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Africa Trek - Filmmaker Q&A

Africa Trek is the incredible journey of husband and wife Alex and Sonia Poussin. For three years the French couple walked 8,700 miles across Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. During their journey, which they personally filmed, they endured fatigue, extreme thirst, blazing sun, prowling hyenas, malaria and more. But what they discovered along the way was an incredibly generous place rich with heart, humor and life. The Poussins experienced a piece of the world few of us have ever seen, where time and culture are so different from our own. Africa Trek, a twelve-part television series, makes its U.S. debut fall 2008 on public broadcasting (check local listings).

Recently, Alexandre Poussin spoke about the series.

 

You and your wife, Sonia, embarked on a three-year journey. What led you to make this trek and to film it as a series? And what was your approach to this epic continent?

You know, it was altogether a personal, professional and spiritual undertaking. Three years of our lives and the others following were at stake. First, it was personal because it was our honeymoon. I had previously cycled around the world and walked the entire length of the Himalayas with my best friend, so this time I wanted to accomplish it with my newlywed wife. She had a million-star hotel every night (okay, one with a couple of bugs).

Second, it was professional because we are very freelance journalists and travelling is our way to reveal the world with a slower approach, one that is more intimate, more human. Without writing and filming it we would never have been able to do it: it kept us alive with a cause during the hardships. Finally, it was a scientific and spiritual undertaking with this quest of humankind's origins, the Great Rift, the cradle, as well as reflection and a pilgrimage towards our cultural and religious roots in Israel.

Our approach was the exact opposite of the common one. Most people approach Africa with fear, a lot of organization and little time. We had faith, confidence and no prejudice on one side; no organization, tour operator or back-up team of any kind on the other; and no time limit - we were as free as a walking bird can be. And we were not in total autonomy, but rather total dependency. We shared every person's lives to better understand them, and understand the issues of their lives. To share their fate, we had to walk, because they all walk a lot - to go the fields, to the market, to town, to school. To take their path was to take their pace, their pulse, their problems. Our approach was anything but sophisticated: one footstep after another, for almost ever.

What was the greatest revelation to you as a traveler as you made Africa Trek? And your greatest surprise about Africa?

The greatest revelation is that Africa shall not be reduced to the sinister triptych of guerillas, famines and epidemics. We wanted to walk the real Africa, beyond cliches of cheetahs at sunset, and colorful marketplaces where you taste strange foods to make people laugh. What we found out is more subtle and sensitive and concerns the beauty of the human soul in poverty, its courage and resilience when it's alone in the whole world, with hardships you can't imagine.

And still these people bear hope, have faith and are joyful. They work hard, feed their children and get organized with little means where we would be completely lost. All about them is dignity. Hypocrisy is not African. When they disagree, they let you know; when they love you, man, it breaks your heart! Their world is more of culture and time then material and appearance. Spirituality is very strong. The dead are not dead, your deeds are not unseen, there are high powers and everybody fears them. There were surprises at every corner of our days. That kept us walking for so long. I sincerely hope that our surprises and emotions are reflected in our series.

You characterize the journey in the title of your books as "in the footsteps of man." Please tell a little more about that concept.

It's based on a common scientific idea that the humankind phenomenon appeared in Africa in different places, at different periods. We wanted to link symbolically all these places in one (slow) sweep, to enter the third millennium walking. That's why we left the first of January 2001. As most of these paleo-anthropological sites are in the Great African Rift Valley, we followed it from one end to the other. And the northern end is the Sea of Galilee, where our time and history has started, so it was a kind of walk from Australopithecus [an extinct hominid which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago] to Modern Man, from Ape Man to God Man. Simple, isn't it? But this aspect of Africa Trek, very theoretical, appears more in our books than in our television series.

Did you have logistical support? Such as for money, supplies or medicine?

No support team or logistics of any kind. Everything had to be informal, African. So every day we "made plans" to "sort out" problems. Tapes and spools were brought back and forth from France via tourists, diplomats, missionaries, and aid workers met on the way. We didn't lose one. We refueled the little security money we were carrying in the capital cities. What are your expenses when you are a TV crew? Authorizations, transports, hotels, food and security. We had none of these. We paid otherwise: no intimacy, no comfort, very little hygiene, uncertainty, hunger, thirst, bugs, poor nights, and diseases . . . in short: adventure!

Was there a point when you thought about not completing the trek and returning home?

Only when I saw my wife dying of malaria. I couldn't pay myself with words, concepts, ideas, dreams - there was only one reality: her pain, maybe her end. But we were far away and by the time a rescue team could have come, she slowly recovered. We were lucky and fell in with a mission where nice sisters saved and cured us. And I say "us" because I had a malaria crisis just after Sonia. And then the lions started to attack the village. Seven people were killed within a week. It was an absolute nightmare. Everything is on tape, but in the series we show only Joseph, the survivor of a lion attack. In these conditions you doubt, of course!

How many hours of footage did you and Sonia eventually shoot? How did you decide what would stay in the series?

We shot 350 hours, or rushes, and most of it is viewable because it was shot with the old-fashioned technique "shoot and edit," used when film was in short spools and expensive. Out of it, only six hours have been shown, 1.7% of our work! So for us it's a bit heartbreaking, so much has been left aside! But that's the way it is and we had to be helped of course to make these decisions. We had a post-production team of two people, an editor, Pascal Cardeilhac, who selected our footage for its quality and co-editor, Florence Tran, who selected for its meaning; they selected more relevant passages and interviews for the first buyer of the series, the French travel channel Voyage. We discussed choices with the team through the Internet while walking, and we edited and recorded the commentaries of the first six episodes in a Cairo studio, because the series premiered right as we came back. So straight away, on arrival, we had to edit the next six episodes while the first ones were running on TV.

Out of this material we later edited a long feature movie of an hour and a half that is more reflexive, non-chronological, less documentary, which shows more of the soul and less of the trip. It has won seven international awards, but this one has not found yet its English version. We've been so busy with these two formats that we never had the opportunity to look back at the unexploited rushes, so no regrets! This series is the creme-de-la-creme. And if our viewers want to know more they go to our books.

What has been the reaction to your series and your books?

I guess our series is an invitation to fall in love with Africa. Hundreds of our viewers and readers report to us that this series and the books have changed their lives because they went in with the Africa they feared before knowing us, and Africa has changed their lives. These testimonials make us cry every morning when we open our mail. It means that we've done our job.

When people view the series, what do you hope they will come away with?

A better image, a closer image, a more positive image of the continent in general, a love for its people and cultures in particular. And a boiling desire to go there. There are not enough American people that travel in Africa. Africa needs you.

You and your wife have certainly pursued and embraced an enriching adventure. What reflections do you offer viewers about breaking away from the routines of life and having their own adventures?

That their life is the ultimate adventure, wherever they are, whatever they do and that they must put a dose of freedom, self-criticism and personality into it. All life is a piece of art; they must make it a masterpiece, they are co-creator of their lives. And in all life there must be a routine. Our routine was walking, meeting, filming. Nothing wrong with a routine. What do you make of it is your life. We would never say to people: drop your life, job and family to get the feeling of adventure! Adventure is not sport nor is it absolute freedom. It's the ability to deal with the unexpected, with little means and often in poor conditions. And there must be an aim. It can't be a runaway escape. Finally, it is less about discovering oneself, overcoming and enjoying, than about sharing, giving, devoting. These are the ultimate adventures.

How did you say good-bye to Africa?

It granted us a baby. Sonia walked the last three months and the last 1,118 miles pregnant. It was about time to say good-bye. From the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we faced south and thanked that chain of African families that led us up to here - 1,200 African families that taught us Africa. 1,200 links out of which if one had failed, we wouldn't have made it. We owe them this journey. We haven't achieved it thanks to our pride, our goals, our calves - but thanks to them. We walked it also for them. We also accomplished in Jerusalem a promise: to read everybody's names in places according to their beliefs. It took us a day. A day to remember everybody. A day to say thank you.

What does it mean to you and Sonia, to share this epic journey with the United States?

I truly hope Africa Trek will bring positive answers to the people un-at-ease and skeptical with the continent, and fill the hearts of the ones who seek personal answers there. We feel very much like ambassadors of Africa. It's our moral duty.

Do you have future journeys planned?

As long as life goes on, because you've noticed our lives and travels are pretty much intertwined, and as we have two kids now, we'll travel as a family: it's going to bring us even closer to people's lives. But that's another story.

This filmmaker Q&A is for editorial use only in conjunction with the direct publicity or promotion of Africa Trek, and may only be edited for length for use in station guides, websites and print materials. No other rights are granted. All rights reserved.

Questions developed by Kate Kelly and Jeff Giese. For more information about Africa Trek, please contact Suzanne Masri from WETA Station Relations at 703-998-2686 or smasri@weta.com.

Africa Trek is a production of Gedeon in association with Terranoa and WETA Washington, D.C. Funding for Africa Trek is provided by sanofi-aventis U.S., SWATCH, and Hi-Tec Sports.

The Poussins are also authors of Africa Trek I : From the Cape of Good Hope to Mount Kilimanjaro: 14,000 Kilometers in the Footsteps of Man and Africa Trek II : From Mount Kilimanjaro to the Sea of Galilee: 14,000 Kilometers in the Footsteps of Man, which will be published in the U.S. fall 2008 by Inkwater Press.

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