Leslie Woodhead on Disappearing World, the most intriguing thing he has been involved in as a documentary maker

The main strand, as opposed to individual documentaries, was Disappearing World. That, like most things for me, happened kind of by accident.

Was that programme already in existence?

Yes, it was. Before I worked on it… Brian Moser started Disappearing World, again, Denis Forman… it was very much Denis’ obsession. He had become very keen to use Granada’s documentaries to record the lives of threatened cultures, basically, and to make observational films in which the local populations in remote parts of the world would tell their own stories, and the other decisive thing is they would all be made in co-operation with anthropologists who knew these people, had their trust – crucially, spoke their languages – and could take us in there in a way that would allow us to do the kind of films we were talking about.

So Brian had started that out in the early 70s, he made a couple of one-offs, but the first six-part strand of Disappearing World was going to happen in ’74, and one of these was in Ethiopia. Roger Graef, the great observational film documentary maker, was working at Granada at that time, and he had been asked to make a film with a tribe of migrant cattle-herders in south west Ethiopia, who had the most extraordinary way of making decisions about what the group would do. They would hold public debates in which any man – not women, of course – was allowed to stand up and say, “We should move the cattle here, we should keep them there, we should do this, we should do that,” and this sounded absolutely fascinating – it as a genuine democracy, a leaderless society, and in fact from what we were told, a man got status by ability to speak in these debates, so that was fascinating.

So Roger, because he was working in this kind of area, doing observational films about decision-making, was asked to do this, and my great luck was that Roger decided he wouldn’t do it unless they took a unit doctor on location – I mean, this was absolutely inconceivable – these people lived somewhere off the edge of the known world, accessible only by flying 300 miles, getting dumped in the bush by a plane that would then fly off and leave you there for six or seven weeks – but I said, “I would love to do that.” It was extremely foolhardy, but anyway, off we went, in the June ’74, to make a film with these people, the Mursi, which was an overwhelming experience. I mean, it’s one of the most, perhaps the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me in television. When we got there, we found ourselves in the middle of a major tribal war between the Mursi and their neighbours, and we were dropped 40 miles away from where they lived and from where we were going to make the film. We had to work out a way to carry our equipment those 40 miles through the bush, through the war, filming as best we could along the way, then walk around a lot while we were there, and then walk back again. So it was a round trip of… I reckon we walked 200 miles on that trip, just grabbing what we could – and it was maximum difficulty, it was just hellish. I had never spent a night in a tent, and we were stuck doing this… in fact I got one of my World in Action crews to do this with me, so we were one camera, one sound, me and André Singer, who was the researcher.

We thought we could fly a Jeep in there in the Dakota, but then we discovered we got the wrong fuel for it, God help us, so we were stuck in the middle of the Ethiopian bush with the wrong fuel, and the Jeep broke down in 200 yards, so we had to walk, and Andre stayed and watched the Jeep while we made the film. And I thought until quite late in that, “We haven’t got a film here. It is so difficult to just be and survive here, we barely have anything to film.” But as so often with these things, on the very last morning before we had to turn around and walk back for the plane, the whole thing exploded, and we got amazing footage of one of these big debates about what to do about the war and all of that.

And that… and I became absolutely… I remember writing about this and saying, “This is the most absorbing business of my life. It’s captivatingly interesting, terribly alarming, but it stretches everything I’ve got, and it’s kind of one of the things documentaries seems to be for.” And then I went back five other times across the 70s and into the 90s to make more films with the same group of people, recording hat happened to them as their lives changed beyond recognition, basically they collided with the outside world, the Ethiopian government got fed up with them and wanted to control them, and I made my last film with them in 2001 – so that’s gone on for 35 years of being with the Mursi. And along the way I also did films with Sherpas in the Himalayas, with Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees, with fisherman in the South Pacific… so I did 10 Disappearing World’s, of which six were with the Mursi. But they have really, as I am throwing away photographs in my outhouse here prior to moving house, I am finding that 60% of all the photographs are on Disappearing World. That sense of tapping into the exotic was overwhelming, and I still count those as the most intriguing things I have ever been involved with as a documentary maker.

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