Story Time With Derksen: Loose in the Land of the Dawnlit Mountains

Story transcribed by Mikayla Banman, AoA Writer

In 2007, I joined a Discovery Channel film crew going to North Eastern India. The destination was a restricted state of India called Arunachal Pradesh where we were filming among the Wancho tribal people; a little known tribe that live on the border with Mayan-Mar, also known as Burma. It’s all high country, rolling hills, very precipitous terrain, and, because it’s a restricted state, the people there are very isolated. Indians can go there, but generally don’t because to get into villages you have to embark on a difficult to travel, with few roads. So as a film crew it was quite difficult getting in and out of places.

Our main reason for going there was to film Wancho tribal tattoo practices. We were travelling with a cultural anthropologist by the name of Lars Krutak, who is the world authority on tribal tattoos, a really cool guy, and I have stayed good friends with him. There was another guy I was with, a cameraman, Pablo Durana, and he’s gone on to win an Oscar and do great things. When he was with us in 2007 he was quite a bit younger and a cameraman, but he was also like the runner guy. Pablo was all over the place, getting things for Lars and for me. I was the expedition leader, so I had organized the whole shoot and gone in and spent a month with these people prior to the TV crew coming out. I got to know the people, met the Emperor of these seven tribal villages, and got his permission in order to come in and film; as well as the permission of the Indian government. It was a crazy process and by the time everyone got there I knew the people fairly well, and they liked me I guess, so we were good to film.

We had this crazy film shoot, I think it was March 2008 we actually ended up filming; it took a year to get permits and all of the pieces in place. So I had employment for a good chunk of time, which in this industry is hard to get. When we went back, it was like being welcomed back as a brother. These people were amazing. We filmed their tattoo practices, a young girl got tattooed which hadn’t been done for many years, and it was like this tattoo revival. The only person who is allowed to tattoo is the Emperor’s mother: the Queen. The Queen was the tattoo mistress, and she hadn’t done a tattoo for years so she was pretty excited, and it went really well.

Unfortunately, there were some guerrilla insurgents, (people who are against the way that part of the state was set up) and they were trying to overthrow the local government in that area. As an expedition leader, it was my job to handle all the security, so I had my like, CIA guys out there, literally I had undercover guys keeping an eye out for me. Then one of my guys came to me and said, “There are guys with guns coming up the valley, they know you have cash and they might try to take you hostage, or kidnap you guys and hold you for ransom.” That’s how they get their money to help run their guerrilla operation. I had to tell the director and we ended up pulling the shoot early. We got some really great footage though, and we were able to create the show anyway.

We were all so sad the last night before we left because we’d spent so much time getting ready, and we really liked the people and they had been so hospitable. They were the type of people who were not used to filming so it wasn’t an ego thing, to them it was “these people are going to capture our culture with the strange machines”. They didn’t understand what a second take was about, like they would ask “Why would I do something again?” They had no concept of the idea. But, the really weird thing was they had heard of Discovery Channel. They knew that in other parts of India there was Discovery India, so they knew that Indian people were going to learn about their culture, and they were excited about that. As I was saying, we were very sad to leave because we’d gotten to know these people. One thing is that the Wancho tribal people, like other tribal groups, treat you the same way. Especially if they’re not used to outsiders, they’re always either very suspicious at first, then welcoming, or welcoming from the get go. They’re just extremely gracious people who have very little, but lots of generosity and a willingness to learn about what you do. They will feed you whatever they have, and we always take these things for granted, but these people have so little and yet are so generous.