Local Lens

Decolonizing Africa’s Nature Documentaries

A HERD OF ELEPHANTS traipses across the acacia-dotted savannah alongside stately giraffes and a dazzle of zebra. A pride of hungry lions closes in on an anxious water buffalo. Hundreds of wildebeest swim through a crocodile-infested river to reach fresh grassland. A gorilla mother cuddles her newborn in a high mountain forest. We’ve all seen these types of gripping wildlife scenes play out in nature films of Africa, from an industry that took off on the continent in the late 1960s and flourishes to this day.

Leading the world when it comes to charismatic megafauna, Africa remains the ultimate place to film wildlife. But for decades, viewers have watched the same style of narratives that underpin a billion-dollar home entertainment industry mostly outside the continent. The story of Africa’s wildlife is generally presented through the lens of Western film producers and tailored for Western audiences, typically about romanticized wilderness areas or threatened paradises desperately in need of [read: foreign] intervention. Few productions are shown in the source countries due to distribution restrictions, the cost of broadcasting licences, or supposed-disinterest by Africans towards their natural heritage.

“They have been mining our stories for years and keeping everything for themselves.”

“They have been mining our stories for years and keeping everything for themselves,” says Dr. Paula Kahumbu, wildlife ecologist, National Geographic Explorer, and CEO of the Kenyan wildlife protection organization WildlifeDirect. “The heroes are almost always White, the poachers or bad guys Black, and there is hardly anything about Africans caring about nature, living with nature, and having a relationship with nature.”

A multi-award-winning conservationist, Kahumbu is often approached by international media companies wanting to tell a certain kind of wildlife story. “It usually hinges on some great White former hunter or conservationist, and they want me as the token Black person to whom they’re handing over the baton [to] end in a positive way.”

Nature films have in many ways become yet another extractive industry in Africa, concentrated largely in countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana. Dozens of films are shot there each year, with some projects lasting for years. The vast majority of the shows are designed, contracted, and funded outside the continent. All the crew and equipment are flown in for production, and out again after a project, along with the raw footage. Editing and distribution efforts take place outside Africa as well.

Wildlife films may stimulate an interest in traveling to Africa and in conservation funding but, as Kahumbu notes, media companies have not supported the local film industry. “The only Africans involved are drivers and camp staff, and there has never been a culture of having local apprentices or assistants,” she says.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of this colonial-era strategy when international filmmakers, unable to travel, were forced to rely on a handful of trained camera people on the ground in Africa to carry on with projects.

But the unconscious bias is so endemic that “only when you show them Africans are missing do filmmakers realize what they’ve been doing subconsciously for a long time,” says Kahumbu, who is among a growing group of African conservationists, filmmakers, and storytellers pioneering a new path for the industry. They are telling stories from the African perspective, highlighting the interconnectedness of people with wildlife and habitat, and using home-grown talent to do it. In other words, they are decolonizing wildlife documentary filmmaking.

THE CENTERING OF Western narratives, Western filmmakers, and Western crews in African wildlife films is intimately tied to the history of colonization on the continent. Beginning in the early 1900s, local communities across Africa were displaced from ancestral lands for the creation of game reserves and wildlife-only parks visited by foreign tourists and led by professional White hunters or guides. This heralded a mental separation between the local people and wildlife that continues to this day.

cinematographer Vianet Djenguet

Award-winning cinematographer Vianet Djenguet, who describes nature filmmaking as a “very closed industry,” struggled to get his start until a film executive took notice of his skills. Photo courtesy of Vianet Djenguet.

WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu

WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu, center, is determined to tell the stories of African conservation from an African perspective. In 2019, WildlifeDirect launched the television show Wildlife Warriors, which has since aired in 26 African and Caribbean countries. Photo by Ken Gitau / WildlifeDirect.

The legacy of colonization can also be seen in the disproportionate number of Western organizations involved in African conservation. This lends credence to the “wildlife is for White people” misconception and has skewed policy-making around wilderness management to prioritize wildlife over local communities.

All of this has created a perception by some that Indigenous Africans are disengaged from the natural world. The misapprehension partly arises from the disregard for community voices and engagement at the grassroots level for environmental solutions. “Things need to be adjusted and shifted to take the people there into consideration,” said Kenyan cinematographer, Faith Musembi. “The more locals can take ownership of natural resources, then I think that can change the trajectory of so much.”

Within this unbalanced context, the lucrative, Western-driven natural-history film industry emerged and prospered, presenting wildlife-centric narratives which, though important, tell an incomplete picture.

“A sense of ownership needs to be recalibrated for many people living with the natural resources because people are not going away,” says Musembi, producer-director of Wildstar Films’ Queens series, a women-driven documentary that looks at female-led animal societies, and which is coming to Nat Geo’s Disney+ in 2024. Musembi is “the first black (Kenyan) woman to produce and direct an episode for a major landmark series,” says Chloe Sarosh, executive producer of the UK-based Wildstar Films, who is committed to making space for female cinematographers and filmmakers, especially from underrepresented backgrounds.

Incorporating alternative voices ... requires radical remodeling of the tight-knit, male-dominated, and largely White fraternity of the natural world media.

Developing a robust Indigenous documentary film industry won’t be easy. Filmmaking is an expensive business, especially for countries with far bigger national development priorities. Upfront costs — including equipment and travel — can make it hard for people to start their own production companies, and government investment in the industry is small.

And exclusionary practices are highly ingrained. “Natural history is a very closed industry and can be very upper class,” says wildlife cinematographer Vianet Djenguet, whose film Silverback won the Grand Teton prize for best film in 2023 at the prestigious Jackson Wild film festival in the United States. The film, which caps a 15-year journey in natural history filmmaking that was anything but easy, follows Djenguet’s unique expedition with eastern lowland gorillas in his home country, the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). Djenguet says it took one film executive to finally notice him and connect him to serious film gigs for his career to take off: “I went to university for this work but it’s all about who you know.”

Insiders like Sarosh say that growing diversity within the industry is essential in order to incorporate new stories and new perspectives beyond the commonplace narratives: “I believe that global audiences want more than that.” Incorporating alternative voices and narratives, however, requires radical remodeling of the tight-knit, male-dominated, and largely White fraternity of the natural world media.

THAT REMODELING MUST START at ground level. A common excuse for not hiring local talent is the lack of experienced camera people. “Mentorship and training are crucial because you can’t expect someone to walk into this industry and do the job right away,” says Sarosh.

Many African countries — including Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya — have a sizeable media sector but few people are familiar with the nuances of natural world filming and story-crafting. Animals are unpredictable and do not follow the pre-planned script, which means a great wildlife cinematographer needs patience, a passion for nature, the ability to adapt to the unforeseen, and a high tolerance for discomfort or difficult environments “just to capture one or two shots or a sequence,” Djenguet says. They also need technical skills: Camera equipment can be specialized for long-distance zooming, underwater filming, helicopter shots, or handling heat, humidity, low light, and other wilderness conditions.

“Training won’t happen unless there is buy-in from the top down,” adds Musembi, who studied visual media at Emerson College in Boston, and found a pathway to natural history filmmaking following an emerging-filmmaker’s scholarship in 2019 to the Jackson Wild summit.

“I find it fascinating they’re terrified that Africans should be telling the story.”

There’s also a gap when it comes to local support structures, such as wildlife camera repair — these services are not readily available in many African countries. “It’s mind-blowing the amount of money spent to fly in technicians,” says Musembi, adding that when technicians aren’t available, equipment has to be shipped out of the country and back “at a massive cost.”

Other aspects of the creative process can be even harder to address than filling skill gaps, such as changing the culture and collective impact of a film project, or confronting misconceptions about what inclusivity means. “Representing communities or being inclusive cannot be an afterthought but must be built into the design and budgeting from the onset,” says Lilly Bekele-Piper, a former strategic communications manager at USAID Kenya and East Africa and the technical lead on National Geographic’s Team Sayari, a pioneering 2023 children’s wildlife series hosted by African children and African wildlife experts.

Real change, she says, depends on intentionality and determining aspects like a project’s ethos, the message, composition of a team, gender structure, and cultural considerations, otherwise the resulting story is inauthentic or runs hollow. “We must continuously revisit our position, clearly define intentions, have the flexibility to course-correct, and innovate new ways of achieving diverse narratives in media portrayal of the natural world,” she says.

Team Sayari wildlife television show cast

The pioneering television show Team Sayari, which premiered last year, is an educational nature program hosted by African children and African wildlife experts. Shows like this one offer some evidence that the wildlife film industry is changing. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Accessibility is another challenge. Nature programs are rarely available in source countries, and when they are, the language and content may not translate for audiences there. The commissioning company and project funders generally determine the bent, scope, and flavor of a story, and as Sarosh points out, language barriers are difficult to overcome given that budgets may not allow the re-working of English content into local dialects.

The distribution channels are also insufficient. Natural-history content from outlets like the BBC, National Geographic, and others is distributed through satellite broadcast services such as dstv, which shows in 51 African countries, and online streaming platforms. These channels, however, are mostly available to urban populations and in places with stable Internet service, a disadvantage to remote rural communities where the stories come from.

“Nobody wants to change because change is scary,” Kahumbu says. At times, she tells me, film executives would rather not meet or engage with her. “I find it fascinating they’re terrified that Africans should be telling the story.” Local players are not necessarily looking to create a “parallel universe,” she says, “but to collaborate in new approaches, [and showcase] new heroes and new relationships with animals where everybody wins.”

CONVINCED THAT TELEVISION has the power to connect people with nature, Kahumbu — who plunged into the media space with no prior experience or training nine years ago — is determined to bring stories of African conservation champions to African audiences. After battling to win over Kenyan TV executives, who believed their audiences had no interest in nature shows, in 2016, WildlifeDirect launched a conservation series called NTV Wild with a local TV company. The show, which broadcasted wildlife documentaries and conservation discussions, proved wildly successful with viewers and spurred similar shows by other Kenyan media houses. Following the success of NTV Wild, WildlifeDirect created another TV series, Wildlife Warriors, which premiered in 2019 in Kenya and, eventually, in 26 African and Caribbean countries, produced through a partnership with National Geographic.

Then there’s Team Sayari, produced in collaboration with The Walt Disney Company, USAID, the US State Department, and WildlifeDirect. That the show, which took several years to conceptualize and design, invested in training local filmmakers and included African children was a major milestone in the industry. “For Disney to change its way of operating to address what Africa is asking for was hard; lots of things had to be undone and agreed on,” Kahumbu says.

Though the pace of change can feel glacial, Kahumbu says, shows like these are evidence that things are changing.

Led by the efforts of people like Kahumbu, and groups like Nature, Environment and Wildlife Filmmakers (NEWF), an initiative co-founded by Noel and Pragna Kok of South Africa to empower emerging African filmmakers, other major players in the industry are starting to tackle inclusion as well. In 2022, for example, the National Geographic Society partnered with NEWF to create Africa Refocused, a professional development program that aims to amplify NEWF’s reach.

students learn about wildlife film making

Nature, Environment and Wildlife Filmmakers offers professional development, mentorship, specialized training, and more to emerging storytellers across Africa. Photo by Pragna Parsotam-Kok / Africa Refocused.

students learn about wildlife film editing

Major players in the wildlife filmmaking industry are beginning to tackle inclusion as well. For example, the National Geographic Society recently partnered with NEWF to create Africa Refocused, a professional development program that aims to amplify NEWF’s reach. Photo by Pragna Parsotam-Kok / Africa Refocused.

Wildstar Films, too, is pitching in. Based out of Bristol, which is known as the “Green Hollywood” for its central role in the wildlife film industry, the company recently initiated paid training opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds, particularly women and Indigenous filmmakers.

Industry leaders have plenty of other ideas, too. When it comes to skill-building, Musembi would like to see a technical hub in Kenya that trains people to repair camera equipment. On the accessibility side, Bekele-Piper proposes letting local players speak in their native languages, and using captions and subtitles that would also translate to viewers with hearing disabilities or visual impairments. “It takes more money and effort, but language should never be a barrier because we have the digital tools to make communication products accessible,” she says.

Creative thinking can also take productions back to Africa through local festivals, film training labs, or mobile movie theaters with special broadcast permissions. So can reimagining international film festivals. Since 1982, the annual Wildscreen film festival has brought natural history filmmakers from around the world together in Bristol. A large portion — some 25 percent in 2022, according to Sarosh — feature African wildlife. Last year, for the first time in its 41-year history, the event took place outside the UK, in Nairobi, through a partnership with WildlifeDirect.

The sold-out event attracted emerging filmmakers from across the continent, exposing a pipeline of African cinematographers, nature storytellers, and “people hungry to develop skills in this area,” Kahumbu says. She accompanied some Western film executives on a post-festival safari trip to the Masai Mara, the jewel of Kenya’s wildlife areas, and discovered that “many of them had never been to Africa, yet had commissioned films to Africa.”

This year’s festival will take place in Arusha, Tanzania, signaling that some leaders in the nature film industry want to explore more meaningful and ongoing engagement with Africa and its aspiring filmmakers. Nevertheless, more can — and must — be done if Africa is ever to tell its own story.

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