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Africa: Eye to Eye With the Unknown

(BBC; US DVD: 26 Feb 2013; UK DVD: 18 Feb 2013)

In recent years, the BBC has unleashed a series of genuinely breathtaking nature documentaries. The run probably reached its pinnacle with 2007’s 11-part Planet Earth, but there are multitude of programs: Blue Planet (2007), Nature’s Most Amazing Events (2009), and 2010’s Life are all exquisite, and all follow the same simple formula: superb high-definition photography, a viewer-friendly mix of familiar animals alongside less-well-known species, jaw-dropping scenery, and—as often as not—the enthusiastic narration of David Attenborough. Not every show has Attenborough as a guide (2007’s Galopagos features commentary by Tilda Swinson), but those that do benefit from his palpable excitement.


Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown, is the latest entry into this canon, and it’s a keeper. A magnificent, six-episode series, it uses its breathtaking photography, including time-lapse shots, satellite footage, extreme close-ups and slow-motion to focus on what is arguably the most romantic and beloved continent in terms of wildlife. Asia has tigers and elephants, but Africa has lions and bigger elephants. South America has llamas, but Africa has zebras and giraffes. Australia has kangaroos and koala bears, but Africa has rhinos, ostriches, gorillas, chimps, crocodiles and those weird little things with the huge eyes that cling to trees and stare back at you through the TV screen.


Each of the first five episodes focuses on a different region of the continent: “Kalahari”, “Savannah”, “Congo”, “Cape” and “Sahara”. This regional approach allows filmmakers to focus on the landscape and wildlife peculiar to each particular biosphere. “Kalahari” brings us to southern Africa, land of lion prides and solitary rhinos and peaceable giraffes—only to shatter at least a couple of those preconceptions with unexpected footage. (Spoiler alert: giraffes fight, and it gets ugly.) Meanwhile, night-vision cameras record the activity surrounding a dry-season waterhole: there’s a lot more going on out in the middle of nowhere than you may think.


“Savannah” shifts the action north, to the fertile grasslands of eastern Africa: volcanoes and forest fires, elephants and wildebeest, dozing lionesses and the predatory lizards who pluck flies (captured in super-slow-motion) from the big cats’ pelts. “Congo” explores the lives of our primate relatives—honey-hunting chimps, anyone?—as well as more elephants, this time congregating under a midnight moon.


Surprisingly, the “Desert” episode proved rather lackluster. I love deserts and have traveled through several, including a weekend-long flirtation with the Saharan dunes outside of the Moroccan town of Erfoud. The highlight here is the fascinating time-lapse footage of nomadic dunes shifting across the desert floor, shot at the speed of one second per day over the course of a year. Apart from this, however, the episode is a bit of a letdown.


That’s a minor quibble. The other installments are consistently riveting, including “The Future”, the series’ sixth and final episode, in which the future of the continent and its wild creatures are considered in light of an exploding human population and the intense pressures that go along with that. By turns excruciating and hopeful, the episode does much to remind viewers of the awesome responsibility our species has toward our fellow species sharing this planet.


It’s the nature of these programs that they are crafted so thoughtfully, and with such splendid visuals, that even episodes with little initial appeal are hypnotic once they start. I had little enough interest in “Cape”, which chronicles the effect of the waters around South Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide. But the effects of that collision—as the cold waters of the Atlantic merge with the much warmer Indian Ocean—are unexpectedly fascinating. Among other things, they lead to a frenzy of butterfly mating on a treeless mountaintop. Who wouldn’t love this?


Each episode includes a brief, ten-minute bonus addendum entitled “Eye to Eye”, in which the producers and camera crews discuss the work involved in getting their visuals. Playing directly after the episode itself—no need to go hunting through the Bonus Features menu—these little codas add a dash of insight and a good bit of appreciation for the men and women who labored over a period of four years to put the series together.


Other bonus features include numerous interviews with David Attenborough, executive producer Michael Gunton and others, plus outtakes and a pair of deleted scenes. Ranging from the beautiful—a travelogue of Djibouti’s salt lakes—to the whimsical, they add considerable entertainment value as well as insights into the filmmakers’ intentions and goals. Far from crucial, they are nonetheless diverting, and help to round out the series as a whole. It should be said also that this is the type of program that screams for the high-resolution of a blu-ray disc. No doubt the DVD is excellent too, but the high definition of an HD disc and TV only add to the pleasure of such scenes as these.


For viewers who have enjoyed previous BBC nature programs, this is a no-brainer: Africa is a terrific show and can stand alongside any of the network’s recent string of outstanding programs. For viewers new to the genre and unsure where to start, this is a good gateway, as well. The Continent holds many familiar pleasures after all, but the way they are presented here makes them fresh and new again. Good job, BBC.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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