“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit lies the answer to the mystery of why we climb.” – Greg Child
The promise of five uniquely compelling stories led my camera out the door again this spring and once again we thought, who are we not to follow? Though our Boston Terrier JB would tend to disagree, we’ve found that extended time away makes coming home all the sweeter. This spring, our journey began with our time in India finishing principal photography for my forthcoming documentary THE STARFISH THROWERS and then spanned five countries as we continued our campaign for the University of Minnesota, creating four short films that tell the story of some remarkable alumni of the U’s Carlson School of Management. The last of these stories brought us to Switzerland and as we wrapped 14 days of back-to-back production on a Friday, an Alpine retreat was calling our names something fierce that Saturday. My wife Jen had been here before and knew of the magic of a place called Lauterbrünnen.
Within and above the most picturesque valley the imagination can conjure, rests a small alpine village that fills your lungs with the freshest of air while it fills your head with visions of another way of living. The term “quaint” (attractively unusual or old fashioned by way of Merriam Webster) could be considered a starting point to describe the vibe of this mostly indescribable village. And for those who wish to adventure further, a cable car is waiting to whisk you and 70-80 other passengers to greater heights to the pedestrian only village of Mürren or all the way to the very top of the Shilthorn where James Bond memorabilia awaits at the very spot they filmed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
But as much of Bond fan as I am, we weren’t there for the action film hoopla. We were there to slow down and were immediately taken with the unique beauty of a place that reminds us of no where else we’ve ever been but that welcomed us with a pot of fondue and an Alpine smile. And that was more than fine by us.
When first stepping foot on foreign soil, one of several things immediately takes hold of your senses. Often, it’s a smell – from the Spruce and wood smoke of northern Italy, all the way to the petrol and piss of Mumbai. Sometimes it’s a sound – unfamiliar, loud, disorienting, yet strangely pleasing. Occasionally, the place will simply look like no where you’ve been before. But once in a great while, a place will enliven all of your senses simultaneously. For me, Cambodia was such a place. From the vibrant orange robes worn by the Buddhist monks, to the loudspeaker call to prayer, to woodsmoke rising above grilled squid, to your clothes sticking unforgivably to your body – Cambodia let you know you where you were. And once immersed, you discovered an incredibly kind people going about their daily lives – but not without a smile to a foreign stranger. And not without exchanging laughter with friends and neighbors. For a people that have recently endured a tragedy most of the world will never know, Cambodians surprise you with their easy laughter and eagerness to show foreigners delight in their own local traditions.
We travelled to Cambodia to document the unique story of a genocide survivor, Kilong Ung who was bringing his family to his homeland for the first time for the documentary Risking Light. He explained to his children how he was lucky to be alive and showed them the rice paddy where he was forced to work as a slave for four years before escaping to America – but not before losing the majority of his family to the harsh conditions of living under the Khmer Rouge. It was throughout this process of remembering and discovering that he taught his son and daughter what forgiveness has meant to him and what it could mean to them.
And so document we did. And discover. And taste. And learn. And imagine what life must have been like. And reflect upon what it means to be born in one corner of the world versus another. And then feel gratitude for the perspective one is given by connecting with a foreign people over one the most basic of human pleasures – sharing our stories.
My journey through Cambodia was a profound one. It was an emotionally and physically exhausting one, but one that brought a newfound perspective on life back home – one that made daily living more meaningful upon my return. One full of those rare, perspective-expanding moments when you pause amidst the chaos and think, “This moment here. This is the reason I travel.”
Jallikattu is one of the most ancient living sports still being practiced in the modern era. This is the taming of the bulls, Tamil style. According to legend, Tamil warriors back in the 3rd century B.C. would practice jallikattu with the women of the village observing from on high. Successful matadors found themselves being chosen as grooms by the village’s most respected and beautiful women. While this tradition has evolved through the years, the basic concept remains intact. Bull taming is still done for prestige – as well as for prizes worth risking a bull horn in the most unpleasant of places. We were fortunate enough to witness this Jallikattu earlier this year in a village just outside of Madurai, India called Alanganallur. Bravery, pride and dust hung thick in the air as these gentlemen carried forward a 2300 year old tradition that has been met with controversy in recent years. Despite threats to ban the practice indefinitely, many believe the tradition will never be lost. It’s embedded deep in a culture that holds tight to many rich and colorful rituals and as a wise man told us in Tamil Nadu, “When it comes to technology, newest is greatest – but when it comes to tradition, oldest is greatest.” By this measure, we may hope that Jallikattu will be with us for many years to come.
Last month, my wife and I had the good fortune to find ourselves meandering down the emerald coastline of Brittany. While navigating the Crozon peninsula’s historic abbeys, abandoned fishing villages and emerald cliff tops, we found ourselves digging in the exposed sea bed for some of our very favorite things in the world to eat: shellfish. Among the targets of the nautical scavenger hunt were oysters, mussels, razor clams and winkles. Our host Joel, was kind enough to show us the ways of the salt shaker and shovel when it comes to digging clams and navigating the craggy sea floor. We ended the afternoon with a collection of tasty morsels in our basket, which our host would later cook for us at our traveller’s cottage – known in this area as a gité. We settled in with a bottle of home made fermented apple cidré (bearing no resemblance to the sweeter American variety – Woodchuck et al) and enjoyed the bounty of our hunt. For a day spent in borrowed wellies while digging in the seaweed and sand – it doesn’t get much better than this.
Our experience in India this January was difficult to put into words, which is one of the reasons we felt fortunate to be able to put it into images. We spent two weeks filming for the forthcoming documentary, THE STARFISH THROWERS in Tamil Nadu with CNN hero Narayanan Krishnan who cooks for and feeds more than 400 homeless people every day of the year. Here, we’ve gathered 300 behind-the-scenes moments from our time there in just over 2 minutes.
A huge thank you to all of our kind hosts at the Akshaya Trust, without whom the voyage and film would not be possible.
Learn more about the film at thestarfishthrowers.com