Review: ‘The New Explorers Secrets of an Ancient Culture’

Narrator: Bill Kurtis.

Narrator: Bill Kurtis.

The fund of indigenous African footage — zebras and giraffes forming striking patterns against sunset skies, native children in snaggletoothed grins, endless expanses of grassy plain — hasn’t yet run out; nor has the deluge of vitaminized verbiage in which buzzwords “magic,””mystery” and “journey of discovery” frequently resonate. When the central thread in PBS’ “Secrets of an Ancient Culture” begins to fray, exec producer/writer Bill Kurtis and d.p. Skip Brown aim the camera at enough solid travelogue material to take up the slack.

Gillies Turle, a Nairobi antique dealer, has acquired some tribal artifacts in ivory and rhinoceros bone which, he is told, come from the Maasai, a Central African tribe some 500,000 strong.

In order to authenticate his findings, and thus uncover artistic talent among a people not hitherto known for their art, he must journey to Maasai and see these instruments in ritual use.

His quest — ultimately successful — takes nine years, with “Secrets” narrator Bill Kurtis along some of the time, doubting but ultimately won over.

Africa’s Maasai was forced during British rule from its traditional rich grazing land to drier country in reservations; now there is a push by the Kenyan government to turn the most hallowed Maasai land into a tourist park.

Fear of prosecution by Kenya, which bans the sale or exploitation of animal products, forced tribes to keep their ritual equipment hidden, adding considerable difficulty to Turle’s quest. The story of Turle and his bones thins out; still, on sociological grounds, the one-hour documentary turns into time well spent.

The New Explorers Secrets of an Ancient Culture

(Wed. (Feb. 1), 8-9 p.m., PBS)


Filmed in Tanzania and Kenya by WTTW Chicago and Kurtis Prods. Ltd. Executive producer/writer, Bill Kurtis; executive producer for WTTW, Ed Menaker.


Camera, Skip Brown; editor, Fred Steim; music/sound, David Huizinga.
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