Docs

Surviving Survival

Kenya's Mzima spring is home to one of the world's most exclusive spas, its client list restricted to the 60-plus hippos that live downstream. The 'spa' is staffed by a school of labeo fish eager to please a visiting hippo, which obliges its hosts by splaying its toes, widening its stance and opening its enormous jaws to allow each fish the access it needs to scrub and clean. The fish leave no crevice, fold of skin or tooth untouched and the hippo is grateful, often becoming so relaxed it dozes off.
July 1, 2002

Kenya’s Mzima spring is home to one of the world’s most exclusive spas, its client list restricted to the 60-plus hippos that live downstream. The ‘spa’ is staffed by a school of labeo fish eager to please a visiting hippo, which obliges its hosts by splaying its toes, widening its stance and opening its enormous jaws to allow each fish the access it needs to scrub and clean. The fish leave no crevice, fold of skin or tooth untouched and the hippo is grateful, often becoming so relaxed it dozes off.

Capturing this symbiotic flurry of pampering was a highlight for Cornwall, U.K.-based wildlife filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone during their two-year stay in the bush filming Mzima: Haunt of the Riverhorse. The 50-minute documentary, a coproduction between National Geographic and the now extinct Survival Anglia, has won more than 20 awards, including Best of Festival at the 2001 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and a 2002 Peabody. ‘Each project throws out something revelatory or peculiar, or dramatic,’ explains Deeble. ‘For Mzima, it was when we finally got to grips with the mouth-cleaning behavior.’

To achieve the film’s detailed close-ups of this intimate activity, the filmmakers had to let the hippos become comfortable around the cameras, even when they were within inches of a lens. ‘This takes time, and that’s in short supply these days,’ says Stone.

For the past 20 years, a determination to bring back never-before-seen footage and fresh wildlife stories has kept the husband and wife team in the field for a minimum of 18 months per project. It’s an approach to natural history filmmaking long favored by some of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers, but it’s an approach Deeble and Stone see fading from the genre.

‘When people like Dieter Plage (Cold on the Equator) and Alan Root (Castles of Clay) were making films, there was tremendous excitement for what they would bring back,’ says Deeble. ‘You felt like people were going out and it was a mixture of filmmaker, naturalist and explorer,’ adds Stone. ‘That has all but vanished from natural history filmmaking today. It’s very easy, now, to create excitement by hyping up something or the way it’s being approached. Meanwhile, what’s actually being filmed is old hat. There is huge pressure to produce films faster and more predictably.’

Both place part of the blame for shrinking field time on broadcasters. ‘It wouldn’t hurt some broadcasters to be more speculative,’ says Deeble. Mzima is the latest of more than 15 natural history docs directed and filmed by Deeble and Stone (among the titles are Tale of the Tides, A Little Fish in Deep Water and Tides of the Kirawira). Each connects a small cast of characters to a particular region, and each bears the trademark of its filmmakers: dramatic behavior sequences set firmly within the bigger picture. Every film has won multiple awards and every film was tackled in a similar fashion: by assembling a small crew and staying in the field long enough to realize the story and bring back fresh material. For years, U.K. production company Survival Anglia supported this approach, often in partnership with Nat Geo TV. But, Survival closed in 2001, shortly after it was bought by Granada Media.

‘The demise of Survival really impacted how we work,’ explains Deeble. ‘Their ethos was that you got a camera team and you put everything into supporting them. But, the main thing was you put them in the field for as long as possible. That was a very brave way of making films.’

‘Survival also put teams in the field without necessarily knowing what they were going to return with,’ says Stone, ‘and gave a lot of opportunities to find what you couldn’t predict or research before you set out. There isn’t a company that works the way Survival used to work. I don’t want to deny any area of the genre – different ways of working build an interesting and diverse industry. But, Survival took a particular approach to wildlife filmmaking and nobody is filling that niche now.’

Last autumn, with Mzima wrapped, Deeble and Stone started looking at doing a doc that will explore Aldabra Island, an atoll in the Indian Ocean about 650 kilometers off the coast of East Africa. ‘It’s the sort of place we can effectively maroon ourselves for a good length of time and come back with something new,’ says Deeble.

Despite the loss of Survival and its financial support, the duo are determined to maintain the exploratory aspect of filmmaking. So, they set out on their own to raise the funds for Aldabra (w/t), approaching networks around the world. Explains Stone, ‘The way we’re putting

it together, we didn’t know if it was possible when we started. But, we figured the only way we could keep the type of filmmaking that we want to continue to do alive is to approach it this way.’

To raise enough money to start the film, Deeble and Stone discovered they needed at least three partners. They found support from Japanese pubcaster NHK, PBS’ New York outlet WNET for its ‘Nature’ strand, and the BBC. None, however, were able to respond quickly (it took about six months). ‘Survival was always able to react rapidly,’ explains Deeble, who notes that he and Stone often received the green light for a project when they were still in the field for another. ‘It has been a surprise to see how long it takes the rest of the industry.’

‘When you’re busy for 20 years making films a certain way, you don’t stop to think what it would be like if it all changed. It’s a shock when it suddenly does,’ says Stone. ‘Then came September 11, and that affected everybody.’

‘Nobody would even talk about wildlife,’ says Deeble. ‘And, nobody knew what the long term impact would be,’ Stone continues. ‘It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that we started getting a semblance of normality in the way people were responding to new projects. A lot of things were on hold for several months. It was a difficult time for a lot of people.’

Deeble and Stone are the first to point out that the broadcasters backing Aldabra are all pubcasters. This, they argue, is not because the budget is hefty, but because public TV stations are the only outlets left that can take the long view with a film. Explains Deeble, ‘Because the film takes so long to make – from conception to delivery, we’re probably talking three years – we need a broadcaster that knows it has a slot to fill for as long as it’s going to take us to complete the film. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.’

‘Our budgets and our costs are no higher than any top end natural history film. In fact, they’re probably less,’ adds Stone. ‘We translate the money that would go to having lots of people working on a film, into just the two of us and our small team working for an extended period in the field. So, as long as there are budgets of a certain size for [wildlife] films, it just depends which way the broadcasters want to allocate them. I think there is room for both approaches.’

NHK is proposing Aldabra be shot in high definition, a potential challenge that thrills Deeble and Stone, who generally film in Super 16. Says Stone, ‘Investing in HD equipment isn’t the first thing on our mind, but NHK is making it possible.’ Stone also discloses that she and Deeble are developing a one-hour, 3-D, HD film set in East Africa, which they will shoot and direct.

‘We’ll use whatever technique we can to tell the story,’ says Deeble. ‘What we try not to do is let the technique get in the way of the story.’ This latter film will play in theaters. ‘We’re trying to apply our approach to a new industry,’ says Deeble.

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