Sep 022014


Opening with a quote from Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe, “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints”, Gringo Trails concerns itself with the problem of uncontrolled tourism, and the positive breakthroughs made by eco-tourism. A globe-trotting documentary, it bustles across a variety of tourist locales, demonstrating the need for more education and awareness from backpackers and holidaymakers. Chief Seattle’s words are allowed to hang over the film, standing as an ideal and a warning, as we are introduced to the pitfalls of a rampant tourism industry powered by cashed-up foreigners whose only concern is for themselves and the bragging rights to some glorious narrative of authenticity and adventure.

Chasing after a dream, many of these wanderers fail to see the destruction they bring to both environment and to the cultures that they often crash-land into. Ranging from Bolivia to Bhutan, from Timbuktu to Thailand, each site of tourism is evocatively portrayed and carefully chosen for the way in which it represents the wide diversity of tourism do’s and don’t’s. It’s not all bad news; the narrative is well structured to carry you through the highs as well as the lows. Gringo Trails does not badger the audience with simplistic negativity, instead offering solutions and optimism.

The ideas and stories are generally well presented by confident and intelligent filmmakers. Occasionally you can feel them struggling to keep their point focused, such as in the Timbuktu segment, which comes off as amateurish and a little unnecessary. It does assist in developing a personal perspective on what drives people to remote locations and the problems they encounter when their dreams meet the reality, so it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. The many talking-heads are well-chosen; all are engaging and represent a wealth of experience. Industry insiders, academic experts, random tourists and assorted inbetweeners all bring something valuable to the table, even if it’s just an amusing anecdote, keeping the core ideas fresh and invigorated throughout.

Where backpackers yearn for the road less travelled, so do the filmmakers, seeking out communities that have joined together to control their cultural and environmental narrative and thus do something different. Community controlled tourist industries are presented as a viable alternative, one in which education is as equally important as the experience. These communities understand that if a Dionysian desire for uncontrolled experience is allowed to reign then there will be little left of the exotic world that initially attracted outsiders. The best documentaries change the way we see the world, giving us new insight into not only the external but also the internal world. Pegi Vail and her crew have succeeded in turning a spotlight on a valuable area that clearly still needs a lot of work and attention.
By Ben Buckingham

USA, 2013