’t real for me. Then there was an intellectual embarrassment; that naivety of just buying into something, followed by a yearning for atheism, which so many go to, because you don’t want to be sided with people who just blindly believe anything.”

Bruce Parry's TAWAIBruce Parry's TAWAI

It was a move that failed to resolve matters.

“Atheism clearly didn’t fit with some of the other stuff that I was experiencing living with indigenous groups. It didn’t answer to my deeper experiences and feelings,” he reasons. “So where do I want to now place my belief with all of these different options that I have?

“In the end, I kind of leaned towards thinking about one that includes nature, includes every species, includes everything and doesn’t place humans above. One that doesn’t exalt us in any way. That fitted with my experiences.”

And his hopes for this film? ‘To inspire people to look at themselves. The whole point of the story is to show how we got here. The transition over time. It’s not necessarily to beat ourselves up, but to realise that we have to reflect on ourselves a bit. These changes that we have to make could be incredibly positive. There are other ways of living that are amazing and other ways that we can form a society and all the rest of it.”

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