Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Tea Explorer: an Analysis (originally published in Tea Journey Magazine Blog)

The Tea Explorer: an Analysis
by Rita Fong and Drew Taylor

The Tea Explorer is a documentary film written, produced, directed, and shot by Andrew Gregg and starring Jeff Fuchs, noted writer, photographer, explorer and tea merchant.

It’s a film about some of the people whose lives have been touched by and are still entwined with the leaf along the 5000 km. “Ancient Tea Horse Road” (Cha Ma Gu Dao). The Tea Explorer takes us along this thirteen-hundred year old network of trade routes over and through the Himalayas that traders used to transport tea, salt and other commodities (including Tibetan ponies) between China, Tibet and beyond. The Tibetans actually traded ponies for tea.

Nothing stopped tea’s flow to all points down the valleys of the Himalayas until the 1950s when the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. Then borders were delineated, closed, and trade stopped.  

In this mystical forgotten land, with names like Shangri La and Kathmandu, it is the oral tradition by which histories, lessons, and life stories are passed on.  Tea is not a fancy afternoon sip in this rugged remote region of the globe.  It is more than a commodity. It is daily sustenance. Simple. No pretension. Yak butter and salt are added for nutrients, to make fuel and deliver stimulants for survival in the mountains. Tea is a central part of the lives of these people.  Unfortunately, between the time Jeff Fuchs wrote his book and the making of this film, he says 80 - 85% of the 50-60 elders he had interviewed have passed on.

Five years ago, Jeff Fuchs first met Andrew Gregg in Toronto following references via mutual friends in Kathmandu.  Upon meeting,  the seed for an adventure film about the origin of tea was planted.  Fast forward to 2014 and Andrew joined Jeff on a research trip to scout the area.  During that trip he took a trek to take test shots and see if there was a bigger story.  While Jeff used this time to see if Andrew was the right person to help him tell the tale, Andrew made a ten minute short to show producers and sell the story.  Andrew, at 6’8” is formidable, but he had a sensitive way that got people to talk and showed great cultural sensitivity. He wasn’t an ugly Westerner who went in and tried to take over.  
It was during these two weeks that the coffee drinking Andrew converted to tea, and the filmmaking team was established.  
Andrew Gregg 

Jeff Fuchs: “We had a shared vision of how we wanted the narrative to play out.  We wanted to introduce the origin of all tea. Southern Yunnan has the oldest tea trees, oldest cultivated region for tea, [we] wanted to introduce tea and the journey that tea took and of course, a little bit about why I wanted to do it.
We shared the vision. Then we waited, met, drank lots of tea. Andrew became a tea drinker, [and] gave up coffee.  And waited. [It was a] question of time, budget, getting the right people interested. Three years where nothing happened, then all of a sudden…”

Andrew Gregg finishes, “the ... CBC Documentary channel said ‘We love it, let’s go for it.’” They still needed more money so they searched some more and rounded out their funding.  They plotted all the while until finally they were able to shoot for 5 weeks in October and November 2015 with only their sound man, Michael Josselyn making up the bare bones crew.
To be fair, filmmaking is not easy and shooting in the mountains the film covers a lot of ground and is rich with beautiful cinematography and gorgeous portraits of unique individuals. It just takes a while to get there.https://teajourney.pub/

Jeff Fuchs acts as the conduit that brings their stories to the world. Himself a huge advocate of Puerh tea, the sole origin of which is still Yunnan in China, he  begins in the temperate tea forests in southwestern China – the birthplace of tea on the planet (Camellia Sinensis Assamica). It is from here that tea traveled the world and was eventually grown elsewhere. Tea shops are on the decline in fast moving big cities compared to rapidly sprouting cafes. Traditions are changing and Fuchs’ disdain is evident as he shares his observations. Then, we follow him as he retraces segments and explores new veins of the Tea Horse Road that he documented back in 2006 when he wrote his book The Ancient Tea Horse Road.

The film starts off like an Anthony Bourdain travelogue. While music more befitting a 60’s beach party oddly plays in the background, shots of tea being poured and treated are interspersed with Jeff stepping in to assist the tea farmers and recounting his childhood in his Hungarian household with its strange foods and teas. Jeff is a charismatic character who seems at home in his skin, having a laugh at his Hungarian heritage which set him at odds with his classmates in Manotick (a little town south of Ottawa, Canada), but that also introduced him to pure tea:  greens and oolongs, that went beyond the industrially manufactured tea bags most people grew up with before the current resurgence began.
As a young child, spending parts of his summers in Switzerland, his grandmother took him into the mountains and helped ingrain the love that drove him back. After ten years in the Himalayas he has faith in himself, and a deep respect for nature and those who live in concert with her. “These are lessons you can take anywhere. Lessons that can be applied anywhere.” Being present or dying has that type of grounding effect.
As a searcher looking to find purpose in his travels, he made promises to people who now respect him for keeping his word to record and share their stories when so many others came and went leaving only their garbage and taking whatever they could carry or ship out.
For one of the old traders who simply lives with the tea he can get, Jeff gave some of his good tea as a thank you for the stories and guidance shared.  That folks were willing to welcome him and offer him refuge and hospitality moved him and the necessities of survival in the mountains taught him to honour his body and his mind.

Speaking with Andrew and asking him his high points he was so enthusiastic about this shoot he said all of it was a high point.  “Travelling with someone like Jeff, who is not only a great subject but a great organizer, it was one of the greatest trips I’ve ever been on...and I’ve done a lot of adventure shoots.” Watching the film I was waiting for examples of his excitement to be captured from his viewpoint.  The high camera angles were a given (6’8”), and many of the artistic choices and stunning subjects were extremely compelling.

If you can traverse the first twenty minutes of this film, afterwards you discover many rich segments of a vital Himalayan history that linked more than three dozen minority groups through tea fueled commodities distribution. The music and stories become more unified as the film progresses, coupled with riveting footage of glorious mountain vistas and tales of adventure.  The discipline required to make and enjoy an always varying cup of tea is overmatched by the filmmakers’ arduous journey fueled by daily infusions of whatever the travelers can get their hands on.

Some of the people in this film stay with you as they have clearly affected the filmmakers with their vast traditions and frank humility.  Spanning ancient royal connections and lifetimes of trekking on foot, what is conveyed through their presence is a sense of that most basic of buddhist principles, joy through suffering. Like a koan, the riddle of this film demands persistent attention and release of preconceived notions.  What emerges is an abiding love of tea, mountains and people with integrity.

Click HERE to watch the trailer

* Republished here with permission.

Photos provided by The Tea Explorer Film's PR Dept.

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