“A mutual understanding settles in: I want to film freely their mining activity and capture the essence of their efforts.” – Philippe Brunot, director
The beauty of Philippe Brunot’s majestic “Follow the Zebra,” a
feature documentary film chronicling the travails of gem seekers in Tanzania, lies in the writer-producer-director, editor and cinematographer’s curiosity
about how miners and scientists forge an unusual alliance. Brunot takes the viewer through a kaleidoscopic journey through an oft-times dangerous terrain.
He is neither a gemologist nor a miner, but a filmmaker – and a fine one indeed.
During his journey, Brunot manages to present the useful partnership between a team of Western-born gemologists and Tanzanian miners in an effort to
uncover rare gemstones within the heart of East Africa. Brunot’s “Follow the Zebra” provides a stunning lens of a largely mysterious land.
“Tanzania, like Kenya, is but a nation in growth,” explains Brunot, who also serves as the film’s narrator.
“[It is] a nation in search of its place within today’s global economy.”
“Follow the Zebra”
makes bold cinematographic and editing choices, all the more remarkable since this is the director’s debut film. If produced by a lesser film artist, they
may have failed. Yet they do not. It is almost as if Brunot has unconsciously tapped into comments made by Francis Coppola:
“Always make your work be personal. And, you never have to lie. If you lie, you will only trip yourself up… There is something we know that’s connected
with beauty and truth. There is something ancient. We know that art is about beauty, and therefore it has to be about truth,”
said the famed director in an interview with Ariston Anderson.
“Follow the Zebra”
is a unique film, which deals with uncovering truth in an unforgiving land. The film is the stuff of artistic craftsmanship as well, coalescing wonderful
visuals – glowingly seasonal colors stand out – all the while blending in a memorable score by the multi-talented Andjian. Brunot’s focus remains steadfast in his
depiction of the travails and triumphs of these miners. Brunot gives the Western-born gemologists their due as well, calling them “inveterate explorers”
and “real life Indiana Joneses.”
Brunot also employs various instances of editing flourishes, which demonstrate a consummate, even risky, film artist at work. There is even an animated sequence put together by Li-Mei Kak, to explain a Tanzanian legend,
which is crucial to the film’s narrative. Other techniques involve good implementation of an iris shot and deliberate use of slow motion to create tension.
“The rare and captivating beauty of a gemstone is inspiring to many, though few are aware of the toils of the brave men who dig them from the rocky and
unforgiving ground,” reads the film’s tagline.
While the film is Philippe Brunot’s journey, “Follow the Zebra” depicts the intrepid explorer Vincent Pardieu, a most interesting and accomplished
fellow. Pardieu, a renowned gemologist who studied science and business in France, works for the Gemology Institute of America (GIA). Pardieu “built the
first, and to this day, the only field gemology department of the world… and has worked on gemstone treatments,” according to GIA’s web site.
In addition to his expedition to Tanzania, Pardieu has done numerous gemstone excursions throughout Asia and Africa, including risky missions to Vietnam,
Myanmar, Afghanistan, Zambia and Mozambique.
“A former soldier in the French army, [Pardieu] is full of social-political insights and theories gained by his numerous expeditions around the globe,”
Brunot narrates in the early stages of the film.
Pardieu was chosen by colleague Richard W. Hughes, an American
gemologist and award-winning authority on rubies and sapphires, to lead this particular expedition. Hughes is a noteworthy presence, providing valuable
insights and often seen consulting with Pardieu.
“Richard asked Vincent to organize and lead this expedition so that he may collect data to update his famous book, Ruby & Sapphire. As among
gemologists, his book is considered the foremost reference on the study of precious stones,” narrates Brunot.
The common motif in “Follow the Zebra” is luck. For all the painstaking efforts and valuable collaboration between gemologists and miners, bad luck can jeopardize everything.
“If it is possible to get too rich rapidly in the gem business thanks to good luck, it is possible to get poor, or even worse, also as rapidly. I call it The Gem Casino,” Brunot narrates while reading from Pardieu’s journal.
These telling words are accompanied by the director’s unique visual sense in which he films a dilapidated hut with a “Las Vegas Bar” sign hanging outside
“Mining is evidently part of their economy, and many have built their lives and families around the quest for precious stones. Others have chosen mining…
as a secondary labor,” ruminates Brunot.
In one searing moment, Brunot zooms in on a young boy wearing a Tasmanian Devil t-shirt:
“For a brief moment, I can see the man within this child,” observes Brunot. This serves as a stark reminder that age does not carry much weight to a
society largely built on survival. This boy, a son of one of the miner’s, does not, however, work at the mines.
“While putting together “Follow the Zebra,” I was extremely careful to not fall into unfounded dramatization,”
Brunot tells me.
“Follow the Zebra”
premiered for broadcasters at the 2014 Toronto Hot Docs International Film Festival this spring. On May 28, the film was honored at the
81st Gemstone Gathering at the GIA Laboratory in Bangkok.
The film will be screened at the Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, California on July 23, and an additional screening will take place at the 2014
USFG-Faceters Frolic in Franklin, North Carolina on July 25.
So why did Philippe Brunot title his film “Follow the Zebra?” The answer lies in its opening images within the dark crevices of a mining pit:
“You follow the Zebra [a euphemism of the zigzag approach of excavation] to get to the Tanzanite gemstone,” Pardieu learns from a miner.
This underscores the prevailing motif of camaraderie, which is present throughout “Follow the Zebra.“