Africa: TV Review
10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8 (Discovery)
Simon Blakeney, Hugh Pearson, Verity White, Matthew Wright, Mike Gunton (BBC executive producer), James Honeyborne (BBC series producer), Robert Zakin (Discovery Channel executive producer)
The seven-part series from Discovery Channel and BBC showcases intrepid filmmaking in pursuit of never-before-documented animal behaviors.
This review first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If nothing else, the new Discovery series Africa proves that the oft-filmed continent remains ever-ready for its closeup. Zeroing in on predators and prey, not to mention cricket-on-cricket cannibalism, the filmmakers at times push too hard for a sense of freshness and drama. But at its best, the seven-part series is a breathtaking chronicle of species both familiar and rare, some of them engaging in stranger-than-fiction behavior in otherworldly landscapes.
Four years in the making, the Discovery Channel/BBC co-production is a collaboration from the same team that created the acclaimed 2009 natural history series Life, and their collective experience and talent are evident in every frame. Like the earlier series, which received the Emmy for outstanding cinematography for nonfiction programming, Africa abounds in jaw-dropping visuals on a scale that, like the best fictional dramas, infuses the epic with the up-close-and-personal.
Drawn from 2,000 hours of footage gathered in 27 countries, good portions of the new program involve treacherous expeditions — details of which will be revealed in the sixth episode, a making-of documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes of the exceedingly polished finished product.
Each of the first five installments (only the first was available for review) focuses on a section of Africa, from the Sahara to the Cape. In the Savannah, the cameras track a giant but elusive bird known as the shoebill, and in the rainforest of the Congo, a chimp displays unusual honey-hunting skills. The series wraps with an ecological overview hosted by the esteemed naturalist David Attenborough, co-writer and narrator of Life.
In leadoff segment Kalahari, the series explores what it calls the “oldest and possibly strangest” corner of Africa, a vista of sparse vegetation and mostly carnivorous creatures. Beneath the surface, though, are surprising finds; among the show’s coups is the first filmed documentation of a cavern, discovered in 1986, where blind catfish inhabit the world’s largest underground lake.
The episode opens with striking footage of a giraffe bull in neck-to-neck combat with another male, fighting to retain control of his precious piece of the desert terrain. Putting a Western-showdown slant on his predicament, the filmmakers overdo the Sergio Leone slo-mo. But the imagery nonetheless is extraordinary — as is the intimate look at a young leopard’s first hunt (which could have gone better), a wasp trying to turn a Golden Wheel spider into an incubation chamber for her egg, and the aerial views of a parched topography that long ago was crisscrossed by rivers.
Having well established the extreme scarcity of water in the region, the documentary wisely refrains from overstating the importance of its chief waterhole, instead letting the astute camerawork capture the intricacies and subtle hierarchy of the wildlife convention that gathers there to quaff.
The producers save the best for last, capping the episode with groundbreaking footage from another waterhole. Shooting at night and using a camera system so sensitive it requires only the light of the stars (resulting in images without the usual night-vision color distortion), they’ve filmed a gathering of black rhinos that brings into question much of what has been assumed about the mysterious, and usually solitary, pachyderms. Although one inexperienced male rhino might wish his clumsy attempts at romance hadn’t been recorded for posterity, fans of wildlife documentaries will find plenty to celebrate in Africa: Kalahari.