'Into the Okavango': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Transporting.

A grueling journey downriver has a happy ending, for once, in this National Geographic documentary directed by Neil Gelinas.

As handsomely mounted as you'd expect from National Geographic, Into the Okavango takes the viewer on an expedition down a tributary system that runs across Angola, Namibia and Botswana. Accompanying a crew made up of scientists and local river guides over four months, director Neil Gelinas documents a fact-finding mission rife with dangers, from fires to marshland to marauding hippos. Angola's civil war hangs over the journey, with the team traveling through unexploded minefields on their way to Botswana's Okavango Delta, which feels even more starkly unspoiled in comparison. Conserving the Okavango, a wetland paradise teeming with animal and plant life, is the film's object as well as its subject, with Nat Geo running a fundraising campaign in tandem with the doc’s Tribeca premiere and subsequent worldwide airing.

Three quarters of the planet's wilderness has disappeared since the advent of human beings, we're told, with the rate of degradation accelerating. The Okavango reminds South African conservation biologist Steve Boyes, the expedition's leader and an expert on the area, of what the world was like before. Setting out to trace the source of one of the rivers that supplies the Delta, the Cuito, Boyes is joined by Angolan marine biologist Adjany Costa, a self-described "marine bush lady," and Tumeletso Setlabosha, an indigenous guide, along with a crew of cooks, field scientists and polers, who ferry the group downriver in fiberglass "makoros" (canoes). Gelinas checks in with Boyes, Costa and to a lesser extent Setlabosha throughout the trip, a 121-day odyssey in which morale ebbs and flows.

We get potted histories of each, with Boyes a bullied kid who found a refuge in nature, and Adjany a child of the civil war. Taking us on a tour of the bathroom in which she sheltered from bombs as a child, Adjany talks eloquently about her hope for her country's future. That hope sits alongside skepticism of Boyes as a white adventure tourist, a suspicion that eventually transforms into a sense of loyalty inspired by shared hardship. One obstacle follows another, beginning in Angola at the source of the Cuito, which soon dries up, forcing the group to drag canoes — weighing 400 kilograms laden with gear — over sun-blasted marshland for eight punishing days. "I'm questioning everything in life at this point," says Adjany. "Everything" includes the preparedness of the expedition, and its leadership.

It’s not exactly smooth-sailing once they're back on the river, either, with capsizing canoes and fires a prelude to the film's most frightening sequence, in which a hippo rips through one of the boats, turfing its occupants, including Boyes, into the water. The sun-kissed lensing by Gelinas, Jon Betz and Roger Horrocks is slick everywhere but here, and the cameraman's fright is amplified on the faces of Boyes and his crew, hugging each other on the shore. The sympathetic way the offending animal is spoken about is in keeping with the film's reverence for the natural world, with the filmmaker and his co-editor/co-writer Brian Newell cutting from aubergine skies to time-lapse footage of the stars to slo-mo sequences of elephants rolling around underwater.

Aerial photography and map graphics chart the journey, with the group collecting data on the fly while traversing a territory twice the size of England. Scientific breakthroughs — the discovery of peat deposits that throw into question accepted modeling around water flow — are less immediately ballyhooed than the animals on the banks. The killing of 100,000 elephants in Angola, many by hunter-tourists from America, has led to an influx of them into Botswana, but Adjany is moved to discover that some are still left in her native country. An ornithologist as well as a biologist, Boyes is more focused on what's overhead, namechecking pied kingfishers and yellow-billed storks and reed cormorants with an excitement worthy of Terrence Malick. But Boyes also cautions that the Cuito could stop flowing in three to five years; if hunters continue to burn forests to flush out animals, "we lose the water." It's hard to imagine a more vivid record of what a loss that would be.

Production company: National Geographic
Director-producer: Neil Gelinas
Screenwriters-editors: Neil Gelinas, Brian Newell
Cinematographers: Neil Gelinas, Jon Betz, Roger Horrocks
Music: Sven Faulconer
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

94 minutes