By now we are all well-versed in the ways of the indigenous-people-with-the-modern-world-encroaching documentary. I in no way mean to suggest that the issue is an unimportant one, nor that it should in any way be minimized, simply that the manner in which such a story is told over the course of a one-hour television program has become rather standardized and often all too staid. For me then, the big question when sitting down to watch a new entry into the genre is if the series is able to differentiate itself from they myriad of choices already available.
This week, Discovery Channel is premiering their newest series in this vein, Beyond Survival with Les Stroud. The title itself is a play on Stroud’s other Discovery Channel series, Survivorman, which features him getting dropped off in a remote location with nothing but clothes and cameras and, as the title would indicate, trying to survive.
In this new show, Stroud is traveling to the far corners of the world to meet indigenous tribes, learn something about their way of life, and their struggles to survive. The premiere episode features him going to Sri Lanka to meet with two different groups both of which practice “devil dances,” although they do so for different reasons.
As a piece on small, disappearing tribes, Beyond Survival is somewhat interesting. Stroud is clearly incredibly fascinated by everything he’s learning, soaking it all in and doing his best to truly become a part of the group that he is learning about. In the premiere he goes as far as not only sitting on a thin stick over some water for hours on end to help fish, but getting himself moderately high on a tobacco leaf and betel nut concoction as well.
It is in this latter moment that one sees a slightly different side to Stroud and what the show could be. Rather than simply editing this segment in a straight manner, the producers have opted to use some slow-motion, almost making the viewer feel as though they have been overcome by the betel nut as well. The scene is not wholly comically, instead the incident also shows a growing camaraderie between Stroud and the tribe and presents the group in a relaxed moment, showing them doing more than simply struggling to survive.
However, that moment is the exception and not the rule in Beyond Survival. The majority of the piece plays out like a very standard documentary, even if the groups being discussed are ones we have not yet seen on television. Stroud is invested enough in what he’s doing and the tale he weaves is interesting, but there is little here – unless you are a fan of Stroud, a particular enthusiast of this type of documentary, or specifically interested in these Sri Lankan tribes – to entice new viewers.
Matters are made moderately worse with Stroud’s repeated use of a camera which he holds on a pole, often planting it on his hip so that he can film himself talking. While it is the sort of thing that could prove occasionally useful in the show, it is over-utilized and also terribly distracting in the wide shot where we can see him holding it. In one particular scene in the premiere (two scenes maybe as it’s shown both in the cold open and the episode itself), Stroud is using his camera at night, almost in a faux-whisper as he discusses the nearby elephants and how he and the tribe are trying to be quiet and cautious. Watching the moment unfold, one just wants to yell at Stroud to actually be quiet and pay attention to what’s happening. His talking seems either foolish and potentially dangerous (as though he’s still high on betel nut) or that he’s simply oversold what is taking place for the benefit of the viewer at home. Whatever the case may be, if one wasn’t tired of Stroud’s pointing the camera at himself before that scene, they certainly will be after.
It is impossible to walk away from Beyond Survival with Les Stroud without feeling as though something will be lost when another indigenous tribe disappears forever. The documentary is not so balanced as to fully discuss the reasons for the tribes’ issues – and that is another shortcoming – but the story hear lies more with the tribes’ lives than their deaths. The stories told in the premiere are not uninteresting and Stroud does seem like a potentially fascinating man (why does he do what he does, how did he get into it, etc.), but the series itself has little to make it standout from a rather large field.
Beyond Survival with Les Stroud premieres on the Discovery Channel Friday, August 27 at 10pm.