Ed Stafford is more than an adventurer – the first man to walk the length of the Amazon is also a film-maker of some repute. At the latest RTS Futures event in mid-October, he offered a self-shooting masterclass, illustrated by clips from his TV series
In 2008, equipped with cameras from Ginger TV, Stafford left the Peruvian Andes to begin a 6,000-mile quest to walk the Amazon. Two and a half years later he reached the mouth of the river and, despite receiving just “half a day’s filming training on Streatham Common” before he started, Stafford had enough footage for a two-part series, Walking the Amazon, which was shown on Channel 5 and Discovery in 2011.
As Stafford admitted, he was still learning his craft. “I was held up at gunpoint three times, at arrowpoint three or four times, I was arrested for murder once and drugs trafficking another time – and I didn’t get any of it on camera because I was scared,” he recalled.
“[Now], I am very much aware of the exact moments that I need to film. The moment I get scared, the camera’s on; any extremes of emotion and I know that I need to record it, but that came through the experience of being extraordinarily frustrated with myself for not fully capturing that [Amazon] expedition.”
Stafford, a former British Army captain, was interviewed at the RTS Futures event by Liz McIntyre, the Director of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK’s leading documentary festival.
McIntyre, as a former Discovery commissioner, had green-lit Stafford’s series for the channel, including the 2013 series Naked and Marooned, which was made by Tigress Productions.
The concept for this series was simple but forbidding. “If you were dropped off stark-bollock naked on an island, without a knife, without food, without any contact with the outside world for 60 days, would you be able to survive?” explained Stafford.
All photography by Paul Hampartsoumian.
He survived and made a compelling series – but Stafford was not afraid to admit that it had been a tough experience. “It’s all well and good to have ideas,” he said, “but I didn’t think it through. It was an utter baptism of fire – I’d never spent more than two days on my own and now I had 60 days.”
Stafford felt “he was losing his mind, while trying to document the whole thing at the same time – it was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“This is not in the remotest sense a sob story because [there] couldn’t have been a more intense period when I learnt more about myself.”
Discussing a production company’s duty of care to the people appearing in their programmes, Stafford warned against putting “people who have a lust to make a name for themselves on TV in ridiculous situations. Essentially they are a guinea pig and you’re watching someone’s mind unfold on camera.”
Stafford told the RTS Future audience that he “was not blaming anyone and took full responsibility for what he signed up for”, but added that other people could be more vulnerable.
His next series, 2014’s Marooned with Ed Stafford, again made by Tigress, in which the adventurer spent 10 days alone in some of the world’s remotest areas, saw Stafford develop as a film-maker.
Armed with a selection of GoPros and handheld cameras, Stafford came back with stunning footage from places that included Patagonia and Guatemala. “There were two projects going on: one, which was getting enough food in order to survive; and two, to make a cool film about it.”
Stafford has embraced the opportunity “to be artistically creative” and admitted that filmmaking “is more interesting to me now than the survival part”.
In all the places he films, Stafford meets local, often indigenous, inhabitants first to learn about their way of life. “It would be arrogant and crass for an ex-army bloke to come into each environment and just do his thing without paying respect to local people,” he said.
Looking back over the series he has made, Stafford said: “The thing that I am now genuinely proud of in these shows is that they’re not just about killing a snake or crossing a river – they have an emotional depth to them.
“I’m learning stuff about myself and how to live my life. Discovery has given me the opportunity to turn that into a TV programme. That the audience can go away and learn the same thing is great – we have almost managed to transcend the [survival] genre.”
The RTS Futures event, “Self-shooting masterclass with Ed Stafford”, was held at the Cavendish Conference Centre in central London on 12 October. Phil Craig, Iestyn Barker and Jack Oliver were the producers.