Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wade Davis' Miniseries on the National Geographic Channel

Modern-day explorer's miniseries illuminates problem of dwindling ethnic diversity
Feb 03, 2007 04:30 AM


Wade Davis, the British Columbia-born National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, produces and hosts the upcoming four-part miniseries based on his 2001 book Light at the Edge of the World. It begins Wednesday on the National Geographic Channel.

Q Discuss your reasons for turning your book into a TV miniseries.

A I say in my TV introduction that the year I was born (1953) there were 6,000 working languages in the world. Now? Fully half are no longer being taught to the next generation, meaning a vast amount will disappear. Unless there's a huge change they are effectively dead. And I wanted to show how this is reversible, contrary to popular misconceptions. National Geographic, my home, has done wonderful studies about ecological disasters such as rainforest depletion or pollution. This one is even bigger – that we must save our own diversity or much of our humanity is lost forever.

Q How did you get started on such a huge project?

A My title at NG is explorer-in-residence. It's a very select band including oceanographer Bob Ballard, Jane Goodall (she has left), the Leakey family. We are banded together so NG has our resources and experience to draw upon and be distinguished from such TV channels as Discovery. In return for all the NG support I could possibly want, I'm contracted to work as little as 15 days a year for the organization. That's how this one started – with my ongoing investigation into the collapse of cultural diversity.

Q So how did you start this one up?

A I wanted to show the erosion of the ethnosphere and then how it can be stopped. I'm very big on storytellers who could change the world by keeping their language going. I start in South America – it's an area I know very well – where I gathered my botanical collections (over 6,000 plant species).

Q First up you're in the Andes with Indians who have artfully blended the Catholicism of the Spanish invaders with their Incan ancestry to produce something quite spiritual.

A I knew many of these people from other trips. I'm godfather to one boy in another village. And I wanted to show how they work the land so very high up and approach it as Mother Earth, believing it will continue to provide them with crops. ... The terrain is so far up, I had some altitude problems the first day until I adjusted. You see how the farmers are teasing me during our breakfast of potato soup; that's what I wanted – to belong.

Q Episode 2 (Feb. 14) set in Polynesia is entirely different. Visually it is splendid.

A This wasn't a one-man operation; I had Andrew Gregg as director, Gordon Henderson as executive producer for 90th Parallel in Toronto and a truly superb crew. They had to get the visuals for what I was saying and that can often prove tricky. In Episode 2 we look at the magnificent achievements of the Polynesians who settled a great triangle in the Pacific that is a million square miles of what? Tiny islands and yet with their seafaring canoes they could pinpoint Easter Island and hit it without any of the modern navigational equipment.

Q Episode Three (Feb. 21) is your most personal statement about your own spiritual trek in Nepal and what Buddhism means to you. For me it was the hardest to watch although the scenery was magnificent.

A It's my most personal statement on the subject. I just felt so serene even when we were arriving by rickety Russian helicopter. I think we hit some high points, including the visit to one of the Dalai Lama's teachers, the remarkable monk Matthieu Ricard, and the remarkable nun who had never been photographed before. And the soaring scenery everywhere. But you're right, much of it is an interior journey.

Q Finally, beautifully, we wind up in Canada's farthest north. (Feb. 28).

A I've worked there more than once. The irony is that just as the people are turning back to their own ways, away from globalism, something else enters the picture – global warming, which could disrupt or shatter their whole world. We travel to Igloolik to follow local hunter Theo, who uses both modern and traditional ways of hunting. At Greenland's Qaanaaq community the people have even banned snowmobiles.

Q Can any TV series, however well intentioned, change people's thinking?

A The answer is yes, because our attitudes are shifting already. We look at the wars today caused by cultural dislocation. People are questioning so much, as they should. But some American networks have already passed on the miniseries, claiming it has too many ideas. Too many! This from a culture where many teens do not know where Iraq is and yet their older cousins could be fighting there tomorrow.

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