Dane Aleksander, art director at Animat Habitat.
This article shares a study of the natural world as represented in documentary film. This study has focused on the message, narrative and perspective of each film, ultimately communicating the plight of the natural world. Each of the following documentaries has an important story to tell, each story has a unique perspective to show, and each film has applied a part of that unique perspective within its story with some success.
This research first considers three documentary films. Two are Netflix originals: Virunga (2014) and The Ivory Game (2016). Another: Before the Flood (2016) have been licensed to Netflix. Before the Flood is a film hosted and produced by Leonardo di Caprio. In fact, all three of the documentaries in this study were in part produced by di Caprio. In these instances, Leo has acted as a positive influence and Netflix has… The point is that Leo and Netflix are not the headlines here. This preface serves simply as a reflection of today—a day where celebrity thought leaders and video streaming services are who and what people look to for stories. The point is: this is when and where people are.
Virunga—a Netflix and Grain Media documentary film tells a story of conservation in the context of a war. This first film shares the stakes for park rangers risking their lives to save one of Africa's most precious national parks and its endangered gorillas. In the forested depths of eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and home to the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
“This is the only region in the world where you can still find mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 left in the whole world. Now if we lose them, we well have lost something very important for humanity. It is thanks to the animals, especially these gorillas, that our forest continues to be protected. Tourism brings in money to help us sustain the conservation of nature. There are many projects being implemented around the park because of the gorillas.” [ Translation ] — Andre Bauma, gorilla caretaker at the gorilla orphanage in Rumangabo, Virunga southern sector. Virunga (2014)
Virunga title lettering © Grain Media [virunga.org]
The narrative in Rumangabo, in particular the story of gorilla caretaker Andre Bauma, is a heartening example of dedication to the endangered gorillas in the circumstance of war. For all the chaos documented in the history of the national park, the heart of the film rests at the gorilla orphanage in Rumangabo. For more about this UNESCO world heritage site and the gorilla orphanage in Rumangabo, see Virunga National Park.
The opening titles for the film strike a visual tone that resonates throughout the score as well as the composition of documentary footage and nature cinematography. The film is scored by Patrick Jonsson, and features an original song “We Will Not Go“ composed by J. Ralph (featuring Salif Keita, Youssou Ndour and Fally Ipupa). The original song serves as a bookend, underscoring the themes in the opening of the film, then repeating over the end credits and recalling the events of the film. 
The torn and colorful look of the opening titles, designed by Framestore, directly supports the theme of a war-torn history in Congo as well as reflects the vibrant culture and spirit of its subjects: the Congolese. The pattern of colors applied within the title lettering, of course, is the national flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The film, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, combines investigative journalism and nature documentary in a gripping exposé of the realities of life in the Congo. The film documents corruption and imposition of big oil companies, namely SOCO, as well as other big interests, such as electronics industries, on an otherwise historically undermined but good natured people who have seen some benefit from tourism driven to the park. Despite claiming in June 2014 that they would halt operations, SOCO had refused to withdraw unconditionally from Virunga by the release of the film. 
The film is dedicated to the rangers who gave up their lives in the struggle for peace in eastern Congo.
Virunga (documentary film, 2014) is rated 8.2 on IMDB.
Virunga – Official Trailer (2014).
For more about how to help protect Virunga National Park, see virungamovie.com.
Before the Flood (2016)
Before the Flood—a National Geographic and RATPAC Entertainment documentary film follows Leonardo di Caprio in the role of United Nations messenger of peace on climate change. Di Caprio documents the forewarned crisis of climate change, and addresses problems and solutions with thought leaders from a range of international industries. When a twenty-something years of age di Caprio had an opportunity to meet then vice-president of the United States of America: Al Gore, the vice-president took the time to warn:
“This is the most important issue of our time: all our modes of transportation—boats, trains, planes, cars, the way we produce our food, the way we build our cities, almost everything we do releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and that leads to climate change. The polar ice caps will melt. The seas will start to rise. There will be more dangerous weather patterns: floods, droughts, wildfires.”
Leo narrates, “It sounded like some nightmarish science-fiction film, except everything [Gore] said is real and it's happening right now.” The documentary looks at: “how far we have gone, how much damage we have caused, and if there is anything we can do to stop it.” The film serves as a wake up call. In this way, the intent is similar to Virunga (2014)—to inform as well as to give hope that action can create change for the better, before it becomes too late.
Before the Flood (2016) is again similar to Virunga (2014) in the way its narrative conflict vilifies fossil fuel interests, namely the Koch brothers who have financed an echo chamber of climate change denialism. In an interview in the film, professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, Michael E. Mann brings this corruption into question: “These people are engaged in an effort to lead us astray – in the name of short term fossil fuel profits – so that we end up leaving behind a degraded planet. What could be more immoral than that?” 
Before the Flood (2016) is a closer look at the activities, “which drove mankind out of the Garden of Eden.” The film shares a personal story of shifting baselines, relating back to a motif of religious art: The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)—the modern name given to a triptych oil painting on oak panels painted by Hieronymus Bosch. The triptych is read from left to right, with each panel being essential to the meaning of the whole. The left panel depicts a paradise—a scene in the Garden of Eden. The right panel illustrates a hell—a scene in which humans have succumbed to temptations. The scene is set at night, and the natural beauty that adorned the preceding panels is noticeably absent. This final panel strikes a tone in harsh contrast with the earlier two. The central panel—the panel Bosch called: Human Kind Before the Flood, depicts the expansive garden that gives the triptych its name. Art historians have debated whether the central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost. The film shows both are true in the experience of Leonardo di Caprio, and it's happening right now.
In the filming of this documentary, in his role as United Nations messenger of peace on climate change, di Caprio had an opportunity to speak with then president of the United States of America: Barack Obama. The president reflected on the urgency of climate action and this notion of paradise lost:
“That is the romantic side of it. That is the side that takes a walk with my daughters and I want them to see the same things I saw as I was growing up. Even if you were unsentimental about that, in very hard-headed terms, you have got to worry about the national security of [climate change]. This is why we have to take action now.”
Perhaps the most poignant interview in the film was with former astronaut, and then director of the Earth Sciences division at NASA, GSFC, Piers Sellers. 
Sellers recounted being up in orbit, “seeing all the cities at night: millions of people all working away, doing something… come around the day side of the world, seeing the world, all the natural systems, the hurricanes: huge great big wheels over the oceans.” Sellers continued, “At the end of all that, [he had become] immensely more fond of the planet.” The interview brings to account personal contribution in the limited time we have on Earth, and Sellers held hope in humanity:
“The facts are crystal clear: the ice is melting, the earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts. […] This is a problem. Let us be realistic and find our way out of it. And there are ways out it.”
The film concludes with direction on the personal choices that we can all make. Namely, to consume differently. Consider what you buy, what you eat, how you get your power. And vote. Vote for leaders who will manage climate change by ending fossil fuel subsidies, investing in renewables, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and supporting a price on carbon.
“After 21 years of debates and conferences, it is time to declare: no more talk, no more excuses, no more ten-year studies, no more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that affect our future. The world is now watching.”
— Leonardo di Caprio, messenger of peace at Paris climate accord signing ceremony, New York City, New York (2016)
Before the Flood title image © National Geographic Documentary Films [beforetheflood.com]
It is up to all of us.
Before the Flood (documentary film, 2016) is rated 8.3 on IMDB.
Before the Flood – Official Trailer (2016).
Take action at beforetheflood.com.
The Ivory Game (2016)
The Ivory Game—a Netflix, Terra Mater Factual Studios and Vulcan Productions documentary film, in association with Malaika Pictures and with Appian Way, tells a story of wildlife crime. The film takes on the perspective of activists around the world on behalf of elephants, in particular African authorities in pursuit of local poaching networks, as well in particular Asian investigators helping to expose the underground legal and illegal market in ivory in China. The film assumes an investigatory style with modern graphics and a modern score, drone footage and undercover footage, nature documentary and tense action surrounding a global criminal network that rivals drug trafficking and human trafficking—a criminal network of wildlife trafficking. Over the past five years, more than 150,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory. With populations in western and central Africa virtually gone, the mass killing is now spreading to east and southern Africa. Criminal networks smuggle the raw ivory into China, where it is carved into luxury items, fueling a multi-billion dollar trade.
“This ivory is being moved subversively across continents, being sold under the table. This is black money. It is fueling international crime. This is an international problem. It is not Africa's problem. The individuals that are fighting this battle, they can not win it alone. It is too big. It is too complex.”
— Iain Craig, director of conservation at Northern Rangelands Trust. The Ivory Game (2016)
Like Virunga (2016), the stakes of life and death are not far from the surface in a documentary such as this. This film follows the venture of two separate investigatory parties, in particular the Intelligence service in Tanzania, NTSCIU, headed by Elisifa Ngowi as well as the Internet platform dedicated to wildlife crime whistle-blowers, Wild Leaks, headed by Andrea Crosta. Altogether, the two investigations span the story of combating the ivory trade, from the poachers in Africa to the markets in Asia. These ventures serve as the driving force for the film, with a team of people communicating the context alongside the action.
For Andrea and his network, “we want to get as much proof as possible on [top ivory dealers] to show the Chinese government that the illegal trade […] is out of hand, to give them more reasons to close down this evil market.” For people working with Andrea, in particular Chinese activist and investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang, the exposure of a role on this team aims to counter a common narrative for Chinese people and the ivory market in China. Huang says:
“It is very important to let the world see, there are Chinese trying to fight for elephants, as well—trying to fight back. This could be the turning point of this whole battle for elephants: from now on, China will be part of the solution.”
For Elisifa and the ivory war in Tanzania, “a one man war can never be won,” he says with hope, “but if [he] can convince other persons to join [him] in this fight, for sure we can see the number of these endangered animals growing again to the old numbers, where we had over 100,000 elephants in Tanzania.”
The film shines a spotlight on the achievement of these investigations juxtaposed with ivory stockpiles and human-wildlife conflict, interweaving the narratives in China and in Tanzania with nature documentary and the conservation work of Big Life Foundation in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. The film features Big Life Foundation head of security Craig Miller, with co-founder and director of operations Richard Bonham, whose actions carry a third narrative that cuts to the root of the film: the elephants in Africa. Craig and Richard likewise help to communicate the challenges along the way—along with rangers managing the conservation of elephants as well as the livelihood of agricultural communities around the national parks and on the fringe of the wild places.
“Fencing development is the future when you look at Africa. There is no choice involved, it is going to happen, and people of Africa want the same things that everyone else wants. They want to be able to have a TV. They want to have a house, which is not knocked over. They want to be able to store their food in an area where an animal does not get in there and finish it. Internet, which no one really has yet, and without it, these guys are never going to agree to living with wildlife unless they get the best of both worlds.”
— Craig Miller, head of security at Big Life Foundation. The Ivory Game (2016)
The original score as well as the graphical overlays underpin the three story lines throughout the documentary. The score features a soundtrack by H. Scott Salinas, which breaks away from an investigative tone and into passages of sweeping orchestral music that pair with the parts of the film nearer to nature documentary. The graphical overlays – also the graphics for the Title Sequence – were created by Kaiserlicht. The opening title sequence is an intricate visual effects interlude that references footage of ivory stockpiles exhibited toward the end of the film. The title sequence was directed to echo the ivory trade route, visualizing various maps of countries sculpted into the raw ivory tusks. These visual effects establish a material context as well as geographical context for the film, which places an emphasis on the global impact of – as well as global responsibility for – the ivory trade. [5,6]
“Are we really – in our generation – going to allow the biggest mammal on Earth to disappear. Losing elephants from Africa is just a slow erosion of humanity. Then what is next: we are going to lose the rhino, we are going to lose the giraffe, we are going to lose the lion. Suddenly, we are going to have an empty world – full of people – but nothing wild. […] We need to build fences, we need to put in water, and just managing elephants costs money. And, yes, it is a national responsibility but it is actually a global responsibility. The world wants elephants.”
— Iain Craig, director of conservation at Northern Rangelands Trust. The Ivory Game (2016)
The Ivory Game lockup © Vulcan Productions [theivorygame.com]
The film is dedicated to the memory of Satao. The fight continues.
The Ivory Game (documentary film, 2016) is rated 7.9 on IMDB.
The Ivory Game – Official Trailer (2016).
Join the fight at theivorygame.com.
Continue to Wildlife Documentary – Feature: Last of the Big Tuskers (2018).