Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Glimpse of the Past - 'The Borneo Story' Online

The Borneo Story: 'Birds Nest Soup' from The Doozer on Vimeo.

Catching up on leisure reading over New Year, I re-encountered the name of Tom Harrisson, who has been described as a "polymath" - pioneering British anthropologist, WWII hero, long-time director of the Sarawak Museum, conservationist, but also a prickly personality whose character invited controversy and divided opinions.

I was pleased to find that a series of documentaries that he co-produced in the 1950s, titled 'The Borneo Story', is available online. One of them, "Birds Nest Soup", which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is embedded above.

These documentaries are a valuable glimpse into the state of Borneo in the postwar period, when it was still a tropical idyll, relatively untouched by large-scale plantation agriculture. Now, of course, birds nest soup is often commercially produced by inducing swifts to nest in abandoned buildings or purpose-built 'hangars', instead of being collected from the wild.

A 2006 BBC documentary, "The Barefoot Anthropologist" (YouTube), hosted by David Attenborough, gives a sense of the man and his exploits, including how he "restarted headhunting in Borneo". It's not all happy memories, though: one of the Australian soldiers under his command during the war describes how he wanted to shoot Harrisson, and is visibly agitated talking about him, half a century on!

More about his life can be read in the biography by Judith Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive.

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