Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh

Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh will premiere tomorrow at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel (Astro Channel 553). In the article below, The Star journalist SHARMILLA GANESAN catches up with Datuk Michelle Yeoh to find her doing her bit to help protect the endangered orangutan.

YOU may be familiar with seeing Datuk Michelle Yeoh on the silver screen in many guises, from a Bond girl to a martial arts expert to a geisha.

The Ipoh-born actress’ next starring role, however, will be something much more personal and poignant – a documentary where she returns home to Malaysia and journeys to Sabah to discover what is being done to save our orangutans from extinction.

Right off the bat, Yeoh was determined to be as involved as possible.

“During my first meeting (with the producers), I told them I didn’t just want to be dolled up on screen and function as a bookend to the show,” Yeoh said during a recent phone interview from Songjiang, China, where she is currently filming a movie.

“You learn so much when you’re involved in projects like this. You’re not just a tourist who’s there for half a day, rather, you’re really out there seeing how it really is. I wanted to be up close and personal with the orang utans. Think Dian Fossey, think Gorillas In The Mist!”

True to her words, the documentary, Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh, sees her doing everything from feeding and caring for orangutans, to rescuing an orphaned orangutan, to trekking through the forests to collect seeds. The production was made by National Geographic in partnership with the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) under the Malaysia To The World 2 initiative. Yeoh began her two-and-a-half-week journey at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, a facility for orphaned and injured orangutans in Sandakan, Sabah.

Currently housing 53 of the orphaned apes, the centre’s aim is to nurse them back to health before releasing them back to the wild. With Sepilok’s veterinarian Dr Cecilia Boklin as her mentor, Yeoh got right into the nitty-gritty of life there, including bathing a three-year-old orangutan and teaching him how to climb. “It was an amazing experience,” Yeoh enthused. “It’s impossible not to fall in love with them. On my first day at Sepilok, one of the orangutans came right up to me and sat down, and put its hands on my lap!”

She did admit, however, that one had to be careful when dealing with the apes. “One of the problems is that they are very cute when they are babies, and people want them as pets. But after the age of three, they start getting very strong, and by five or six years old, they can’t be handled easily,” she said.

Yeah explained that as long as one kept calm and was respectful when dealing with the orangutans, they wouldn’t get spooked. There was even a point when she was on a feeding platform with some orangutans where they began picking leeches off her clothes and took her hand to lead her back to the forest. “I think they thought I was one of them too,” she said, laughing.

She was also surprised at how attached she got to the orangutans, and even adopted two at Sepilok. “They have the most soulful eyes, they really speak with their eyes. If you look at a flanged male, it’s like looking at the face of an elder statesmen, there’s so much wisdom there,” she said.

While these experiences were undeniably exciting, Yeoh hopes that the documentary will also shed light on the help that is needed to maintain the orangutan population, which once stretched from China to Java, but is now confined only to Sumatra and Borneo.

“I hope that after watching this programme, more locals will come in (to Sepilok) as volunteers. They need a lot of help, and currently, it seems to be more foreigners who are there helping out. It’s a shame that we have to get others to come protect our treasures,” Yeoh said. “Of course, it’s not just about cuddling the orangutans and playing with them, it also involves things like cleaning up their poop and going out into the jungle. It’s hard labour, but everyone there does it out of love,” she added.

Yeoh was also given a wider perspective on conservation when she visited the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, where she got to see her first wild orangutans. As one of the planet’s most endangered primates, it is vital for orangutans to have areas like the sanctuary in order to survive. Due to poaching and illegal logging, the apes have lost much of their natural habitat and have been forced into smaller areas, making it difficult for them to sustain a long-term population.

As the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is made up of several pockets of protected habitat, some of which are too small to sustain the animals, conservationists are currently working on creating forest corridors to link these areas together. Yeoh got a first-hand taste of the work involved in this when she climbed 25m into the forest canopy to help harvest seeds for planting.

“That was definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do. I’ve done some tree-climbing in Costa Rica, and I stay in pretty good shape, so I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. Then, we started rehearsing, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute!’ We literally had to hoist ourselves up those huge trees, and I thought at one stage that I couldn’t do it. I just told myself that I was on TV, and I couldn’t look green in the face!”

Doing the documentary also kindled Yeoh’s passion for conserving as many of our country’s natural treasures as possible. “Going down the Kinabatangan river on a boat was one of my most amazing experiences! We talk about the Amazon river and other natural wonders, and yet, here we have one in our own backyard that most Malaysians have never visited,” she said, adding that she was already planning to return to Sabah to highlight other issues.

“This is definitely just a sweet, sweet beginning. We’ve already talked about doing another programme on the plight of the pygmy rhinocerous. I’m just lining them up, and I’ll definitely be back.”

Coming full circle, Yeoh’s time in Sabah ended with her meeting a group of orangutans that had been rehabilitated at Sepilok and released at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve a year ago. Having seen how well the apes have adapted to the forest, she then watched two more being released, hopefully to adapt and live full lives in the wild.

“If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from my time in Sabah, it’s that we have so many treasures that belong to us, and we have the responsibility to take care of them. We have to take this very seriously,” Yeoh concluded. “I implore everyone, especially Malaysians, to go with their families and have a look, and I promise that you will be filled with awe.”


Below is another article by my colleague dated 4th December 2009. There's plenty to be passionate about Sabah's jungle, as Lina Teoh's orangutan documentary is set to prove. HIZREEN KAMAL writes.

MOST people would remember her as the Miss World 1998 second runner-up, but those in our broadcasting industry know her as one of the new rising documentary producers. With over 15 years experience in the industry as a TV presenter, scriptwriter, actress and radio presenter/ producer, Lina Teoh has in the past four years, shifted her focus to documentary.

Her production credits for an international audience include Smart Tunnel for the National Geographic Channel (associate producer) and The Lion Dance King for the Discovery Channel (writer/ producer/ director).

And like many things she has done in her life, she did not just wake up one day and decide to become a documentary filmmaker.

While admitting that she had an innate fascination for life and non-fictional stories, and enjoys watching documentaries, she feels the element that drew her to producing documentaries is more organic.

"I think it was more my natural passion for people, animals, nature and conservation and this genre of storytelling that got me into it. So, when I was given an opportunity to work on a documentary, I thought ...why not. And I haven't looked back since," said this 33-year-old, who enjoys reading books based on real life events and personal accounts.

And, of course, having been involved in the TV industry for many years, she brings her vast experience into her documentary work. "I need constant challenges, and making documentaries is an area that gives me this and satisfaction, too," she said. "The best thing about working on documentaries is you work with a small and intimate team. And it is a wonderful feeling to see the finished product because you know you have done something to contribute in a positive way."

Recently, Teoh dug deep into the world of the orangutan when she collaborated with Kuala Lumpur-based film production company Novista Sdn Bhd to produce Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh. This 50-minute documentary, which took 18 months to produce tells of Malaysia's conservation efforts to protect the orangutan, which are among the planet's most endangered primates. Being the only great apes found in Asia, they now survive only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

As producer, Teoh has been involved in the many aspects of the production process, including research and directing. Fully-funded by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), the documentary is a joint initiative with National Geographic channel to encourage local development of documentary filmmaking for international audience.

To be eligible, filmmakers were required to submit a detailed proposal, budget and schedule for their films. The shortlisted 12 companies then pitched their story ideas to a panel from both Finas and the channel. And from there, only two stories were chosen and produced. Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh was one of them.

For this project, Teoh worked very closely with director Harun Rahman and executive producer/co-director Lara Ariffin. The trio is very passionate about environmental and conservation stories. "We wanted the film to highlight the positive things being done at the orangutan conservation in Sabah. The stories of the people on the ground who are doing all the conservation work are inspiring," said Teoh.

Teoh feels there are still many conservation stories to be highlighted and we need to start making some serious changes before losing one of the most beautiful and important eco-systems in the world. "While our planet will eventually recover, it is us who will end up dying or living in a world where there is no clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe. That is why we believe it is worth telling these stories to highlight what each of us can do to make the world a better place to live in."

On Yeoh hosting the documentary, Teoh said: "We didn't just want a pretty face. We also wanted someone who really cared for the apes so that the story is sincerely told from the heart.

Viewers will find Yeoh engaging and easy to relate to.

his is a Malaysian story, and naturally, it should be told by a Malaysian.

"Michelle was wonderful to work with. She is not only professional, but also a great sport, as she wanted to be involved in everything from day one. She was like a big sponge, constantly soaking up every experience. Easy-going and down-to-earth, and even though we were stuck in the jungle with creepy crawlies everywhere, she never once complained."

The documentary was filmed at three main locations in Sabah: the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Travelling to these locations was mostly via road and boats and the production crew had to trek through the jungle a lot, with most days beginning 5am.

As much as one prepares oneself, one can never be sure what is going to happen on the day, said Teoh. "It's a balance between what you hope to get and what you can actually get. And then there are always completely new things that will be thrown in, too. So, you really have to be on your toes and ever ready to make quick decisions.

"I must say we were very lucky during our filming, and we managed to get some spectacular footage of the proboscis monkeys, orangutan and the pygmy elephants. One of the most memorable moments was seeing a huge majestic flanged male. It is not common to see such a spectacular primate in the wild."

They also experienced difficulty while filming in Kinabatangan as they were mostly on a boat. And getting steady shots proved a little challenging - there was a particularly scary moment when three of the crew were chased by a huge elephant!

Teoh is now hoping to take a short break after the release of the documentary, but for sure, she will soon be back with more to offer.

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