Pegi Vail is an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. Her documentary Gringo Trails features the stories of travelers and locals, alongside footage from Bolivia, Thailand, Mali, and Bhutan, to explore both positive and negative impact of tourism on these places over the last 30 years. Pegi is the Associate Director at the Center for Media, Culture, and History at New York University, and has taught on culture and media at NYU and Columbia University’s Anthropology Departments. She has lectured on expedition and travel film at the American Museum of Natural History, and on Columbia Alumni Association and National Geographic travel study trips. As a curator, she has collaborated with colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and through organizations such as the The Moth, the storytelling collective for which she was a founding board member. She currently serves on the Moth’s curatorial board. Right of Passage, a book based her anthropology research among travelers in Bolivia, is forthcoming (Duke University Press).
How did you get started traveling?
I grew up in New Jersey and my first memory of going “somewhere” was when my parents took me on the Staten Island Ferry. I think I must have been about 4 or 5 years old. It made such a strong impression; my parents told me I couldn’t stop talking about it when we got home. As a teenager, I went on a school trip for a week to London and Paris. That further hooked me; I always encourage parents, if they are able, to let their kids travel early or to travel with them.
But I really got started as an independent traveler during my post-college-graduation trip to Europe, and then a year later when I headed off on a long term backpacking trip to China and Southeast Asia. I remember experiencing for the first time being the only foreigner in a place, which happened a lot in China and Burma back then. Suddenly, the tables were turned as to who was looking at whom. Those cultural exchanges were so memorable. As were all the new sights, sounds, foods, and smells. After these trips, I knew I’d be traveling at every opportunity and that eventually I’d need to figure out a profession to enable that. Later on, I became an anthropologist. Problem solved.
How did you get started making videos?
I started out documenting my neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1990s, before it became the gentrified, hipster hood it is now. One of my first Super-8 films of that period was really an ode to traveling in my own neighborhood. Called 15 Minute Walk, it traversed three adjacent ethnic neighborhoods along Bedford Avenue, starting out in the Hasidic section during Yom Kippur, with people swinging chickens over their heads while saying a blessing. That was pretty exotic to me.
During the same period I took a Super-8 camera, and later Hi-8 video camera, with me on a couple of trips, such as to the Cuna Islands in Panama, another to Ethiopia and Yemen, and to Zaire, Uganda and Kenya. There I filmed a goat-killing, with blood collection and blood-drinking, in celebration for a newborn baby boy whose birth my friend and I witnessed right in front of us. The Samburu family we stayed with had asked us to name the baby — quite an honor. I realized that filming such intimate, ceremonial moments among cultures vastly different from my own was something I wanted to share. Today, in addition to filming “others”, I also observe and film my own tribe, that of travelers: our stories and rituals.
Incidentally, one of these days I want to look up this Samburu boy, now a young man. I’m sure he’d like to yell at us for not giving him the American name that I think his family was hoping for instead of “Semliki”, the name of an East African river.
What do you consider your first “break” as a documentary maker?
I’m still waiting for my first break! Actually, I recently finished my first feature-length documentary, Gringo Trails, which follows travelers and locals’ stories to look at both the positive and negative impact of travel around the world over the past three decades. I had taken a long hiatus from filmmaking to finish my PhD and to teach. Before that, I made a few short documentaries, including one about a group of amateur musicians and baseball fans who played at Brooklyn Dodgers games. They called themselves The Dodgers Sym-Phony, and two of the guys were my next-door neighbors. I remember getting the call that PBS/WNET wanted to broadcast it. I was thrilled.
As a traveler and story/footage gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
When I collect travel stories as an anthropologist, the challenges are quite different from when I’m collecting footage for a documentary, which requires a lot of attention to keeping your equipment safe. Depending on the environment, for instance, sand or water hitting the camera or sound equipment is an obvious problem, as my husband, who was my cameraman and fellow producer on Gringo Trails, was constantly battling with. It was especially challenging filming folks traveling on a budget in terms of the types of accommodations, as that meant keeping an eye on the gear all the time because of flimsy locks on doors and other concerns. Filming in very rural locations often presented problems with access to electricity. In the end, however, both ways of story collecting require sufficient time and winning the trust of one’s interviewees — trust that I’ll take care with what they’ve shared, and with the way they’re represented in print or onscreen.
What is your biggest challenge in the post-production process?
Like with writing, sculpting your story over a long period of time is always the challenge, especially with hundreds of hours of footage; the film can go in so many different directions. I think my long-term work and experience with our storytelling group The Moth helped my understanding of how to shape a story. The other major challenge is money. Unlike writing, filmmaking takes substantial cash or in-kind resources to complete the film.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
In my early 20s I did lots of different things, from waitressing to apple picking in England. One of the funniest experiences I had was being Eva Gabor’s body double for a couple of Nick at Nite print ads, and a huge Times Square billboard featuring her classic TV shows like Green Acres. It was also great pay! In my later 20s I worked in museums as an education coordinator and lecturer in arts-in-education programs before returning to graduate school. After that I settled into teaching as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and NYU for some years before taking on a full-time position as the Associate Director at the Center for Media, Culture and History at NYU.
What travel-oriented authors, books or filmmakers might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
An early influence on my desire to travel was Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, assigned in my World Religions class my junior year of high school. I was drawn to the story of search for meaning through the journey, and it’s depiction of “the East” and Buddhism. These days, I love reading articles and books that show many angles from which to see the world: whether it’s an indigenous perspective on one’s own place, or an outsiders’ insight. I love Pico Iyer’s work. I think of him as a travel philosopher, starting with Video Night in Kathmandu. Actually, some of my favorite travel writers today are featured in my documentary, including Pico Iyer, Costas Christ, Holly Morris, and Anja Mutic.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing and video?
Most people have heard this before, but I truly believe in following your passion, even if you encounter obstacles. And be determined to follow it for as long as you can.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and filmmaker?
I get to do what I love. I feel ever so privileged to be able to claim that.