Documentary – Picture
Dane Aleksander, art director at Animat Habitat
This article is continued from Documentary – Motion. Whereas the first set of documentary films was selected based on a call to action, call it motion, a second set was selected based on picture and passion . This second set of documentary films each give voice to the plight of the natural world with imagery and authenticity.
Part two looks at two documentaries: The Elephant Queen (2018) and Into the Okavango (2018). The Elephant Queen is a story from Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, to be published with the release of Apple TV Plus. Into the Okavango is a project by Dr. Steve Boyes, filmed by Neil Gelinas, produced by National Geographic Documentary Films, to be published on the National Geographic channel with Disney Plus.
The Elephant Queen (2018)
The Elephant Queen—an Apple Original documentary film shares the traditional story of the matriarchal elephant herd on the big screen. The family story is a familiar journey: there and back again, guided by an elder female who knows where to go and when to go and so on. This story has been told and retold with a high-watermark of cinematography by BBC Natural History Unit in the television mini-series Planet Earth (2006) and Planet Earth II (2016). This film directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone manages to match that picturesque visual language, capturing the intimate relationships of animals on film in a way that seems genuine and that shows several ecosystems as interconnected.
“For thousands of years, [elephants] were thought to be able to summon the rain. The truth is that [a matriarch] could sense rain coming when it was over a hundred miles away.” — Chiwetel Ejiofor, narrator of The Elephant Queen (2018)
The film takes advantage of a feature length narrative arc to consider the dynamic of a family unit and the ecosystems that surround them. This gives time to connect with individual elephants in the herd, and gives weight to the responsability of a matriarch to lead the way to food and to water, and in an unrelenting habitat and so on. This familiar journey of an elephant herd in Africa is realized as an individual story of a wise and gentle matriarch named Athena. The film is narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives voice to the journey of Athena and her family, and mixed with a score that creates space for the imagery to fill in beats of the story in-between. The Elephant Queen (2018) turns the plight of elephants in a ravaged landscape into a relatable story of survival.
The Elephant Queen (2018) © Apple TV Plus
The film is not specific about location. Red earth and a feature appearance of Satao hint at where the ‘refuge’ is, and at where the ‘kingdom’ for Athena's family may be. This story of migration throughout the wet and dry seasons is common however to elephants across Africa. The film is able to overlook this local context in favor of building on the characters within an individual family group, including the wildlife around them, and indeed featuring a legend: Satao, one of the last of the big tuskers. The treatment of Satao in this film, entering the frame and incidentally revealing his part role in the story of Athena, was clearly a meaningful moment for the film-makers and an absolute masterclass of wildlife film-making. The sequence with Satao is an exclamation mark on a beautiful, bittersweet story that reads like a love letter to elephants.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Satao and Athena. Satao was killed by poachers during the making of this film. He was the world's largest tusker.
Athena was last seen leading her family away from the kingdom.
The Elephant Queen (documentary film, 2018) is rated 7.8 on IMDB.
The Elephant Queen – Official Trailer (2018).
Discover more about elephants and how you can help them: theeelephantqueen.com.
Into the Okavango (2018)
Into the Okavango—a National Geographic Documentary Films documentary film follows National Geographic Fellow Dr. Steve Boyes on a first expedition of National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP). Boyes, a conservationist and native of South Africa, leads a research team to survey and trace the flow of water that feeds the jewel of the Kalahari: the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The team of scientists, photographers, film-makers, and African guides set out in dug-out mekoros – canoes – at the water source on a distant Angolan plateau. This film then documents the data-driven mission from the water tower in Angola to the delta in Botswana, ultimately capturing an extraordinary effort to safeguard the ecosystem of the greater Okavango Basin.
The water comes from Cuito.
The Cuito river is one of the primary tributaries from the highlands in Angola. While the Okavango Delta is protected within Botswana, the critical rivers and lakes and so on of the greater Okavango Basin, which supply water to the delta, are not. These source waters are under increasing threats from deforestation, uncontrolled fire, the rising commercial bush-meat trade, and unchecked development. If these waters remain unprotected, the future of the Okavango Delta is at risk. Boyes has recognized that in order to save the Okavango, “we must protect its lifeline: the Cuito.”
The Okavango Delta supports the largest remaining elephant population on the planet, numbering around 130,000. The movements of these elephants shape and reshape the delta’s channels. Many of these elephants are native to Botswana, however, many others are refugees of Angola. These refugee elephants are not inclined or no longer able to navigate ancient migratory routes from the delta back to Angola, where in-between the Okavango river now passes through one of the most densely populated human settlements in Namibia.
The documentary also introduces Angolan marine biologist Adjany Costa, following her perspective as part of the team, as the landscape of Angola shapes so much of the film as well as the research. The documentary highlights a history of civil war that has scarred Angola, and has transcended the character and culture of its people. A poignant reminder of this is the curtain of land mines in areas that surround the tributaries to the Okavango water tower. In this part of Angola, almost no research has been conducted about the people, the plants, the animals and so on. Boyes, Costa and the crew carefully navigate these uncharted waters.
“Communities along the water tower have maintained a lifestyle intertwined with the rivers and the ecosystem they support. But as land mines from the decades-long civil war are decommissioned and more roads open up, the outside world is encroaching into these isolated communities and the surrounding wilderness. As a result, the illegal commercial bush-meat trade has picked up, as have unregulated development, charcoal production, and logging.“ — National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project What We're Doing
Into the Okavango (2018) © National Geographic Documentary Films
The water at the source of the Cuito river is not a river. It is a peatland characterized by seepages and streams. The Angolan plateau is like a sponge holding the water that will flood the Okavango. The team get out of their mekoros and drag the equipment across a dry land, until a rivulet opens into a river: the Cuito. As the team continues through Angola, the film documents a woodland that has been devastated by fires. The fires appear to be getting worse, and the elephants appear to be all gone. There appears to be a missing piece in a puzzle that once connected elephants to Angola.
There are elephants in the living room of Africa.
Before crossing into Namibia, then Botswana, Adjany and the team find that elephants do still exist in Angola. There is still hope. “Angola was once called ‘the living room of Africa,’” Adjany says, and she understands that now: “It is a symbol that connects [Angola's] past to [a] potential future.”
The wilderness throughout the watershed of the Okavango Delta has remained relatively pristine. The wildlife remains a spectacle for the film. The cinematographic exercise of light underwater provides an effective motif, bookending the film and relating the mood along the way. The documentary uniquely communicates the very real dangers of traversing this wilderness and, in the same breath, the profound respect for the wildlife existing there. The film crew is only passing through. The river is home to the hippos.
Since 2015, NGOWP has completed 11 expeditions covering more than 6,000 kilometers from the highlands of Angola to the salt flats of the Makgadikgadi Pan. The documentary is a reflection of this passion project to preserve the delta in its near-pristine state. The hope is that data collected in the course of these expeditions will aid in establishing a network of new protected areas.
“We need this information to benchmark this near-pristine wildlife, before upstream development happens.“ — Steve Boyes, TED: How we're saving one of Earth's last wild places. (2018)
Into the Okavango (documentary film, 2018) is rated 7.6 on IMDB.
Into the Okavango – Official Trailer (2018).
Why it matters: nationalgeographic.org/projects/okavango/.