Since the 2006 release of the popular documentary series Planet Earth, the BBC has produced a number of similarly-themed documentaries focusing in greater detail on various regions of the planet. Marked by extraordinary camerawork and unprecedented access to the most far-reaching corners of the world, these documentaries are justly lauded for exposing viewers to the intriguing inner workings of the natural world. The latest release in the series, simply titled Africa, is the result of nearly four years of filming in some of the remotest areas of what host David Attenborough calls "the world's greatest wilderness," and reveals new insight into the daily struggle for survival endured by the hardy species that call that land home.
While I can't say that I was exactly "pleased" that the first episode opens with a disturbingly close-up shot of a dung beetle rolling its prize across the desert before tumbling headfirst down a hill directly into the camera, I also can't deny that it's one hell of an attention-grabbing moment. Admittedly, this bug-phobic viewer had difficulty watching some of the more grotesque insect-populated moments in the series--a shot of a plague of gigantic crickets crawling across the ground in eerie formation was especially traumatizing--but it's undeniable that the filmmakers captured some truly spectacular and unique shots throughout their years-long sojourn. From the arid Kalahari and Sahara deserts to the volatile yet fertile savannahs, the dense jungles of the Congo to the depths of the oceans off the southernmost tip of the continent, practically every aspect of the African wilderness is examined with painstaking (and loving) attention to the smallest detail. Amid the sometimes troubling scenes of animals dying--whether as a result of nature's wrath or falling prey to the numerous predators on display--there are also some moments of humor sprinkled throughout the series, which add some much-needed levity in the wake of some difficult scenes (animals, after all, can be quite the inadvertent comedians). Perhaps most remarkably of all, the filmmakers have managed to capture a peculiar and unexpected symbiosis between some of these animals that sheds new light on how the creatures interact, play, and fight for survival. All things considered, Africa is no less than an absolute, delightful triumph.
The first five episodes shine the spotlight on particular regions of the continent, beginning with "Kalahari," focusing on the deserts of the southwest, which are populated by a series of unusual creatures. This episode is notable for its night-vision capture of black rhinos at the watering hole, in which the social nature of these notoriously ill-tempered beasts was discovered for the first time. The next episode, "Savannah," examines the extremes of the wide-ranging grasslands of eastern Africa, home to stunning mountain vistas, dry valleys, and a vast array of species. Of particular note in this episode is the grim scene of an elephant calf's death from thirst and exhaustion in the midst of the longest drought in half a century--one of the hardest and most heartbreaking moments to watch in the entire series.
The third episode, "Congo," takes a look deep into the competitive, ever-changing world of the tropical rainforest that sprawls across the heart of Africa--a world where even the flowers have an agenda, and the relationship between the residential creatures is both cooperative and fractured. The sped-up images of explosive weather patterns in the Congo--glorious shots of multicolored skies, crackling lightning, and swirling clouds--are particularly mesmerizing, showing how truly unpredictable jungle life can be for the hardy animals who choose to live there. The fourth installment, "Cape," takes us to the south where, at the Cape of Good Hope, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. This episode closely examines how the comingling of these two oceans affects both the landscape and the seascape of southern Africa, from the awe-inspiring sight of hundreds of baby turtles dashing to the sea after hatching (dodging predatory birds along the way) to the monsters of the deep--whales and great white sharks--ruling over their underwater territories off the coast.
The last region-specific episode, "Sahara," focuses on the other major desert system on the continent (and the largest non-polar desert in the world), which spans the whole of northern Africa. In the face of the sweltering sun, engulfing sandstorms, and deadly oases, few animals attempt to survive in the desert proper, though the margins of the barren land are populated by various hard-scrabble species including zebras and the so-ugly-they're-kinda-cute naked mole rats. The sixth and final episode, "The Future," strays from the format of the previous five, instead concentrating on the efforts of environmentalists and conservationists to preserve and protect the native species of the continent.
Though the version of Africa that aired on U.S. television earlier this year was narrated largely by actor Forest Whitaker, the entirety of the recent BBC DVD release is narrated by its famed British naturalist host. Attenborough has long been a presence in nature documentaries; since the 1970s, he has hosted a number of wildlife-related specials in the UK, and has served as narrator of previous Earth series including Planet Earth (2006) and Frozen Planet (2011)--though his narration duties were again usurped in US airings by Sigourney Weaver and Alec Baldwin, respectively. Frankly, I've never understood why the Discovery Channel, which airs these documentaries in the U.S., feels the need to replace Attenborough with more "popular" names (seriously--is the voice of Alec Baldwin going to really draw a bigger audience to a nature film?), for the Brit is a charming host, his voiceovers brimming with good humor, intelligence, and compassionate insight.
The DVD set consists of three discs: the first two include all six episodes, while the third is dedicated to a number of bonus features. Among the special features are several interviews with notable figures from the production, including Attenborough and executive producer Michael Gunton. There is also a brief compilation of outtakes from throughout the filming of the series (humorously set to the tune of The Blue Danube) as well as a selection of deleted footage from the Harenna Forest of Ethiopia and the Salt Lakes in the country of Djibouti. Additionally, each episode ends with a ten-minute "making-of" segment called "Eye to Eye," in which the filmmakers explain how they were able to capture some of their more amazing shots (or, in the case of the baby elephant dying, explain why they were unable to interfere).
With gorgeous cinematography and some truly entertaining and fascinating footage of unique animals surviving in their natural habitats, Africa is well worth your time. It's impossible to watch this series and not become thoroughly engrossed in these myriad creatures' struggles and victories. Like its documentary predecessors, Africa will leave you anxiously anticipating the BBC's next grand nature adventure series, wherever in the world they may take us.