Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Tea Explorer May Be The Year's Best TV Documentary




Did I really want to preview the new documentary The Tea Explorer? I wasn't sure but since it was directed by Andrew Gregg I figured it had to be of high quality.
Well, I brewed a big pot of Scottish Breakfast tea and I couldn't stop watching,it's that extraordinary.
The premiere is on the Documentary Channel premiering Sunday July 23 at 9 p.m.
The real subject matter is one man's obsession with all facets of tea.
That man is Jeff Fuchs from Manotick, Ontario, who has spent more than a decade pursuing all aspects of the tea culture that still predominates across China and into Nepal and Tibet.
"I was completely fascinated by him," says filmmaker Andrew Gregg. "A mutual friend introduced us originally. I could see a film right away. And the camera certainly does favor him --he was a model for a bit."
Fuchs gives us a complete course in how tea should be brewed, where it is cultivated, how it affects these ancient civilizations.
And this is not the tea you and I consume in tea bags in smartly packaged  tea cases.
We see how the ancient Chinese way of treating tea as more than a drink --it's almost a meal in itself, a sort of stew that Tibetans consume as their main breakfast and sold in large hard blocks where portions are chiseled off.
Gregg was his own cinematographer and the images captured are stark and gorgeous --the rocky trails he, Fuch and travel guides take us have been used for thousands of years but are not much used since China invaded Tibet.
"We shot it in October and November 2015," Gregg tells me. "You can see the first snows in some scenes. We weren't afraid of avalanches. But it was  such a journey."
The "ground zero" of the tea culture is China's Yunnan Province --in one shot Fuchs shows a tea tree still producing tea leaves  after 750 years.
The tea craze spread out from Yunnan although these days there are more regional coffee houses than tea stores --Gregg thinks this might be due to the feeling coffee is more "western".
Fuchs is the perfect presenter --he talks tea with tea house proprietors whose family run businesses go back through many generations.
So now I know the proper way the leaves must be harvested, how they get "fried and dried" and then the various ways the tea houses treat them and serve them.
Fuchs says he started hearing about the Tea Horse Road which lasted thousands of years and so we're off on a dazzling journey through very disparate cultures.
Gregg says to make that arduous journey which included time in Tibet he was accompanied by a Chinese "minder", actually a girl educated in the West, who became enthusiastic about a subject she knew little.
We also get to know the indigenous people, many worked in the tea trade until the 1960s when the trade routes were completely closed by the invading Chinese.
There are a few hardy survivors of those days and they have stories to tell.
There is also a gentleness of demeanor which I think may be a result of their religious training.
And they also had to be supremely physical --carrying huge packs and one false step would send them spiraling down and into treacherous gorges.
Fuchs is such a great interviewer he gets these characters to talk freely about their lives and it makes for wonderful TV.
Gregg thinks there may be a glimpse of a red panda on the wild in one scene --I also spotted a herd of what looked like black oxen being driven up one mountain slope.
"These are yaks being driven to winter quarters," Gregg tells me.
This was one of the few recent TV documentaries I've watched where I could have watched for at least another half hour.
On Tuesday July 18 The Tea Explorer premieres with a special screening at the Wolf Performance Hall, 251 Dundas St. London Ontario. at 7 p.m. Admission is free -- sponsored by The Tea Lounge of London.
Andrew Gregg will be there in person and Jeff Fuchs will be there vis Skype.
The Tea Explorer comes from 90th Parallel Productions and runs 74 minutes without commercials --the time just whizzed by and I hoped it could be longer it's that well made.
THE TEA EXPLORER PREMIERES ON THE DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY JULY 23 AT 9 P.M. E.T.
MY RATING: ****.