“Will you continue travelling? And are you planning any more films?”
These questions always came up after screenings of Janapar. And I always answered them… vaguely.
I replied that I’d keep travelling regularly – but only while it remained relevant to my life.
And I replied that I’d definitely consider making another film – but because filmmaking is incredibly difficult, immensely time-consuming and remarkably thankless, it’ll really have to be a story I feel passionate about, just as Janapar was.
Well – you know the joke about waiting hours for a bus and then two coming along at once…?
Last year, while I was travelling in Iran and Patagonia together with fellow adventure filmmaker Leon McCarron, I stumbled upon two stories I felt needed to be told, and about which there were two new films begging to be made.
We’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund them, and I want to tell you why – out of all the films I could have chosen to make after Janapar – I chose these two.
* * *
The first is the story of Tenny’s homeland, which is, as you’ll probably know, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I’ve been back every year since we first cycled there together in 2008. I travelled there alone in 2013 to learn Farsi. And last year I went back with Leon and a video camera to try and capture more of this beautiful, inspiring and misunderstood nation.
To do this, we followed the Karun, Iran’s longest river, from source to sea by foot, packraft and (of course) bicycle, in order to see and film as broad a slice of culture and geography as we could.
But Iran has its problems too. And despite having no political agenda, we felt some of the more needling issues throughout our journey; issues concerning the fundamental freedoms we take for granted in the West.
These intangible forces affected and directed our trip – in part, ironically, because of my growing familiarity with Iran and my ability to speak and understand the language.
And so there’s another story here, one which tells the raw, undiluted story of our experiences there and delves into the issues and complexities, as well as all that’s wonderful about travel in Iran. This’ll be the focus of the new, feature-length film of this adventure.
More than ever, I believe that we need to understand each other across cultural boundaries to make the world a better place. That, to me, involves acknowledging that the world is incredibly complex, and that we all struggle to understand these complexities.
That’s a healthier worldview than either viewing everything new through rose-tinted spectacles, or (worse) viewing everything new with fear and xenophobia – both of which are lazy, generalised approaches to something which cannot honestly be thus reduced.
* * *
The second story is from Patagonia and was found as we crossed the region on horseback.
This one was Leon’s idea – I went along as the filmmaker of the group. The original plan was to follow a historical exploration made by Charles Darwin and Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, among others. But that’s not the story we found when we got there.
Instead, we found an impending social and environmental injustice of epic proportions, happening in a part of the world where there’s nobody there to watch it happen. The majority of a 250-mile-long wilderness river valley, the Santa Cruz, is set to be destroyed by the building of two Chinese-funded megadams, despite an increasing number of question marks over the credibility of the project and the reasons for it being rushed into construction.
I’m usually a fairly rubbish environmentalist, outside of the incidentals of my naturally low-impact lifestyle. But journeys like this can’t help but forge attachments to places and people, as I discovered on the journeys that became Janapar.
And so, when I heard of the concern, the confusion, the indignation and the hopelessness of many who stand to be directly affected by the Santa Cruz dam project, I once again realised that this was a story that needed to be told, and that by virtue of simply being there, we were the best people to tell it.
* * *
Why are these two films all of a sudden the ‘right’ films for me to make?
It has to do with evolving personal motivations.
Whether we spend our lives planning, filming and writing about adventures, or putting our skills and interests to entirely different ends, most of us experience this. It’s not just about stagnation and repetition in a given craft, either – it’s about redefining our values based on what we learn as we go through life.
When we made Janapar, I was well aware that it was a personal narrative first and foremost. It was about what happened to me as I grew up on the road. It resonated with lots of people, because, well, everyone has either grown up or is in the process of doing so. The basic lessons we learn are broadly the same. I just happened to articulate a few of them to a video camera in a particularly unusual set of circumstances!
But you only grow up once (or so I’m told). Whatever happened next, I wanted to turn the lens away from myself and towards the stories I found as I travelled. And, after a filmmaking hiatus of several years (we made Janapar in 2011), I found and filmed two such stories last year in Iran and Patagonia.
* * *
Now, there are a lot of challenges associated with travelling and storytelling. Journeys tends to follow a predictable pattern – you make some miles, something happens, you learn something, you make some more miles – and that pattern can easily get repetitive and lack depth. That’s why there are relatively few really strong travel narratives out there.
Travel enough and you become aware of this. You crave a renewal of meaning. And there seems to be three main ways to make adventures more meaningful – and thus strengthen the films you can make about them.
One is the mode of transport, which can also be thought of as the way in which you connect to and interact with the place you’re in.
The second comes from language, or the way in which you connect to and interact with the people who live there – how you communicate with the people you meet.
The final way lies in your attitude. When you’re young, it’s all about novelty and wonder, rounding off the rough edges of your personality in the process. Things can diverge from there in a multitude of ways; the personal, as you seek to use travel as an escape; or the professional, if you seek to make a living from it. Either way, you begin to specialise.
Transport and language are things I’m going to be writing about separately over the next few days, as they deserve to be elaborated upon. But in terms of attitude, my own path seems to be moving towards exploring and understanding issues that matter in today’s world.
It’s intrinsically satisfying to create something that moves the world a little closer to the one you’d like to live in, as I’m hoping we’ll be able to do with Karun: Misadventures On Iran’s Longest River, and later the Patagonia film.
And I’m hoping that – by connecting to the places through our mode of transport, connecting to the people through common language, and having our eyes open for issues that matter in their lives – we’ll have captured two stories that go far beyond the ins and outs of the journeys themselves and explore unique and unreported aspects of the world we all live in.
Tomorrow I’ll be writing about how this dyed-in-the-wool cycle traveller got on with walking, paddling and horse-riding. Turns out there’s a lot of not-so-obvious similarities – and a few big differences I hadn’t appreciated until I tried them. Stay tuned…