“Tawai”: a film of both beauty and truth

“The forest says we are part of the same family.”

~ The Penan tribe, Borneo

Many of us will remember Bruce Parry for his seminal TV series, Tribe, which aired on the BBC between 2005 and 2007. Each episode saw Parry spend a month with a different tribe from around the world, living, sleeping, eating with them, as well as taking part in their — at times, eye-watering — ceremonies. (If you haven’t watched Tribe then I really urge that you do. It is a brilliantly insightful and educational series, filmed with real gentleness, humility and humour.)

Tawai is Parry’s response to what he learned in Tribe, in particular around the issue of globalisation. I went to a showing of the film the day after it was launched, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and Parry was there for a Q&A following the film. In his introduction, Parry joked that sadly this would be a very different type of film than that of the style of Tribe: no hallucinogenic drugs, noses being pierced or animal blood being drunk. (Shame!) Instead, Tawai was to be a much “slower, methodical, and poetic” piece. And indeed it was.

Bruce Parry.jpgPhoto credit: S Elkerton

The film explores the idea of our impact on the environment, of our connectedness with nature and with each other. Parry returns to the Penan tribe in Borneo and the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon, spends time with a group of sadhus (mystic men) in India, and gets deep into discussion closer to home with a neuroscientist on the Isle of Skye, Dr Iain Gilchrist. He poses the question: how do we relate to the world around us and to each other?

But first, what is tawai?

There is no direct translation for the Penan people’s word tawai, but it is described as being akin to the feeling of being held by one’s mother and the safety and nourishment that she provides. It is the word they attribute to the feeling the forest gives them. The Penan are nomadic hunter-gatherers, a completely egalitarian society and their way of life hasn’t changed for thousands of years, living as they do in harmony with the flux and flow of what the forest provides them. However, their home is now being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations — palm oil being used in a plethora of products from chocolate to cosmetics to household products — and this feeling of tawai is also under severe threat.

For the first time — ever — they are starting to settle, and this is because they need to prove to the Malaysian government that they actually live in the forest in order for the government to consider reducing the timber felling and not completely destroy their livelihood and age-old way of living. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they are inherently ‘at one’ with the forest, its changes and the language it speaks. However, they are now living in a log cabin, built by a foreign charity, and are starting to plant crops, which is a whole new approach for them. When they hunt, they are ‘in the moment’ and have a heightened awareness of their surroundings and their role to play within them. Farming means they now have to plan when they plant and harvest their crops, and to adjust their whole relationship with the forest and to the food it provides. This in turn is completely changing their connectedness and sense of being ‘at one’ with their surroundings.

“There is no tawai in a destroyed forest…”

~ The Pirahã tribe, the Amazon

The Penan’s ability to read the forest and intrinsically understand its signals means that they have a very different concept of time. For example, they don’t anticipate when a certain fruit will flower; they simply wait for the right signals from the birds flying to that fruit to know it is ripe and ready to pick.

This lack of a ‘modern’, westernised understanding of the concept of time is mirrored by the Pirahã people, who live deep in the Amazon. They still hold onto many traditional beliefs and say they commune with spirits that guide them in the forest and that they make decisions based on omens they see. They exist so much in the moment of their reality that their language doesn’t have past or future tenses: for them, only the present exists.

The Pirahã have also resisted changes to their way of life, but the outside world is putting forces on them that is hard to avoid and ignore. They have also turned to farming which is changing their traditional way of life and, in turn, their belief systems. They, too, now feel in conflict with the forest.

“The trees talk and say ‘don’t cut us down; it hurts to die and be put in fires.'”

~ The Penan tribe, Borneo

Can our mindset affect our relationship with the world?

Why have those of us in our first world societies followed such a different path? The answer could be down to the fact that thousands of years ago we learnt how to domesticate crops and animals, which then created this sense of hierarchy and property. The economics that grew from these basic societies became more linear, more transactional, and less about sharing resources and the joy to be found in giving each other nourishment as part of a group. (As an aside, this idea is progressed in this fascinating article shared by Parry on Twitter.)

In Parry’s discussions with Dr. Gilchrist, we learn that the brain has two hemispheres: left and right. When the brain takes on information and learns, the left hemisphere learns serially, bit by bit, and the right hemisphere learns simultaneously, seeing the fuller, broader picture. The hemispheres do work together and in unison, but over time the left hemisphere generally tends to ‘take over’ the learning as it becomes more powerful, thus leading it to feel it knows everything – it cannot conceive of a bigger picture. Dr Gilchrist surmises that if the world were created by the left hemisphere, it would be an inanimate world made of bits; if it were created by the right hemisphere, the world would be one and conscious.

“The whole universe has consciousness. It responds to us and us to it.”

“True understanding comes from empathy”

Parry applies this neuroscientific learning to the modern world: have we developed too much of a sense of hubris and think we know it all, when in fact we may have got it all wrong? Are we being led by our left hemisphere, losing our empathy to people and planet along the way? Would a right-hemisphere world be more balanced and able to see the full picture of all our interconnected actions?

“By lessening your wants, your needs, you can be at peace…”

As Parry spends time with a group of sadhus in India who are preparing for the next mass bathing in the spiritual river Ganges, we learn that the sadhus believe we are all one. We are the same: not different. “The truth lies where there are no thoughts”, one of the sadhus states, “the endless chatter of the mind stops us from feeling what’s going on in the body.” We need to clear the mind and be conscious and aware of what’s really happening.

In the West, we are always looking for the truth in things and stuff. But this is not the truth of the self. It is no doubt true to say that with our ongoing quest for new clothes, new shoes, the flashy car, the latest gadget, we are in fact increasingly out of tune with our surroundings and even more disengaged with our feelings, with our family and friends. We are more connected than ever, but potentially more alone. Parry talks about this idea of connectedness and the difficult balancing act of finding where we want to place ourselves on this planet further in this video, which I really recommend watching.

ganges.jpgPhoto credit: W Elkerton

Parry’s own inner turmoil

In the Q&A following the film, Parry acknowledges his inner turmoil and the hypocrisy in his flying around the world to film Tribe and Tawai and how these actions can contribute to being part of the wider global problem. He was once part of the ‘Ibiza party set’ but has since sold his home on the island to come back and to be part of the change he feels needs to happen. He believes we have the knowledge to live differently and make better and more informed choices. We need to learn to live in balance with the planet, to reconnect with the landscape and reassess our part to play within in. In essence, we need to live a more ‘right hemisphere’ way of life.

“Everything is connected. All that I do has an effect somewhere else. It’s easy to point the finger at governments and big corporations, but it makes it easy to ignore our part in the problem.”

~ Bruce Parry

The Kumbh Mela

The culmination of the film is the day of the mass bathing — the Kumbh Mela festival — which is incredible. The awe-inspiring scenes switch between being deep within the mass of the crowd to soaring up on high and seeing from above the thousands of hindus who make their way to the holy waters. You can get a sense of the scale here. Everyone is either naked or wearing a small loincloth, and daubed with white ash. Parry himself says at that moment, in the procession to the Holy Ganges, he sees himself as the same as everybody else, not a separate entity. There is a feeling that everything makes sense, and that he experiences an intense feeling of empathy with the people, the river, the clouds… With everything.

It could be said that this sense of ‘one-ness’ with the earth is what we are missing in our hectic modern lives, that this is the true reality that we should be seeking. Because as Parry says, “what we do to nature we ultimately do to ourselves.”

I really hope you find an opportunity to watch Tawai in your local cinema and are as moved by it as I have been. Maybe you will come out of it agreeing with me that we all need a little more tawai in our lives.




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