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The Running Man

"Imagine you are lost in the forest. Walking, trying to find your way home and you're shouting, calling, for someone to hear you." The figure before me sucks in deeply from a cigarette, his nicotine-stained fingers toying with a small wooden image of a man, hanging from his neck.

"We would say we can't guarantee someone is going to hear you," he continues, leaning forwards to look me in the eye, "but we can definitely make your voice louder. Like a loudspeaker and hailer. But only that. No guarantees; this is our intention."

Justin 'Jus' Hall, cuts a persuasive, almost evangelical figure. Tall, tanned and with distinctive spiked hair, he is one-half of the team which set up the unique Running Man project. Together with his business partner and co-director, Jason Hosh, he has a passion for tribal peoples and bringing the power of modern technology to the aid of remote communities.

As the mysterious 'Running Man', Jus travels with Jason to some of the world's most remote locations. From there, the team broadcasts daily web reports and video feeds about the situation facing indigenous groups. They also film material for use in more traditional documentary TV. It is an approach that tests endurance to the limit, and sees the team travelling using traditional methods, working in tandem with local people.

In their own words, "Runningman is a series of documentaries filmed on location in some of the most visually stunning, remote and at times, hostile environments known to Man. Each episode is an extreme expedition, fraught with the inherent problems of travelling to the ends of the Earth. Each has a central focus and carries a strong message raising important ethical questions."

Sitting on a cold, winter's day, sipping coffee in a London café far from the jungles of South America, Jus tells me that: "We maintain continuity throughout with this central character, the Runningman - which is me - who guides the audience from culture to culture as he relays the many problems, cultures and characters that he encounters along the way."

What comes out is a mixture of travelogue, video diary and educational programme, combining elements of each in an unconventional but often compelling format. Uniquely, it's a format open to online debate via the internet, on the world wide web - offering not only real-time interactivity but allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about a situation.

The aim, says Jus, is to inspire increased awareness and active involvement in these situations: "To ultimately effect change where change is needed," he proselytises.

The two men were school friends from childhood days in Brighton, on the south-coast of England. Jus travelled, then ended up working in PR in New York, before "spending six months, penniless, living on a beach in LA", convincing French ethnographer and film-maker Jean Pierre Dutilleux to teach him his craft.

Jay, on the other hand, spent 10 years in south-east Asia, working as a chef and travelling and writing in his spare time to places such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Borneo. "I was just concentrating on human rights, environmental issues, that sort of thing. Just out of personal interest really. I'd just go somewhere simply on the basis of reading a newspaper. It was a great backdrop for what we're doing now."

"Yeah, I remember one time," says Jus, ?we met in Bangkok and Jay was off to work on a story about Sarawak, and I was off to Africa, to do a walk with four African elephants opening up an ancient migratory route. And we started talking about the precursor to Running Man, something called Third Eye, which was about undercover filming in the third world. Several times we'd bump into each other over the years, and there'd always be these crazy projects we'd be doing. I eventually came back from Los Angeles and found Jay's number and we just sat and had a brainstorm. That's how Running Man was born."

Running Man's first journey took the two men, and a third partner Max Bearing, to the remote reaches of Suriname, a tiny country tucked into the north-eastern corner of South America. Suriname contains more virgin jungle than nearly all of Central America put together, mentions Jus. "In fact," he says, "eighty five percent of the country is classified as inaccessible and is inhabited only by a handful of tribal groups, anaconda, jaguar, giant tarantula, piranha, multicoloured macaws, and innumerable species of birds, flora, fauna and biting insects."

Spending about three-and-a-half months in the country, they travelled from the capital Paramaribo out into its remote reaches, meeting and speaking with representatives of six indigenous groups. They also met members of the mining interests who have done so much, in many environmentalists' view, to destroy the virgin forest and its traditional tribal habitats.

Some of the tribes they encountered were Amerindian, some descended from displaced African slaves. "Invariably we had a really good reaction," says Jus, "although they are suspicious of outsiders and all the promises that are usually made."

Jason, sitting nearby, says that they became a platform for the tribes to show their hopes and fears to the world. "And they loved that. The reception was really good everytime we showed up in a new village."

"All these groups were very animated about bringing the sharp end of technology into their villages," says Jus, passionately, "so that their representatives - the Grandmen [tribal leaders], chiefs, and so on - could really utilise the web and speak to other groups and organisations, but directly."

In fact, the technology they carried with them was to prove crucial. They had been due to carry a local headman - called a "captain" - from one village to the next, so that he could visit the tribal Grandman and present gifts from his village. It was a journey of several hundred kilometres downriver. However, Running Man's canoes were destroyed by rapids on the very first leg of the journey.

"So we had to leave him [the headman] behind, which was devastating, so at the last minute we offered to take a message for him and they jumped at the opportunity. And so we took a video message that we played back to the Grandman, when we finally met. And that kicked off a chain reaction," Jus smiles, "which just carried on."

"It was a beautiful experience," he reminisces. "That's something we would like to use in the future. Not something coming in from other countries, but people directly concerned and affected by the issues, advising others in a similar situation, whether they are nearby or 10,000 miles away."

Were there other notable moments, I ask? "The one that stuck in my mind was the women of Semoisie [decended from a displaced African slaves], the first village on the Sarramacca river," he replies. "We arrived, late in the evening, the sun was going down, and on the banks of the river were the old women. They just started clapping and hugging us. They just threw their arms around us, with this incredible openness." He speaks with raw emotion in his voice. "They said 'adeo, adeo' which translates as 'are you there?' and they were right next to us saying this. And your reply is 'yes, I'm here.' There was just absolute warmth and that blew me away completely."

Jay adds that there were "loads of moments like that". In addition to which, they had to face recurring malaria (which still afflicts Jus to this day), dragging canoes overland, rapids, stepping on snakes, and "putting our hand son tarantulas." However, they both still smile at the memory of the trip.

So looking back on it, was the first Running Man expedition a success? Did they manage to change anything? "Personally, I think it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to get it to where we did," says Jus. "In the timeframe that we had, even though it was only a small difference, there was and still is a reaction because of our visit."

"I had a meeting in Amsterdam with one of the largest (mining) concession owners whom we'd met out there and he's still open to entering into negotiations with the Yana (Amerindian tribe), to consider them in his activities. Before, he wouldn't have done this. There was no discretion. So in some small way we were the catalyst for this."

The tribal peoples of Suriname need a chance to learn and represent themselves, says Jus. "Primarily just to have a hand in their own destiny," adds Jason. "Not just wait for the bulldozers to run over their villages. It all sounds very dramatic but people keep telling you these very simple needs. And all around you there's gold-dust in the air, which is giving the local communities zero benefits."

The team are now cutting their first documentary, which they hope will be shown on the National Geographic channel, and the next trip is being planned to the tribes of the Muluku Islands, Iran Jaya. The trip will not be without its difficulties, they admit - the least being current tensions in Indonesia. However, a new team has already been pulled together and everyone, they say, is looking forward to the adventure.

In summing up his feelings at the end of the interview, Jus tells me: "Every moment that I move towards this, I'm doing what I really, really love. And that combines drawing attention to the problems affecting these people. I think that it's really the most obvious thing that they should be assisted. It's like the playground scenario; if you see a kid that's being bullied there's a certain group of people that will just let it happen. But there's another group who'll walk over and say 'no that's not right'. And I more or less feel that's it."

This article first appeared in Geographical Magazine © 2001 and another version later in The Guardian

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