In the film Jungle, which opened March 22 throughout Israel, Daniel Radcliffe breaks away from his Harry Potter image to play a real-life hero, Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli who was lost for three weeks in the Amazon jungle and lived to tell the tale.
The movie is based on Ghinsberg’s memoir of his incredible ordeal, Back from Tuichi, which was just re-released with the title Jungle.
I spoke with him via Skype from Colorado, where he was preparing to give a keynote address at a conference, before heading to Tel Aviv for the Israeli premiere of Jungle
Like so many young Israelis after the army, he set off on a backpacking trip. But unlike many, he was driven to explore off the beaten path. Joining up with American photographer Kevin Gale (played in the film by Alex Russell) and Marcus (Joel Jackson), a gentle Swiss backpacker, he followed Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), an unstable but captivating Austrian, into the Amazon jungle in Bolivia to visit a remote indigenous village. Carrying rations for only a few days, they planned to hunt their food for the rest of the trek. Before you could say “bad idea,” it was clear that Karl was lost.
The group split up, with Ghinsberg and Gale building a raft and traveling by river. Karl and Marcus took an inland route and were never seen again. After a rafting accident, Ghinsberg and Gale were separated. Ghinsberg survived on his own for weeks, nearly starving to death, and contending with injuries and challenges of all kinds, including ants, hallucinations, snakes and more.
Ghinsberg was rescued by Gale, who had made it to a village after a few days and who refused to give up on the search. Although Gale now lives in Israel and Ghinsberg is based in Australia, the two have remained friends and Ghinsberg is full of gratitude to his traveling companion and friend.
“He’s the real hero of the story,” says Ghinsberg. “I’m an accidental hero.” Gale has recently written a book about the incident, from his own point of view. “There are some discrepancies in our stories,” he says, but notes that Gale approved of the film and gave the filmmakers some of his photographs to use in planning the movie.
Getting the his story to the screen was another kind of journey and Ghinsberg is glad that he persisted.
That the movie got made was “no accident,” and he says he spent 26 years trying to interest Hollywood in this tale. “Hollywood fell in love with the structure, but in the 1990s, they didn’t want an Israeli protagonist. Then they wanted a bad guy. I thought the jungle is enough of a bad guy.”
He credits his friend, the Israel-born Dana Lustig, who is now based in Hollywood and who produced the film, for her tenacity in bringing this story to the screen.
“It’s Dana who got this film made. She was passionate about it. It was a long process, it took 12 years from when she became involved. It’s her dedication and resilience that made it happen.”
When Daniel Radcliffe was cast in the lead role, they spoke on Skype to help the actor deepen his understanding of Ghinsberg and also to help with the Israeli accent, and later met in Colombia, where some of the movie was filmed.
“He made a big effort to become me.... suddenly Harry Potter wants to be Yossi Ghinsberg.”
He and Radcliffe struck up a friendship, with each sharing books and music with the other. “He has great integrity and sincerity,” says Ghinsberg.
Once Lustig signed Radcliffe for the lead and hired Greg McLean, best known for his gritty horror film Wolf Creek
, as director, Ghinsberg knew that the film would reach be seen widely. Seeing the movie for the first time in a packed theater was an emotional experience for Ghinsberg.
“People were entertained, engaged and also inspired,” he says.
That the film will bring inspiration to audiences is especially important to Ghinsberg, who has become a motivational speaker in the years following the ordeal, sharing his experience and what he learned from it with countless audiences all over the world.
In the years since his rescue, Ghinsberg has a led a peripatetic life, starting a number of successful high-tech ventures, marrying several times, and becoming a sought-after speaker for corporations. But he has done everything a bit differently from how most people would. For example, he developed Blinq, a social mobile application, working with companies in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Silicon Valley. He has also done a great deal of a community service work and activism, including representing tribes in the Amazon jungle and setting up the Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia. He is also an ambassador for Shalva, the Israeli organization that helps people with mental retardation and their families.
Ghinsberg feels that his survival has inspired him to achieve.
“I’m still naive, still a dreamer, an adventurer in the world, an explorer... I got lost by daring to take a risk and walk on the edge. I was never an adrenaline freak or a thrill seeker. I was drawn to the jungle by the romance of the experience.”
Talking to him, it’s clear that he still feels the romance of exploring the world, although he admits now he plans his trips a bit better.
“In a way I never came back,” he said. “I’m still a man with a backpack. I’m at home the road. Where I sleep at night is home.”