Sorcery, cannibalism and scientific discovery merge in KURU, an independent documentary co-produced by Peter DuCane of Wild Film Australia with Rob Bygott and Ben Alpers. Co-Directed by Rob Bygott and Ben Alpers and the Director of Photography on the documentary was Rob Bygott. Set against the backdrop of the breath-taking Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. And Miller’s SOLO tripod was there to help capture the action.
The Kuru disease spread through PNG’s Fore indigenous population, peaking in the mid 1950’s, and killing 2% of their population each year. The recent worldwide attention paid to BSE (or Mad Cow disease) and its link to the human CJD, has revived interest in what was feared at the time to be a disease resulting from cannibalistic customs.
Rob and Ben spent 8 weeks with the Fore population, where they were not only welcomed and their project supported, but were also able to record many, many hours of remarkable tales of the Fore people, their culture, and the tragedy of the Kuru epidemic. Three weeks prior to this were spent collecting interviews with some of the world’s leading KURU research authorities in London, New York and San Francisco.
Rob takes us back to Mt Yelia, where it all began. “We joined the world’s leading authority on Kuru – Dr Michael Alpers – to retrace the steps of his pioneering scientific/geographic exploration in 1962. In 1962 Michael, accompanied by fellow medical researcher Carleton Gajdusek, discovered that the mountain they were standing upon was in fact a dormant volcano – Mt Yelia. With this geographical discovery, Mt Yelia (3384m : 11102ft) was one of the last geographical features to be added to the map of PNG.”
River deep, mountain high
The Eastern Highlands provided the most spectacular views and backdrops to interviews. As Rob explains though, there was pain for the gain, with mountainous terrain and deep, river-hewn valleys providing a constant challenge for the team as the retraced the steps of these pioneering researchers.
“A team of local villagers guided us through the rainforests and across river crossings. The conditions were often wet and the ground was very muddy as we slipped and slid our way up and down Mt Yelia’s slopes carrying backpacks laden with equipment.”
The remoteness meant only solar charging could be used to for the Panasonic DVX100 digital camcorder, digital stills camera, MP3 recorder and 12v LED light batteries.
“We enjoyed the overwhelming assistance of the Fore people as they carried food provisions and medical supplies as well as providing great company and entertainment along the way – sharing wonderful stories with a fantastic sense of humor,” recalled an enthusiastic Rob.
“We lived on a diet of rice, tin fish and sweet potato, with local vegetables and fruits being a welcome relief to the taste buds. Along the way we stayed in hamlets (small clusters of huts) in villages and in makeshift bush shelters in the forest - the leeches and fleas were plentiful.”
If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go
One of the most important production requirements for Rob was finding a tripod for this trip that was lightweight without compromising the quality of camera support. “Trekking through the mountainous Highlands it was crucial that everything was as light and durable as possible. So all of our filming and personal living equipment had to fit within our backpacks for a total weight of 25-30kg each.”
“We chose the new Miller SOLO 10, which we used with the Panasonic DVX100. The Miller system comprised the DS10 fluid head with selectable counterbalance and the new SOLO carbon telescoping tripod. “The SOLO and DVX100 provided the perfect solution to our needs – the ability to travel light without compromising our images.”
“It is the most innovative lightweight tripod I have used. It didn’t matter what the conditions were: rain, mud, creek beds, mountain slopes, the DVX100 was always steady. Weighing only 4.5kg it was easy to transport in the SOLO DV Softcase and still carry a backpack. We also had plenty of help from the Fore who were insistent on carrying our stuff at any opportune moment.”
SOLO: higher, lower & lighter
The height range and spreaderless design suit Rob right down to the ground. “What impressed me most of all about the SOLO 10 was that I could drop the camera down from 1.6m to 25cm without spreaders thanks to the selectable leg angle locks and the 2-Stage ring lock leg extensions. The ring locks were an efficient way of adjusting the height and locking off the legs, which never slipped, even in the wet and muddy conditions. As we didn’t require any spreaders it was lighter and easier to travel with less components and without needing a set of baby legs.”
It was great to have a lightweight tripod with the support of a 75mm ball leveling system. This offered quick leveling for those moments when we had to be fast on our feet - there were many of those times as it was crucial that the filming didn’t slow down the rest of the team. Using the SOLO 10 combination I could complete silky smooth pan and tilts with confidence every time thanks to the DS10 fluid drag head with its selectable payload counterbalance.
The neoprene upper tube protection provided excellent grip in the wet conditions when it came to setting up and packing the legs away. The padding was comfortable when carrying the tripod on the shoulder, especially picking up general vision around the villages and walking short distances.”
Post, publicity and praise
The trip was a tremendous success and we now look forward to sifting through the hours, and hours, and hours of material to unravel the story of Kuru.
We will be promoting the film to national and International distributors at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) in February – fortunately this year it is in our hometown of Fremantle.
The filmmakers of KURU would also like to acknowledge the support from Medical Research Advisory Council, PNG Institute of Medical Research, and Screen West who have assisted in facilitating this project.
Production stills seen in this story were taken by Ben Alpers.