An amazing new perspective on the landscapes and creatures of Africa.
Are we living in a golden age of nature documentaries? In recent years, we’ve been treated to quite a few visually stunning nature-themed television productions that have won great acclaim from critics and viewers alike. The BBC has been doing particularly exceptional work in this area, offering such rich endeavors as The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life and Frozen Planet. All of these productions have boasted jaw-dropping visuals, rich orchestral music, thought-provoking depth and the expert narration of David Attenborough. These are series that have managed to find an appealing balance between the sort of scientifically-driven purposefulness of the fuzzy, methodical nature docs of yesteryear and the slick entertainment value that is emphasized by so many modern nature shows. I’m pleased to report that we can now add Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown to the list of exceptional BBC Nature docs.
As the title indicates, Africa is the focus this time around. The first five of the six episodes cover different regions of the country:
Kalahari: This episode takes a look at the creates of the Kalahari and Namib deserts. Highlights include rare footage of a rhino mating ritual, a giraffe battle and a look inside the magnificently-named Dragon’s Breath Cave.
Savannah: Generally a sobering episode, as we watch a shoebill chick persecute its sibling and witness the nearly-unbearable saga of a starving elephant calf. A bit of levity is provided by some lizards who boldly attempt to navigate their way through a pride of lions in pursuit of insects.
Congo: We head deep into the jungle to examine an exceptionally wide variety of creatures (sadly not including a group of mercenary gorillas guarding a diamond mine). You’ll see pythons protecting their eggs, chimpanzees stealing honey from a bee hive, assorted sunbathing rituals and much more.
Cape: A particularly fascinating installment that examines the manner in which the warm Agulhas Current and the cold Benguela Current affect life for a host of life forms in Southern Africa. Monkey beetle romance, penguin hardships and great white sharks are among the featured subjects.
Sahara: A surprising amount of life populates this vast desert, from crocodiles clinging to the Sahara’s few freshwater pools to barn swallows forced to migrate across the desert. Survival is difficult for nearly every creature in this segment, including the tiny insects that must protect themselves from the intense heat.
All of these installments are excellent, but it’s the sixth and final episode that adds a good deal of weight to the proceedings. “The Future” takes a broader look at the environmental issues that are making life more difficult for Africa’s wildlife. It’s in this installment that Attenborough’s passion really begins to shine—so much so that the American television broadcast of the series employed Forrest Whitaker to narrate the first five episodes, but left Attenborough at the helm for this installment. Every threat from climate change to population growth to poaching is detailed, as are the efforts of some valiant individuals working to make things better. It’s an alternately bleak and hopeful installment that ultimately delivers a variation on the same message Attenborough has been preaching vigorously for years: in the end, the fate of these wondrous creatures and their wondrous world is in our hands.
Africa looks good on DVD, but honestly, this is a series that was made for high-definition (in fact, I’m planning to purchase the Blu-ray release and give it another watch just to be able to appreciate it more fully). Even so, those who aren’t HD-enabled should be pleased with the stellar, consistent 480p transfer offered here. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is strong, blending Attenborough’s narration and a flavorful score quite expertly. A few worthwhile supplements are included, too. Each episode ends with a 10-minute “Eye to Eye” segment that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how certain challenging shots were captured. A bonus disc also offers interviews with Attenborough, producer James Honeyborne, executive producer Michael Gunton and cinematographers Martin Colbeck and Richard Matthews, plus some deleted scenes and outtakes.
Africa once again demonstrates that the BBC and David Attenborough are masters of the nature documentary format. It’s well worth your time.