Friday March 1, 2013
By NATALIE HENG
Diego Bunuel travels the world in search of the stories that will change the world.
DIEGO BUNUEL grew up on fiction – from the experimental to melodramatic, from comedy to crime. The Bunuels were a family of filmmakers. Diego’s grandfather, Luis, has been described as one of the most original directors in the history of film, whilst his father Juan, also made films. The younger Bunuel knew from a very early age, however, that he wanted to become a journalist.
“I thought it was quite interesting to invent stories. But then friends of my parents, who were journalists with the Washington Post and the New York Times would tell me about Beirut or Vietnam and stuff like that, and I thought that was awesome. I want to do that.”
For Bunuel, reality was just as exciting as fiction – sometimes even more so. When the time came, he went straight for a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science at Northwestern University in the United States, and ended up as lead crime reporter for the Sun Sentinel in Florida, where he covered assignments relating to Cuban exiles, drug trafficking and Haitian gangs.
However, it wasn’t long before the Paris-born journalist was drafted for service in the French military.
Bunuel was sent to war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia and travelled all over the Balkans, writing for a weekly military newspaper, and got his first taste of war correspondence. Ironically, when his time was up, he sought to be in the thick of things once again, by joining the French Television Agency Capa, as a reporter and producer.
And Bunuel seems to have covered it all, from 9/11 to the second Congo war. His job gave him licence to travel the world and capture stories, raw and uncensored.
But as he visited each new and dangerous location, churning out headline grabbing stories about war and terrorism, Bunuel began to realise something important, that his writing revealed only a small portion of what is actually out there.
Which is why he eventually went on to host and produce a travel documentary series titled Don’t Tell My Mother I’m In (insert dangerous place name here), which will soon be coming into its fifth season on the National Geographic Channel.
In his show, Bunuel focuses on the human stories behind the headlines. And what comes across is often contrary to stereotypes – like the progressive Iranian Mullah who is supportive of his hoodie-clad rapper son, a donkey-rescuer in Palestine or bearded death metal fans in Iraq.
Is it important that people have access to information like this?
“I think it’s fundamental, actually,” Bunuel says. “It’s what helps us judge the world in which we are living. We need to give the world a more balanced perspective. Afghanistan is not just full of guys with beards running around with AK47s and setting off car bombs, it’s much, much more than that.”
Unfortunately, he says, most of the stories we read about places like Iran or Pakistan are very negative because the media likes to concentrate on what’s shocking, but what do you learn from it?
“Nothing. It just reinforces age-old stereotypes, and that doesn’t help anyone.”
In fact, Bunuel is a rare breed – about to hit 38, he still believes he can change the world.
“I want my work as a journalist to help other people understand and appreciate the world that we live in. I want people to be actors, not spectators. I try to show stories that will inspire people, or revolt, or shock them, because we are all responsible for the world we live in, and if we don’t do something, then no one else will.”
We can expect more excitement from Season Five of Don’t Tell My Mother I’m In sometime later this year, in which we will see Bunuel travel to the South Pole, Ukraine, Central America, Thailand and Pakistan again (this time, he will be embedded in the Pakistani army to investigate their high-altitude war with India at the Siachen Glacier, 6,400m above sea level).
But before he shoots his final episode in Thailand, Bunuel hopes to spend some time doing what makes him most happy in life – be with his wife and kids, and “get to open the fridge and find something that he wants to eat”.
It’s easy to imagine him being relaxed at home. After all, he has become known for his chilled-out approach to life.
This coupled with his boyish looks, American twang and affable personality, has given Bunuel the knack for getting his subjects to relax and open up in front of the camera – even in some of the most intense and seemingly hostile of places.
Bunuel shared that advice from his old playboy uncle from New York has been the trick.
“I was 12 or 13, and he always seemed to have girls around him, so I decided to ask him what his secret was and he said ‘Hey, it’s very simple. You just show up, you say hello, and you smile’.”
Bunuel has clung to that philosophy for quite a different purpose in life. And he doesn’t think serious reporting and an easy-going personality have to be mutually exclusive.
It’s probably what makes him so watchable on TV. This March, Bunuel has got something special in store for viewers. He presents the World’s Biggest Festival: Kumbh Mela – the largest known gathering of humans on earth, which takes place every 12 years, and sees as many as 100 million pilgrims converging at key points along the river in Sangam, Allahabad, India.
Bunuel says shooting Kumbh Mela has been different from shooting Don’t Tell My Mother.
“Kumbh Mela is mostly a place where people come with their families, and it’s the single largest gathering of human beings in the history of humanity – that’s what’s amazing about it.”
Originating from the legend of how a war between gods and demons (over the possession of the elixir of life falling to four different points on earth), the 55-day festival ends on March 10.
The most important of these points lies in Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganga-Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. There, a literal mega city emerges out of nothing: 35,000 toilets, 14 temporary hospitals, 243 doctors and over 30,000 police personnel are stationed to accommodate millions of pilgrims at the foot of the Ganges, before the entire colony is deconstructed again after the festival.
Aside from the very real threat of fires and stampedes (at least 36 have already died this year), and the risk of getting separated from your loved ones among the millions of bodies, there is always plenty of amazing things to see.
Among the crazy things one encounters at the festival are the Juna Akhara, one of the biggest sects of naga sadhus, or holy men.
“First of all, they are incredible to look at, because everyone is naked, ash-clad with dreadlocks, I mean these are warrior monks who defend the faith.”
What struck Bunuel most about the Juna Akhara was what they can show us about the will of the mind over the body.
“I met a guy who had been keeping his arm raised in the air, never bringing it down for over 40 years, and others who haven’t lain down for over 12 years. The amount of determination to carry these things through is tremendous.”
In the process of searching for stories to tell Bunuel found himself humbled when surrounded by more than a billion Hindus from around the world.
“I’m not a spiritual person myself, but I have always believed in the fundamental need for humanity to believe in a greater power, and so I’ve always been very interested in religion. And although it sounds obvious, experiencing the Kumbh Mela taught me something about the incredible diversity of our cultures and humanity.”
If you want to catch Diego Bunuel on his latest adventure, tune into the National Geographic Channel (Astro Ch 553) at 10pm tomorrow as he uncovers the heart and soul of the planet’s largest religious festival.