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DVD Review: Edge of Existence

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Irish investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre makes for an electrifying and probing guide on Edge of Existence, now available on DVD from Athena. The four-episode series, filmed in 2006, puts MacIntyre right in the fray as he lives with tribes and people from the some of the most remote locations in the world.

The endlessly enthralling series examines how human beings are able to exist in extreme environments, asking reflective cultural questions along the way sure to enlighten and rouse discussion with viewers.

Broadcast originally on Discovery Channel in 2007, Edge of Existence is a stunning program that offers visuals of parts of the world few have seen. MacIntyre, who seems legitimately open to any experience throughout the quartet of episodes, is an intelligent and articulate host and the perfect guide to these forgotten ways of life.

The first episode finds MacIntyre in Oman where rain falls about once a year and the devastating heat reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit on a regular basis. The host and athlete, who once went undercover to expose abuses at eldercare facilities, winds up with the Al-Amri family at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali Desert and learns of their culture by participating in it. A highlight has MacIntyre accompanying two sons of the family on a long trek across the desert to trade dates for fish.

MacIntyre visits the Insect Tribe in the second episode. Living in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea, this polygamous tribe relies on hunting and fishing for food but the really lucrative business is that of crocodile hides. MacIntyre sets out with the tribesmen on a hunt for crocodile and the harrowing experience is enough to have him yearning for the comforts of home.

Bolivia, specifically the Altiplano region, sets the stage for the third episode. After witnessing a violent Tinku ritual, MacIntyre spends time with Wilfredo Mamami as he mines the world’s largest salt flat in the thin air. He then meets a family of Quechuan Indians and embarks on a llama-led slog to trade the valuable salt for corn and fruit. An interesting family dynamic develops as MacIntyre discovers Fidelia, the family’s oldest daughter, dreams of leaving the village.

The fourth episode provides MacIntyre with perhaps the most strenuous experience yet as he encounters the Bajau Laut. These sea gypsies have no country to call their own and live a landless existence out in the waters near Borneo. MacIntyre lives with a family aboard a vessel and dives with them for fish and stingrays.

Despite the range of these remarkable cultures, MacIntyre discovers common ground with each family and tribe he encounters. The strong sense of community and of living with respect for the land (or sea) is evident from Oman to Borneo as these people simply live on what is necessary.

Even with the tribal customs and religious traditions, MacIntyre discovers people with tentative and often regrettable modern ties. The use of cell phones and trucks in Oman, for instance, has transformed many of the more basic tasks, while the looming presence of a gold mine several miles upriver from the Insect Tribe threatens the survival of the village.

Edge of Existence is one of the more fascinating documentary series’ I’ve ever seen. The footage is remarkable and the insight into ways of life long since forgotten by our modern world is dazzling and compelling. Donal MacIntyre is a terrific host, too, providing information with a delicate sense of wonder and appreciation. The only downside is that there were not more episodes, although I’m told MacIntyre did have members of the Insect Tribe with him to London in 2007. Now that would be something to see.

The DVD includes a 16-page booklet complete with discussion questions and a photo gallery, accompanied by region facts and a biography of series host MacIntyre. 

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