May 14, 2020

TAWAI: a Film About Reconnection

By Bruce Parry /
TAWAI: a Film About Reconnection

"We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” - Albert Einstein

Tawai is a film about reconnection. It connects us to our ancestors and the type of life they may have lived. It connects us with our bodies and senses, inviting us to feel more deeply once again. It connects us to each other, our physical environment, and that which is beyond, by inviting us to reconsider the interconnected nature of all things. But the film is not the end of the story, and the bonus features included with the film and on the website, present an opportunity to go beyond the feature itself and learn a little of the filmmaker’s wider vision.

Tawai was born when I met the Penan people of Borneo for the BBC TV series Tribe. Having spent many months of my youth leading science and conservation expeditions to the world's third largest island, Borneo, I found it hard to believe that any nomadic tribal people could still be living there, as the forests were all but gone. The team that researched all the tribal groups for the series had, for a long time, suggested that we visit the Penan, but I was not so sure, and it was not until the very last episode that we decided to go - and I’m so glad we did because the experience changed my life.

I think that it was largely because I had lived with so many other tribal peoples before I met the Penan, that the significance of what they embodied became apparent to me. There was something about them that was so quietly powerful - an invisible but ever-present ambiance. I always researched as much as I could about each group before I visited them, learning from the passionate and diligent anthropologists who often devote their lives to their studies. Armed with these texts, I had a reasonable expectation of what the Penan might be like, and so I arrived with a preconceived understanding of their sharing culture, lack of leaders and possessions, and their conflict adverse ways. But on meeting them, I realised that there was something else there too, which I hadn’t gleaned from the texts, and which was much harder for me to put into words. Being with the Penan simply felt very different to all the other groups that I had lived with before. It was as if everyone else was on one side - and on the other side was the Penan - the difference was that real to me. And yet somehow, I still couldn’t discern what was causing this feeling.

At first I was fearful of expressing the idea that one group of people could be so different to all the others I had met. It felt wrong on many levels. And besides, despite being one of the last remaining nomadic hunter gatherer peoples on the planet, the Penan were Christians, wore old t-shirts, smoked cigarettes and spoke Malay, so didn’t fit the stereotype of what many would imagine a remote tribal group ‘should’ look like. But having already lived with so many indigenous communities, I felt that these were just superficial differences. I’d visited numerous groups that were much more isolated than the Penan, including some who were naked and still using stone tools, but with the Penan there seemed to be something else, something much deeper, going on.

My awakening to what this difference might be took a while, and putting it into words can still be difficult. But in time, and especially having met the wonderful Jerome and Ingrid Lewis, I have become more confident in expressing what I felt. I have come to believe that the Penan are perceiving the world, and themselves within it, in a profoundly interconnected way - subtly expressed, perhaps, in their word tawai. It’s not that they themselves are different, of course, but it’s as if their sense of identity and perception of that which is around them, is more holistic and less atomised than other cultures I’ve met - and this, in turn, influences every aspect of their lives. Ultimately, every other group of people I have ever met in my life, exist in societies of competition, hierarchy and ownership. The Penan, (and the tiny handful of other remaining egalitarian societies), do not. And what’s even more remarkable, is that this way of structuring society is now widely believed to make up 90% of our time on the planet as homo sapiens, thus making it our true, unified cultural heritage. Why wasn’t this more widely known, I wondered.

This new understanding of our shared past changed much for me, and led me to reevaluate many aspects of what I believe it is to be human. I came to realise that nearly every cultural story that surrounded me, was based on a perspective of human nature that did not take into account what the Penan, and our egalitarian past, has to offer. The debates will no doubt continue about what our true nature and history may be, but in my experience, it’s rare that peaceful, sharing societies like the Penan are included in the dialogue - such talk is often brushed aside as overly romantic and naive. The violent stories of our past, allow us to accept our warlike present, and promote the narrative that we are on a steady trajectory of betterment. There is no need to look back or within ourselves... “It has ever been thus!”

But I am no longer convinced of this, and my setting out to make Tawai was partly motivated by a desire to offer a different narrative. The Penan are not devoid of competition and aggression - of course not - it’s just that they’ve agreed upon a certain way of being, where each works hard to maintain the balance for the benefit of the whole. Furthermore, I have come to believe that through their daily meditation of hunting and gathering, they have found more balance in their minds than those who live in agricultural societies where the mind has moved to more abstract ways of thinking. This, mixed with their beliefs, increases the likelihood that they are experiencing a more richly empathic relationship with each other and their environment than many other societies, as Iain Mcgilchrist’s theories suggest in the film.

Our cultural denial of the benefits of egalitarianism and the way we once all lived, seems to run deep. The Penan are essentially anarchists and also some of the most peaceful people on earth, but nowhere in my cultural lexicon is anarchy given a positive spin. And time spent with the Penan has inspired me to realise that radically different ways of living together are not only possible, but might even be the best way for us to collectively flourish. Perhaps what we need is a new set of values, embedded in a different kind of story. An upgrade, perhaps, away from the belief that champions our individual pursuit of happiness and freedom as an inalienable right, toward one that sees us intrinsically linked to something larger than ourselves, and to which we should also feel a responsibility. Individual, but also a part of the whole, as I surmise in the film.

In Tawai, Ubong tells us that their children don’t naturally practice their sharing culture, instead they are asked and advised to share. In fact, Penan children are not told to be or to do anything at all - each child is completely free to be as they wish. The pressure they feel to do something seems to arise instead from the natural signs around them and their desire to remain a part of the group. As Arau says, “Imagine if everyone else was sharing and you did not - how would you feel?” This reminds me of what Ervin Laszlo said when I met him, “Our freedom is the freedom to find our connection. If you can respond in a way that increases your sense of connection, your sense of belonging, then you become more coherent with the world, more coherent with yourself. Your internal coherence is tied in with your external coherence.” (this, and many other wonderful interviews can be found on our website). Here is a different kind of individual freedom then, one that is rooted in the health of the whole.

When, in the film, I ask Jerome whether egalitarianism is innate or not, he points out that one of the main lessons you learn from living with egalitarian groups, is that maintaining the balance needs constant work. But it is work that’s a shared undertaking of everyone, a collective form of self-regulation, and not something that’s enforced from a place of control or hierarchy.

I sometimes wonder whether such an egalitarian way of being is only possible in an environment where everyone has equal access to abundant resources, as the Penan do. But this thought somehow feels like it’s doing us all a disservice. It may be true that egalitarianism ended when our ancestors left the abundant tropical belt and entered into seasonal areas - when immediate return hunter gatherers became delayed return agriculturalists - when we needed to hoard stores to get through the dry or cold seasons, and the distributors of these stores began to manipulate this power to their own ends. But to say we can’t share more fairly once again is to overlook both the longing of so many of us, and the technological advances of today, which hold the potential for complete transparency and collective trust (e.g. blockchain technology). This, mixed with the story of our egalitarian past, and the checks and balances needed to maintain such a way, (which I will discuss later), allows a whole new set of possibilities to emerge.

It is my belief that bringing the wisdom of the past to bear on the advances of today, could improve much for us all. Indeed, the aim of the film Tawai was never to turn back the clock, but rather to discern what could be integrated from other societies, and maybe our own past, into our complex civilisations today. I live an incredibly privileged life and am well aware that many of my material pleasures are only possible because of the distant shift to agricultural living, and the surplus it provided. It was only through settlement and agriculture that we were able to specialise our skills and pass them on, allowing us to gradually create the wonders we all enjoy. But it’s also true that this shift to settlement, domestication and globalisation has been the root cause of many problems too, such as our blind consumption and the environmental degradation it brings, as well as our population crises, warfare, disease epidemics and famines. All these were relatively unknown in the generally stable and naturally resilient ways of the hunter gatherer. But perhaps the shift we are suffering from most is the move to centralised power and the huge inequalities and problems this creates - a point Richard Wilkinson makes so well in his interview on our website. Yet we seem to be engulfed in a story which keeps us believing that competition and aggression are impossible to suppress without central authority. And we can be forgiven for believing this tale when, outside of groups like the Penan, there is almost no cultural evidence to suggest otherwise.

When we look back at recent history, even the most benevolent attempt to create an equal society has generally ended with one all-powerful, centralised body being replaced by another. Popular uprisings and communist revolutions are good examples of this. And it sadly seems that, no matter how well-meaning the initial attempts to create something beautiful may have been, where power is centralised, corruption is never far behind. And at the same time, anarchical decentralised societies, for all their benefits, are fragile and susceptible to being overrun, as the Penan are experiencing now. Any solution must therefore be a global one, although this seems impossible. But is it?

Every generation considers itself to live in unprecedented times, and each is right to a degree. Certainly one difference today is our ability to communicate directly with each other, without needing to obtain our information from the diktats of centralised bodies, such as the media, church or state (or even chief and shaman). With the internet, a new era really is dawning - one in which stories and memes can, and already are, rapidly altering cultural landscapes. We are now in a position where we can collectively create a new paradigm, if we so wish, and it really is possible for us to freely sow and hear new narratives, including one that tells us that egalitarianism may in fact be our common ancestral heritage and optimum way to flourish. Furthermore we are now facing numerous global crises which could, if we choose, actively unify us to overcome our man-made boundaries, competition and greed, to find our meaning and happiness in more coherent relationships with each other and our planet. 

But of course, this sounds all very utopian and romantic. Clearly there is a lot of healing that needs to be done first, and thereafter, even if the vast majority of people wanted change, there is always the problem of wrestling power from those who don’t want to relinquish it - and this obstacle can feel impossible to overcome. But it’s very likely we are not the first to have faced such a universal power struggle, and there may indeed have been at least one period in history when we successfully navigated a dramatic shift from competitive power structures to egalitarian ones - something we shall look at later.

Bonus Scene: Ayahuasca.

"As within, so without”
Hermes Trismegistus

The closing words of Tawai suggest we need to learn how to rebalance our inner world in order to move forward together. Yet the journey of looking inside and taking responsibility for our actions is not an easy one - and it’s understandable why so many reject the idea. To be willing to commence the inner journey, it’s essential to believe that it’s not only worth it, but also necessary - as it will often require a good deal of strength to face the inevitable personal realisations. But my own journey has made it clear to me that taking the time to heal our inner wounds, will also improve our relationships with those around us. As the saying goes, “as within so without.”

There are many ways to heal the mind and body through tools and techniques such as meditation, yoga, nature retreats, breathwork, psychotherapy and so forth. In the final cut of Tawai we chose to concentrate just on meditation, but in the making of the film we also explored another.

I have always been struck by the myriad ways in which many tribal groups use the plants around them to deepen their relationship with nature and each other. And having partaken in many a ceremony, I can honestly say that these, like meditation retreats, have been some of the most beneficial experiences of my life. As we see in the bonus scene, Ayahuasca, included with the film and the DVD/Blu-Ray disk, Dr Rosa Giove, from the famous Takiwasi Addiction Healing Centre in Peru, and the shamanic healer, Kajuyali Tsamani, of Nabi Nunhue, Colombia, tell us what these medicines mean to them. It seems as if the medicinal properties of these plants have the capacity to release stored trauma held within the body - trauma which can adversely affect our behaviour, often unconsciously. To many who have taken part in such ceremonies, working with these plants can be truly miraculous, and my brother’s experience of oneness and empathy in the bonus scene gives us a small hint of this.

But such journeys are not always so easy, and the story from Rafael (as well as my own, in my TV shows), remind us that we must be prepared to face ourselves in a whole new light. These are powerful plants that need much respect and understanding before they are taken. Many of them are illegal in countries like my own, and the prejudice and misconceptions expressed by the mainstream media can be sensational in the extreme. I believe that we need these medicines now more than ever, but it’s vitally important that they are administered safely, by those who know them well. For more information please go to our website.

Bonus Scene: Mbendjele.

"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
Audre Lorde

If the film Tawai invites us to look at ourselves and take responsibility for our behaviour, the last bonus scene, Mbendjele, is a call to action.

The Mbendjele people are from the Congo, and like the Penan, they too are egalitarian immediate-return nomadic hunter gatherers. In Tawai, Jerome Lewis tells us that living in an egalitarian society requires “work on a bunch of levels: political, social and economic”, and our visit to the Mbendjele allows us to observe this constant group effort, working to maintain balance. At one time, some Mbendjele men pointed to one of their friends, “See that guy over there”, they said, “We all know that he is a great hunter, but a few years ago he started to brag about it, so we all stopped going hunting with him, and the women refused to cook his meat. We don’t want that behaviour here”.

While this example shows us how diligently everyone in the group is working to resist claims to status, so as to maintain harmony, there are also more formal rituals designed to achieve the same goal. Ingrid tells us that they primarily do this through massana, a form of play, dance and song, and sure enough we see the women, young and old, playfully teasing the men. This is a powerful scene to watch, and even more so to experience first hand. Ingrid tells me that this teasing is a formal way of publicly addressing antisocial behaviour within the group. Men who have been aggressive, disrespectful or even lazy lovers are playfully, humorously, but assertively, held to account by the women in the communal space.

What is fascinating about this ritual is the way it reveals how the women challenge the behaviour of the men. Rather than entering into a combative space, they embody their own quality of collective power, expressed through potent laughter, song and sexuality. But the women choose not to hold centre stage for too long, as this is an egalitarian society, and not a hierarchical matriarchy. They believe that to hold the power for too long could lead to resentment, so they willingly allow space for the men to have their turn, through their ritual called Ejengi.

The Mbendjele men tell us that Ejengi takes us back to the “roots of life”, to “the beginning of the world”. Jerome interprets this ritual to be in accordance with theories of how humanity overcame its hierarchical primate heritage, and instituted a trust-based, egalitarian society in its place. A setting that enabled language and culture to evolve. During the ritual reenactment, through song and dance, Ejengi seems to symbolise the alpha male, whose reproductive dominance our female ancestors rejected, simultaneously inviting the other men to join them. This invitation by the women, the Mbendjele say, established society as they live it today. Men and women continue to work together to banish the tendencies of the hoarding, competitive, aggressive male spirit, so that all can live together as equals. If this is the case, this ritual echoes up through the ages to remind us of the most incredible achievement of human history - when competitive, hierarchical groups dominated by aggressive males were successfully replaced by societies of equals.

There is more richness and complexity in these ideas than any I have encountered before, and expressing them well is far from easy. Beliefs around sexual identity and the differences, qualities and roles of sex and gender are evolving, and it is certainly not for me to say what, if any, the roles of men and women or the qualities of the masculine or feminine might or should ever be. But having seen the way the women of the Mbendjele powerfully hold themselves at the centre of their society - together, in solidarity - affirming their voice within the community, I felt that I was witnessing something very important, that needed to be shared. For me, sitting there, experiencing the potent strength and freedom of those women, asserting themselves as they wished to, in their own way, I was blown away - and I discovered a feeling which continues to grow today… hope.

Watch Tawai on Films For Action
For more about the film, visit

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