On November 14, Joel Churcher, VP and General Manager of BBC Studios Africa and producer Rosie Thomas hosted a South African media contingent at the IMAX Mall of Africa in Midrand, Johannesburg for an exclusive screening of Chimpanzee, the first of five episodes in the landmark Dynasties series. Fronted and narrated by Sir David Attenborough, one of the most trusted names and voices in television, the documentaries were filmed by the BBC Studios award winning Natural History Unit and highlight five endangered species – lion, chimpanzees, painted wolves (wild dogs), the tiger and Emperor Penguin. Shot over four years in iconic locations using state of the art lenses and new stabiliser camera tech equipment, the footage is emotive and riveting underpinned by a dramatic soundscape and gives viewers rare insight into the incredible realities of these creature communities.
All the drama
Unlike previous nature programmes that typically cover multiple stories per show, each Dynasties episode tells a single story with an in-depth focus on one particular animal, except in the case of the penguin programme. Chimpanzee, produced and directed by Thomas and brilliantly filmed by John Brown, follows David, the alpha male of a habituated community of Fongoli Chimps in an extreme environment known as the Kedougou Region of South East Senegal on the edge of the Sahara.
Chimpanzee revolves around *David’s fight for survival as he is challenged by the younger rivals in the troop looking to oust him as the alpha male, three years into his reign. He has no allies – no-one to help him defend his leadership. As the dry season sets in, the group are forced closer together to survive. David faces brutal battles, has his world engulfed in flames and has to pull off an extraordinary act of deception. In a story of power and politics, can David overcome the threats to his leadership and hold on to the alpha position long enough to sire a possible future heir to his throne?
*(Sadly, seven months after filming wrapped, David was found dead, likely beaten to death by the other male chimps).
Crew conditions & challenges
The small film crew traipsed after the apes daily for two years (thirteen trips), a total of 309 days, enduring countless vehicle breakdowns, sweat bees and snakes, lugging eighty kilograms of gear in forty degree temperatures as they trekked across 92 square kilometres of chimp territory. “It was tough going, with long days on foot (we walked 2400km altogether) and high heats, but the group took us on an incredible journey of power struggles, friendships and politics, all shot against one of the most unusual landscapes I have ever seen chimps in” Thomas said, adding that none of this could have been achieved without the team of Senegalese experts on the ground and American anthropologist Jill Preutz, who has spent the past twenty years observing the troop and naming the individuals and was instrumental in the units choice of this particular chimp group at a critical turning point in their society.
Habitat loss & other challenges
The threats facing all wildlife and chimpanzees, on the critically endangered list since 2017, is habitat loss, human conflict and rampant consumer consumption (gold mining is drawing increasing numbers of people to the area). Last month the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions, with a 60% loss in vertebrate species alone. Eco collapse and over population is a bleak reality, and programmes like these challenge global complacency, corporate ethics and are a call to action. Dynasties may not have quite the same overt political message as Blue Planet II, but there was one issue which kept recurring, says executive producer Michael Gunton. “This series is about the problem, for a lot of these creatures, that there just isn’t enough space for them to survive,” he explains. “Space is not as sexy as plastic, it’s a harder thing to get your head around, it’s a much bigger issue, so [with] the individual struggles in these creatures lives, that’s a very good way of bringing it to attention.”
Dynasties presents these charismatic animals and their families in a way they’ve seldom been observed before. Chimps are highly evolved primates, closely resembling humans in their complex societal structures and Dynasties captures their humanity brilliantly and is one of the most extraordinary passages of drama seen in wildlife documentary making.
Dynasties is aired weekly and begins today, Sunday 18 November on BBC Brit (DStv 120) and BBC Lifestyle (DStv 174), at 16:00.
Pics courtesy of the BBC