Andre Singer recalls the challenges in making Disappearing World

Were there any countries that you couldn’t get access to? Was there anywhere that you wanted to film but for various reasons you couldn’t? Or was it always usually quite straightforward?

Yes, I was a bit stymied with my own area of interest, which was Iran. And I’d done my fieldwork in Iran, and I wanted to do work there, and tried a couple of times, but even then, it was just coming up to the revolution time, 1979 was Khomeini, and so I knew we wouldn’t get permission to go and do anything there.

I wanted to work in Afghanistan, and I couldn’t at that time. I did later on when I left, and did some films in Afghanistan, but… except for the Khyber film, and I did that as a kind of non-Disappearing World. It got roofed by Granada under the Disappearing World label, Khyber. It was more a history film about the end of the British Empire and Afghanistan, but I couldn’t really get proper Disappearing World access.

And the Soviet Union, but Brian had done his Mongolian thing at that time, and that didn’t go down too well. That was one of the least successful, I think, of that sort of loose umbrella. But I think the decision-making was not so much, “Let’s go for difficult places,” but much more, “Let’s go for places where anthropologists have found really interesting stories.” And that’s where your show came in. It was, if you’ve got a good anthropologist, they’ve got a good access, and you can get the intimacy that you need to tell their story properly, that’s more important than, “This is remote or difficult,” or whatever, which is more the sort of gung ho adventure side of it, which I didn’t really have a problem with.

And would Granada, whoever they were, and I know it was a kind of non-hierarchical hierarchical management. But were they fairly relaxed in terms of health and safety? Or at that stage, was it more relaxed than it would be today in terms of, you can go off for several months?

Could you imagine doing a Mursi film today? It absolutely wouldn’t even start. And some of the second film… well, both the films I did as researcher, the first two. The first one was completely crazy in today’s terms. It was on the Iraq-Iran border. Tensions and shootings going on between the Kurds in Iraq and the Iranian government. So, it wasn’t a war zone, but it was a pretty tense friction zone. And people were being killed along that border. Drug smuggling was going on intensely there. I got access to it simply because an anthropologist friend of mine, an Iranian, I believe his father-in-law, was head of the Iranian secret police, SAVAK. So, we had a very powerful person up top.

But it was an area that you could only go in… it’s kind of a World in Action, ‘under the barbed wire’ type place, which today you would never, ever get insurance permission on the dangers of it. So, we could see the guards on the border line. We had strict instructions about things we could and couldn’t film about women under the veil, which were all sort of something that Brian didn’t enjoy. If you do interview Brian, it’d be interesting to know his reaction to that film, because I mean, he spoke the language, knew the people, had the passion… suddenly for him to jump to Iran, to a culture he had absolutely no sympathy of knowledge of. We couldn’t film the women, even. And so, it was really frustrating for him. But we could do that. Then I went with Charlie Nairn to Afghanistan and we were in the Northeast Pamirs of Afghanistan, could only get there by yak or horseback. Incredibly long, dangerous, difficult journey along the mountain tracks, and so on. A fantastic journey, real adventure stuff, but again, today, we’re on the Russian border, Pakistan border, Chinese border, in that little peninsula there. No way you could do that properly today. And Granada were very relaxed about it.

I was surprised that nothing untoward never seemed to happen really, that you all came back unscathed. Yes.

Now I look back on it, I wonder how! I had no real problems or difficulties on any of the films that I worked with in that sort of sense. We had some problems on the film I directed on the Azande, where David Jenkins was the researcher. I see him occasionally. David had a crash, an accident, while setting up the film before I came out. And we had quite a lot of difficulty there, getting the gain in the Southern Sudan, sort of semi-civil unrest and difficulty on that thing. That was a tough location. It was.

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