This August the Natural History Unit of Africa passed the 100-hour mark with its wildlife output. Realscreen spoke with Sophie Vartan, commissioning editor for the NHU Africa, about the challenges of making original natural history programs and the importance it places on uniting Africa’s production community.
Since the inception of NHU Africa in 2006, the goal has been to bring together and promote the natural history filmmaking community in South Africa, says Vartan. ‘The vision is to ultimately unite the wildlife filmmaking industry on the African continent,’ she says. NHU Africa strives to do this is by serving as a central body which assists filmmakers through training, networking, funding and commissioning.
Before helping to form NHU Africa, Vartan was the managing director of DewClaw Productions, a prodco that worked on children’s wildlife programs. She says that she’s fortunate to live and work out of South Africa because there are always plenty of natural history stories right on her doorstep. However, she acknowledges that aside from the usual challenges that come with filming wild animals, it can also be difficult to work in areas that have political unrest and ever-changing rules and regulations. ‘Most free roaming animals only exist in limited pockets of protected land, including privately owned and state-run reserves,’ says Vartan. ‘This requires us to apply for permits and gain permission to film, and in some cases the controversial nature of the program can often result in applications being rejected and access denied.’
Still, NHU Africa manages to successfully create and commission a number of projects. One of the most recent, A Free Passage to Angola, tells the story of how thousands of elephants return to Angola along routes that are apparently riddled with landmines. The program questions whether elephants can be trained to detect landmines and assist in clearing efforts. Other recent projects include the reality soap series Troop which follows the psycho-social behaviors of neighboring baboon troops in the Cape Peninsula and Into the Dragon’s Lair, which follows Didier Noirot, a diver who accompanied Jacques Cousteau on over 5000 dives and now dives with a giant, and very dangerous, Nile crocodile.
Coproductions are key to NHU Africa, and it looks for copro opportunities for all of its projects. In the past it has worked with the broadcasters such as NHK and Animal Planet International among others, and it is currently looking to strengthen old ties (Vartan says she is currently in discussions with the BBC NHU about possible future copros) while also looking to build new relationships with international broadcasters.
(This article was amended to October 1 9am EST: The NHU Africa has not worked with the BBC’s NHU)