The author of Cobra Gypsies and Hallucinogen Honey Hunters spent three months with the Penan tribe of south Malaysia producing "Borneo Death Blow", a fascinating dive into an exotic culture and landscape.
A once thriving tribe of 15,000 has diminished considerably over the years as deforestation has scattered, displaced and destroyed many of its members. Their vulnerability to brazen corporate forces has compromised the integrity and prominence of their proud culture.
Yet some remain. In an early segment of the film, we're introduced to a native Penan who has managed to find shelter in a small village within the forest. He prepares a series of darts dipped in the toxic sap of an indigenous tree. Blowpipe hunting is an essential activity in the Penan culture, and the careful process by which it is practiced often poses significant perils. The tiniest drop of poison under the skin can kill you within minutes.
The Penan tribe is understandably shy and isolated, but they nevertheless allow the filmmakers a rare glimpse into their daily existence. We witness their children as they play, their hunting and gathering of food, the construction of their huts, and the communities they've managed to maintain in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We enter their dining areas, hunting grounds and makeshift classrooms. This is a proud nomadic people accustomed to overcoming hardship, but their way of life becomes more imperiled by the day. This film may represent our final entry into their world, and the last gasps of their legacy.
Throughout the film, we gain an appreciation of Borneo's awe-inspiring environment. There are over 30 million species of insects that populate these rainforests from pit vipers to centipedes to exotic spiders. Some of them are venomous and deadly, but all of them are wondrous to observe in their natural habitat.
But much of this majestic vegetation is disappearing. Borneo supplies half of the world's timber supply, and this commodity makes it prime real estate for corporate interests who don't hesitate to employ Mafioso-like tactics to attain their prize.
"Borneo Death Blow" is a beautifully observant documentary that's obviously been produced with tremendous patience and an unwavering dedication to its subject.