So what’s the difference between Who Do You Think You Are? and DNA Nation, I hear you ask?
While the former is a personal journey of genealogy, the latter is one of science. Three famous Australians -Ian Thorpe, Julia Zemiro and Ernie Dingo- all participate in this three part documentary produced by Blackfella Films (Redfern Now, First Contact).
Like First Contact and Go Back to Where You Came From, this adopts a similar ’embedded experience’ where the participants have next to know forewarning of the destinations or situations they will find themselves -all while the cameras are rolling.
Their emotions underpin the storytelling of this intriguing premise that asks ‘Who are we and where do we come from?’
It begins with its subjects scraping the inside of their mouth for saliva. Human geneticist Dr John Mitchell explains that a simple swab can provide DNA that can be traced back over 200,000 years.
The three stars in this unlikely group share a mix of excitement and apprehension about where the documentary will take them. Ernie Dingo knows his Indigenous history well, but nothing before that, while Julia Zemiro admits to “..a sneaking suspicion I’m going to come back a vegetarian. I don’t know why.”
Before they know it they are taken to Tanzania, where a tribe of ‘hunter gatherers’ still lives according to the basic lifestyle adopted by humans thousands of years ago. The Hadza people create fire with sticks, something Dingo is keen to show he too has mastered.
“The guy is just like us. He knows how to make fire,” an interpreter advises.
They will also join the tribe on a search for honey, with former Olympian Ian Thorpe watching in awe as the local men scale trees and smoke out bee hives. While Thorpe & Dingo will also join the men hunting for prey, Zemiro will gather vegetables with the women. Throughout there is a lovely union and cultural exchange between ‘modern and primitive’ subjects. With no ‘documentary host’ at their side, the three also emote and explain their actions for the camera.
“I feel like a fake,” Zemiro later confides. “I felt good having you there as an Indigenous person because they related to you.
“Skin colour is nothing. It’s how you relate,” Dingo replies.
Via laptop Dr John Mitchell occasionally steps in as tour guide, to advise the team they are now headed off on the next step in their journey: an archeological dig in Turkana Basin, Kenya. There with scientist Jason Lewis they will dig for artefacts and bones as part of an epic global question, “Why did mankind leave Africa?” Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey will also try to answer questions such as Thorpe’s “Why is it so important for us to know about our past?”
The filming of this documentary is cleverly personal, allowing us to watch the participants up close. There are drone shots making the most of exotic backdrops and music wrapped around the drama. Colin Friels provides sparse narration in a project where the visuals do much of the storytelling. I also enjoyed watching the three Aussies undertake the experience together, at least initially, as opposed to the solo experience of Who Do You Think You Are?.
It also goes without saying there is none of the feuding and internal conflict associated with Go Back to Where You Came From or First Contact. DNA Nation perfectly reminds us we have more in common than those that divide us.
Subsequent episodes suggest a mix of joy and tears for the participants, but above all else a sense of wonderment.
DNA Nation begins 8:30pm Sunday on SBS.