I was north of Chiang Mai with my driver, traveling to a hill tribe village in a steady and thick rain when I saw the sliver of massive stone steps cut into the side of a mountain, just visible through the jungle foliage. I asked him to stop and since the way was wet and filled with shoe eating mud, the driver said he’d stay in the car.
I climbed the stairs and saw the monk there, standing by his buckets and bowls, out collecting the rain for drinking water. He was the sole caretaker of this meager temple, a small cave and statue and run down altar. He was actually Chinese and spoke French fluently, but very little English. His cigarettes were foul, hand-rolled affairs, terribly strong and stinky. I gave him my pack of American cigarettes and we smoked in the cave, sheltered from the rain while he told me stories and lessons that I could not understand.
There were only poor farmers nearby and I doubt any tourists would stop by this tiny cleft in the mountain. This was truly a life of solitude and he was far from where he had started from. As was I but I would return to my life of cities soon enough.
We passed the time and my feet were wet and there were enough cigarettes to last us for a good while.
Marc Maron: Do you miss film?
Werner Herzog: Celluloid? No, I am not nostalgic. I still love it. Of course I love it. But digital film making has helped me to work faster and to work less expensively. So that’s why all of a sudden I’m coming out with four films, all of them ready for distribution. The system of distribution is too slow for my output.
MM: What did you lose with celluloid?
WH: Well, the kind of magic of the flicker of 24 frames in a theater. And celluloid, you alway have to understand it as a layer, a three dimensional thin layer of emulsion that stores the information. Whereas digital film is only a file of zeroes and ones. It’s strange that we sense there’s a different life to it.
MM: Also I imagine the editing process is a bit more decisive.
WH: When you work in celluloid, you better come to some conclusions quickly and what I see today in digital editing, there are directors who do not know what they are doing and they create twenty-two parallel versions and they never can decide. I’m editing almost as fast as I am thinking. Because I do not have to search for that small reel of film and look for…making some pen marks on it and glue it, splice it and feed it into a system and roll it to the right moment.
I’m editing much much fast now. Closer to writing in a way, yes.
When I was in Chiang Mai, I did not find a fixer so instead I hired a normal tour guide to drive me around the northern hill tribe area. For the most part it was a great and fruitful couple of days, visiting villages, following whim and taking chances. There were a few times where he tried to take me to touristy shit: elephant training camps, waterfalls, etc.
The one place he did take me to that was a complete tourist trap was a Padaung Karen “village”. It was obviously a piece of show because there was a gravel parking lot to accommodate buses, lots of signage in english, the people springing up when I came by in the wooden shacks, tribal wares on display.
It was only afterwards that I did some research and realized how much controversy surrounds these “longneck” hill tribes. Please refer to this article on CNN for more information.
Putting these images up in the hope that people doing research for their trips to the hill tribes area can find this and stay away from any longneck villages. There are plenty of tribal villages to visit which are authentic and you can participate and contribute, even spending the night and doing work for and with them.
It’s a fine line. Did I document a people that are disadvantaged or was I exploiting these same people or was I even documenting their exploitation?
Apologies for the year long hiatus. I have been busy with the jobby job, but I have also been on some amazing trips. Will be posting those images soon.
So here we go.