Walter Cronkite once called Lawrence Blair “One of the best lecturers alive.” Now I see why.
Recently, over two evenings in as many weeks, I heard Bali-based Blair orate like a British politician he might have become – if not for the adventurer, anthropologist and prolific filmmaker that he became instead.
Blair’s comments came on the heels of private double-screenings of his renowned documentary series, Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey, a cinematic collaboration with his late brother Lorne that took a decade of travels, filming and editing to bring to fruition. It was their enchantment with the research and writings of British explorer and naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (a peer of Darwin’s), that (unknowingly at the time) launched them on an exploratory voyage of their own.
The 4-episode film series is a fuzzy and nostalgic rendering of their 1970s waterborne odyssey. Their brief foray through Singapore as the gateway to Asia, so quickly bored them and triggered their sense of adventure, that they set off on the high seas, with a rudimentary understanding of the language, and knowing only that they wanted to reach the easternmost islands of the country. At Makassar, the brothers got onboard a decidedly un-seaworthy vessel, with a bunch of wily Bugis pirates, for the sole reason that they spotted cargo being loaded on, headed in their direction.
Their cranky liveaboard boat navigated its way through the remotest parts of the Indonesian archipelago, as their days filled with dramatic twists and turns, encounters with tribespeople then not yet known to the outside world, and a close-up view of one of the most elusive winged creatures in the region: the bird of paradise. Captured, as Blair explained, by setting up a blind in the trees and waiting and waiting… the results are visually astounding.
There were tales of evading pirates en route, braving storms (with a badly damaged mast), insects and crowded conditions on a boat with inexperienced local sailors (and two boys, tasked with preparing the daily gruel), wading through thigh-high water with film equipment, meeting the Asmat cannibals of Papua, New Guinea, and stumbling into – and fortunately, out of – numerous risky, life-endangering situations.
The film was peppered with long treks through jungles, battles with lecherous leeches and trance dances in Borneo. And there was a softer landing in Bali, where they set up home in a village, befriending the locals, attending ceremonies and absorbing the sights and sounds of a culture still teetering on the lush and gentler side of massive (some would say, self-destructive) social and environmental change.
It wasn’t Hollywood, Sundance or Cannes. No red carpets or high heels, not a paparazzi or limo in sight. But this plein-air cinema trumps them all: Blair & his wife seated among friends & expats; all gathered in front of a large screen, in shorts & bare feet, with beer and edible goodies in hand, dogs afoot, geckos catching insects by dim light, while surrounding cicadas and frogs raised a noisy ruckus of their own.