The summary of my journey to Ikland consists pretty much of one harrowing event followed by another until the sequence of horrors became almost absurd. It is for this reason, that I am fascinated by my own memory. One of the most vivid moments was during the trek up Morungole. The sun was beating down and, in a good way, the hike was becoming monotonous. The porters glided like clouds and were clumped tightly at this particular moment of our ascension, so we didn’t have the usual worry about parts floating off. Pluth and I spontaneously broke into
song and belted out, Act Naturally which we surprisingly both knew all the words to. I knew it because of the Beatles cover, but I never got to ask Pluth if that was the case for him, or the original Buck Owens recording. It is amazing how the sense of loss even pervades the most trivial of mysteries.
Cevin hastily pulled his car to the side of the road and jumped out. He was blocking traffic at the corner of 42nd St. and Fifth Ave. during rush hour, and taxis were honking. I’d taken a break from my editing gig at a nearby office and was rushing up the sidewalk to meet him. Neither of us could afford time to visit, although he’d driven all the way from South Carolina just to see me. I imagined we were being pursued, and that it wouldn’t be much longer until we were both caught.
The paper bag Cevin gave me contained several professional format videotapes from the Avery Research Center. They were the original transfers of unique footage shot in northeastern Uganda during the mid-1960s, which had been lost for many years. Someone had borrowed them from the Smithsonian Institute once upon a time, and then they were gone. But now they were mine.
I’d read Turnbull’s book, The Mountain People, only a month before and had believed every word. He wrote in elegant, confident prose, unambiguous in meaning. It wasn’t until I put the book down that I began asking questions.
Turnbull was also a decent amateur photographer, like so many of us were before digital cameras and videotape, but he was not a filmmaker. He wasn’t interested in telling a story. He brought his 16mm camera to Ikland simply to make an ethnographic record. His lack of aesthetic posed a special problem for me when I unpackaged the tapes because, as a filmmaker, I did want to tell a story. And I was interested in things like composition and style and that sort of thing.
Screening those tapes was a rare chance to view the Ik as Turnbull did – to see the very sights he saw, looking through his viewfinder. Stories are nothing but a collection of impressions, carefully arranged within our minds. The impressions were Turnbull’s – which Cevin handed off to me – but beginning that day, the story would become our own.