How we made The Tribe

Schools, hospitals and coppers have all been under 24-hour TV scrutiny. Now it’s an African village - and here's how it all came together

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It’s the moment documentary makers yearn for, when, after months of fruitless searching for The One, they strike casting gold. In the case of Channel 4’s The Tribe that eureka moment was celebrated not once, but twice. Meet husband and wife Ayke and Kerri Bodo (above), parents to nine, grandparents to 16 and undoubted stars of this new fly-on-the-hut series that chronicles life in an Ethiopian village.

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“As soon as I saw the old man grumbling away I thought, ‘He’s Victor Meldrew!’,” recalls series producer Paddy Wivell. “You immediately relate to that grumpy old man thing. And his wife Kerri Bodo is just the warmest, wisest, funniest matriarch you could ever hope to meet. We could have trawled the entire continent and we still would have picked this family.”

So how do you begin making an observational documentary series using a location thousands of miles from home and with “stars” who don’t speak English? Here’s how… 


First, locate your tribe

Channel 4 does love a fixed rig – the small, discreetly positioned and remotely operated cameras that record the minutiae of life in places such as hospitals (24 Hours in A&E) and schools (Educating Yorkshire, etc). It’s also the perfect way to document the trials and tribulations of tribal life in a remote corner of the world. But where exactly?

“We had done some work in Ethiopia and we knew the Hamar were a tribe open to being filmed,” says Wivell. “But it had previously been in a traditional way – for instance on the Bruce Parry BBC series that was very much through his eyes – the eyes of a white, western presenter. We thought it would be interesting to strip that away – use the rig to take away that layer.”

“The Hamars are also people on the cusp of change. Technology is seeping into their world – you can see that with the mobile phones some of them now own – and that gave it something else that really appealed to us.” 


Next, find your family

Ayke Bodo

There are 20,000 Hamar living in the Omo region of southern Ethiopia. The challenge of finding the right family group fell to producer Livia Simoka. “I went out in January 2014 and the plan was to go to three big towns and find villages within an an hour’s walk away. So with a great Ethiopian fixer, I started going to all these little villages, but we had real translation difficulties and the conversations took for ever.”

“You’d have to get to know them over things like coffee blessings before you could even start to talk to them. I was really starting to panic,” says Simoka. “So we found two local tour guides who knew absolutely everyone in the area. We told them we needed strong grandparents, we needed teenagers and ideally we needed things like marriage and initiation ceremonies. Within 24 hours they found two families, one of whom was the Ayke Mukos.”

“I had a coffee ritual with them and met the two eldest sons and started filming short interviews with them. I instantly felt that they were right. They had so much warmth. I got home and edited it into a five-minute taster film and showed it to C4.” 


Get the boss’s backing

“I saw the family in the taster film and they bowled me over,” says Wivell. “You could tell they were good without really knowing what they were saying, they had so much charisma. You can shroud these tribes in exotica, but they seemed to be a certain archetype that I thought viewers would relate to.” 


Appearance fees?

“Yes, we did pay the family a ‘disturbance’ fee,” admits Wivell, though he declines to say how much. “It was to acknowledge the intrusion and the fact that for a month we were disrupting their lives. We were very careful with the fixer to find the right balance. I don’t think it’s going to impact on their life in any meaningful way.” 


Find a place to stay

The 50-strong team were based in a small tented compound – no electricity or running water – a 40-minute drive away. “Some days we weren’t getting back until 4am,” says Wivell. 


Don’t forget the translators…

Key to the whole project were the nine-strong team of local translators. They would sit
with the programme producers and editors 
explaining – or trying to explain – all the conversations taking place between the various family members.

Two of the translators – Kale Muga and Muluken Gululat – returned with the team to London for the duration of the six-month edit. It was their first time out of Ethiopia. “It was so hard to do,” says Kale, who left his tribe when he was 13 to attend school. “We had to translate everything, but it was never quick, because there isn’t always a definite answer.” 


Lights, camera, action!

The film crew arrived last August and installed 20 cameras in and around the four huts of the family compound. “All the cameras are operational, but you choose three cameras of the 20 to record at any one time,” says Wivell.

“You’re monitoring everything, but you can only record on three at any one time. We’d sit in the tented gallery about 100m away with the translators and we’d tune into the radio mic of whoever we were interested in. We recorded for 11 hours a day.” 


Where’s the drama?

Though a simple tale of everyday folk, the producers needed some moments of drama to elevate the story arc.

“We made sure that we were going to be there during the busiest time of their year,” says Wivell. “We knew the bull jumping initiation and the wedding were both going to happen, and though it didn’t always go to plan, I think we have the right amount of incidents!” 


Editing 2,000 hours into four…

After a month’s filming, the team, plus the two translators, returned with about 2,000 hours of logged footage. “You already have a sense of what your stories are and where they are leading,” says Wivell. “But even so you come back with huge swathes of material that need translating. It’s a rigorous process to make sure that you get the correct translation.”

For translator Kale – a football fanatic who got to see Arsenal and England play during his stay – it was a real eye-opener: “We loved London, but everyone is running and rushing and it’s not easy to communicate with people. And the 24-hour lighting…” 


What did the stars make of it?

Wivell returned with the finished films to Ethiopia a few weeks ago to show to family members. Their reaction overwhelmed him.

“Getting to know them, documenting their lives and then going back to show the films was just the most momentous event I’ve had in television. We watched the films on a projector under a starlit sky chomping on goat meat and they were cackling and laughing and gossiping. They said: ‘This is who we are, we’re proud of who we are, we don’t mind being shown having upset because that happens in all families.’”

“I hope viewers feel the common ground. Despite appearances, there is much more that binds us than divides us, while still thrilling in that which is different.” 

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The Tribe is on Channel 4 tonight (Thursday 11th June) at 9.00pm