Consider this: the Waorani, a people indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon, are some of the most isolated humans in the world. They reside in a near-unreachable part of the rain forest—the Tiputini River area in the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve. They harbor an extreme sense of xenophobia, often repelling outside contact with violence (spears and poison blow darts). The combination of these traits has allowed the development of an incredibly distinct culture, including a unique language—a “language isolate,” free of relation to other tongues.
In the 1990s, the discovery of oil in the Tiputini region inevitably attracted oil companies and other industries. The once impenetrable Waorani were forced into contact with modernity. Boat motors, guns, and other modern technologies were traded for use of the land. With increased contact came culture shock, and many Waorani have forgotten or lost touch with much of their native culture. However, a group of concerned Waorani youth has teamed up with several concerned, outside researchers to document and reclaim their disappearing culture. Their plan is to venture into the rain forest depths and contact Waorani elders, in order to learn the history of the Waorani language and develop a Spanish/Waorani dictionary—espcecially for the region’s
This is a case of extremes: a highly unique but threatened group of people caught up in rapid modernization, and an extremely biodiverse, far-flung, and rich natural environment. These two extremes are bound together by a gripping, human story—a decidedly ambitious narrative undertaking. However, that story is going to be told by the rather compact Prehensile Productions. Prehensile is a local documentary filmmaking company based out of Somerville, MA and Providence, RI—a two-person affair co-founded by Jennifer Berglund and Brown alum Keith Heyward ‘07.
SCIENTIST FILMMAKERS/FILMMAKER SCIENTISTS
“We first met in Ecuador in 2005,” said Heyward. “I was at Brown but she was at Boston University. Boston University has a tropical ecology program… So I guess we’re both scientists [both Heyward and Berglund are biologists], and we traveled all around Ecuador. For part of it, we stayed a month in Tiputini.”
At the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, the two studied with biologist Kelly Swing, who, says Berglund, is one of the Waorani documentary’s “main characters.” It wasn’t until later that Heyward and Berglund became interested in film. After the study abroad program, Heyward began making short video projects for fun. This led to a reprise with Berglund on a film project about white-faced capuchin monkeys in the Costa Rican dry forests of Lomas Barbudal.
“Costa Rica was after college, after working in a lab setting,” said Heyward. “I didn’t like that, so I went and studied monkeys.”
The final product, a short documentary film called “Family Trees,” features highly stylized footage culled from months of filming with small but high-definition handheld cameras. This film helped anchor the budding production company—an impressive demonstration of ability from two people who had barely touched a camera, much less taken one into the jungle.
iMPROVISED , INNOVATIVE VIDEOGRAPHY
Heyward and Berglund have tapped a fellow Providence resident, Zach Weindel, to devise an “Amphibio-Hotairship: Hot Air Balloon for Filming the Amazon.” Weindel built a houseboat (called “Landlord Independent”) from scratch with his friend Dan Gladstone and resides there full time with his pet raven, Gurgy. Prehensile’s Kickstarter page features a video of Weindel, wide-eyed and raving about the potential of untapped vantage points that the Amphibio-Hotairship will make accessible.
The razzle-dazzle of an experimental, amphibious hot-air balloon only adds appeal to a project that already has a compelling subject in the Waorani people. But the Amphibio-Hotairship is just one way in which Prehensile is craftily improvising documentary filmmaking.
“A rig for a digital SLR camera is essentially a piece of aluminum with some poles in it. And they aren’t even made that well,” said Heyward. “You can buy all of that equipment or you can make something that essentially works the same but maybe doesn’t look as pretty.”
In addition to jerry-rigged mounts and rigs, Heyward is also working on a motorized camera dolly that can straddle branches in the rainforest canopy. And that’s where getting your mad-scientist friend from Providence, RI to build an Amphibio-Hotairship makes perfect sense. Prehensile Productions will be able to capture unique, never-before-seen shots that begin on the ground, rise up through the rain forest canopy, and conclude with a cinematic aerial vantage.
It’s innovations like these that will allow Prehensile’s film to be more cinematic in style—with smooth movements and highly composed shots—in contrast to what Heyward calls the typical “broadcast TV” aesthetic of documentary filmmaking that features “a lot of movement in the camera and zooming in.”
pREDATORS: sTREAMLINING pRODUCTION
On the Prehensile Productions website, Jennifer Berglund is listed as the co-producer, writer and director; Keith Heyward is the co-producer, videographer, editor, and artistic director. Both fit into a category of increasingly sought after professionals.
“Both of us learned this new term from some recent job listings,” said Berglund: “‘predators’—producer, director, editors.”
Advances in video technology combined with heightened expectations of technical skill sets has produced this niche job market for “predators.” Large scale productions are currently trending towards smaller, streamlined crews with expanded skill sets.
“With most things I see, I have an understanding of the TV industry, of how many people are involved and how much money goes into it and how unnecessary that is,” said Heyward. “When you see the final result, I always look at it and say that’s not too much different from something I did for 1/100th of the price.”
Predator production companies might be the harbingers of big-studio obsolescence—streamlined production means the elimination of redundant jobs. But at the same time, a small company like Prehensile is able to approach a project with an incredible amount of focus, intimacy, and creative control. Smaller production companies can make use of newer, smaller, and cheaper high-quality technology. The minimal personnel means that the cost of labor is cheap.
Prehensile Productions has frequently collaborated with Boston Science Communications, Inc., and that group’s president, Gino Del Guercio, a veteran PBS documentarian, will serve as the primary director for this project. But Heyward said the gear will be minimal—2 or 3 cameras, a few tripods, and lots of many-gigabyte SD cards. The crew will remain intimate: “In the past, crew members had specific jobs, but now, things are set up so that all of us can edit, all of us can shoot, produce, write.
The Yasuní Biosphere Reserve is famous for being one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Whether you’re a huge-crewed Discovery Channel expedition or the scrappy, two-person Prehensile Productions upstart, still have to face the challenge of being a human in one of the most extreme places on the planet.
“Tropics” means a place that has no seasons—climate extremes are plausible over the course of a day. The Prehensile crew will be shooting during the Ecuadorian Amazon’s “dry season,” but really, the rain forest is always damp and rainy (about 16” of precipitation per month in the peak rainy season vs. 6” per month in the dry). Berglund says the main challenge is keeping clothes and boots dry. Unattended moisture leads to aggressive fungus like foot rot: “I think you just have to have fresh pairs of everything.”
Beyond that, the flora and fauna are some of the biggest, most poisonous, most venomous, and most vicious in the world. And then if anything were to happen, helicopter evacuation is about the only option. Berglund’s description of the trip into Yasuní’s Tiputini River area is testament to its extreme remoteness: “To get there you have to go on a two-hour plane ride from the nearest major city to a little town called Coca. Then you have to take a two-hour boat ride to this oil road that goes to the rain forest. You drive down this road for two hours to get to this bridge where you get on a boat, then you take that boat for another two hours.”
Prehensile’s river boat will have a generator to charge the electronics. Durable, battery-powered hard drives will serve as storage for the many hours of footage—all of which will be shot onto memory cards, which are more rugged than tapes or discs.
Still, the constant moisture and frequent rain means filming conditions will often be spotty and that the electronics will be under constant duress. Heyward and Berglund will both get a lot of practice cleaning and drying out cameras, lenses and hard-drives. Berglund emphasizes the necessity of silica pellets to absorb moisture, as well as dry-bags: “containers you can just seal up and throw into the river and your stuff stays dry”
AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT
Cheap HD cameras, vimeo, and a general expansion of skill sets within film have enabled an explosion in high-quality, independent film. But in the world of nature documentaries, Prehensile Productions is one of the only boutique-sized studios. For this project, Prehensile is partnered with Boston Science Communications but is also raising money online. This film on the Waorani and Tiputini River will test the fledgling company’s scope, yet, as Berglund says, “It’s a story that tells itself.”
With a fresh take on documentary aesthetics and such engrossing subject material, there is plenty of room for this production team to explore and experiment with cinematography. If the film gets major distribution, it will be a success of DIY filmmaking. More importantly, it will provide an aesthetically-minded, educational feature on the disappearing Waorani culture and language, as well as diverse plant and animal life on the Tiputini: a fresh perspective made by the scientists and researchers on the ground.
“A lot of the time, the process is more interesting than the focus of the film,” said Berglund. Undoubtedly, this team’s process—how a handful of people with handmade rigs, dollies, and an experimental, amphibious hot air balloon filmed some of the world’s most isolated people in one of the most extreme, remote environments—will end up becoming a story of its own.
“It means so much more when you see someone who makes something great and you realize that they didn’t do it just because they had a lot of money or a large crew but because they were innovative,” said Heyward.
ALEX SPOTO B’11 struggles with foot rot in Providence.