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The making of The Better the Harvest

Still from 'Fiery Nature'.Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.Jean-Pierre Hué

Photographer of Nature

French film maker, Jean-Pierre Hué, is a member of Club Picard in Amiens and a keen observer of the natural world. He is closely involved in running the prestigious International Wildlife Film Festival in Albert (Northern France).

Audiences at BIAFF 2005 had the chance to see one of his two excellent entries in the competition, The Better the Harvest, about the Surma people of the Rift Valley in Africa. The other, entitled Fiery Nature, dealt with wildlife in a volcanic area of Kenya.


Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.I had wanted to visit the Rift Valley for a long time. The impetus to make it happen was hearing that the tribal way of life in the Omo valley and in the neighbouring Surma valley (where the film was made) was being rapidly "polluted" by tourism. I particularly wanted to observe the ritual of the donga - single-handed combat using long poles.

The donga takes place twice a year after the maize harvest is garnered - hence the title: Plus la Récolte est Bonne (The Better the Harvest.) As the film explains the maize is used to make a bitter fermented drink. Men gulp it and gasp with tears in their eyes. The commentary wryly notes: "It is refreshing … very refreshing."

I knew that the next harvest would be in January. However, as the actual date of a donga could not be predicted, I set out on the journey accepting that I probably would not be able to see one.


Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.Through my travels I meet and talk with other like-minded people who enjoy the exploration of new places. Some of them who were familiar with that part of the world told me about the tribe and advised me how to set about going there, recommending an agency and a travel guide.

Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.I have to work for a living - a matter of necessity! At most I can take a fortnight off at one time. This journey alone meant one day's flight and three days of travel overland in a 4 by 4 - and the same in reverse going back. So regretfully I could allow only four clear days for making the film. The guide spoke Ethiopian and some of the tribe members were able to communicate in that language - enough for him to act as interpreter between me and the Surma.

We had to camp within the tribal territory and were given protection. Two weeks earlier 200 people had been killed in fighting between two other tribes - a dispute to do with cattle rustling - so the situation was "relatively dangerous"! I was soon accepted by the tribe and then found them sociable. I felt a sense of mutual respect. I think I could now go back and be immediately accepted. The children used to crowd round me, the women were friendly, and the village chief came to greet me each morning.

Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.Still from 'The Better the Harvest'.On the last evening our party invited the people of the community to eat with us. We had brought food from a market and they brought a goat which they roasted on a spit. The guide, an excellent cook, also had a little stove. After the meal we talked for most of the night. I still remember words they taught me from their language, for example their terms for dog ("rosso") and moon ("tanguy"). Eventually I went to bed. The next morning, they were still lying there, huddled together for warmth - they had stayed the whole night. The experience was magical.

History of Success

Still from 'Fiery Nature'.Still from 'Fiery Nature'.I began my photographic career a long time ago. Starting first with slides, I moved on to Super-8mm. I made one film on 16mm and after that switched to video. My first movie was made in 1976-7. With around 25 films under my belt I have close to a hundred awards.

The shooting of Fiery Nature meant a similar timetable of travel to a remote part of Kenya and just four days to capture the material. Most of the shots of flamingos and baboons were done with long lenses but I was able to get very close. Interestingly none of the original sound could be retained - too much wind noise - so the soundtrack was pieced together from music and effects. It usually takes me between one and two months to edit and prepare the film for showing - working almost every evening and some weekends. It is like having another life!

Interfering with Paradise?

Still from 'Fiery Nature'.Still from 'Fiery Nature'.I said earlier that that tribes are being "polluted" by tourism more and more. This brings in money with which they buy things that they don't need. They stop working and become increasingly dependent on tourism, on a civilisation which is not theirs. It amounts to the destruction of the values on which their society is built.

Sadly I believe that in a year or two the route which I followed will also have become a tourist trail strewn with luxury camp sites for the wealthy. I regret that there are fewer and fewer places in the world where one can experience the sort of paradise which I visited and filmed - because, for me, it is a paradise - as they are taken over by business interests to provide novelty for people with lots of money.

While we may believe that this should be opposed, it is a phenomenon that we just don't have the means to fight against.

- Jean-Pierre Hué talked to Dave Watterson with translation by Pat Menmuir.

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Page updated on 07 October 2011
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