The BBC Natural History Unit has done it again. Its new wildlife documentary, simply titled Africa, currently showing on the flagship channel BBC One, is an extraordinary feast of natural wonders in high definition. It is pulling in large terrestrial and ‘iPlayer’ audiences, impressing critics and setting the Twittersphere alight. The photography is, as so often before, ground-breaking: slowmo battling giraffes in the Kalahari, a baby elephant dying in an Amboseli drought, starlight camera sequences of black rhino at a Kalahari waterhole and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the grand scale of the African landscapes.
But there is a problem. The ‘Africa’ on display is missing something rather important: Africans. In 2011, the BBC was criticised for splicing footage of a captive polar bear giving birth into wild sequences for the Frozen Planet series (a standard documentary technique). This time the BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent. The first episode of Africa begins with the comforting voice of David Attenborough: “Africa… the world’s greatest wilderness … the only place on earth to the see the full majesty of nature”. His description might just about apply to the Kalahari of the first episode, an arid region with few people. But the second episode was about East Africa, a region home to over 130 million human residents. In fact, southern Uganda, in which much of the episode was filmed, has some of the densest human populations anywhere on the continent. Where were these people, their buildings, their farms, their livestock? Where were their nation states, which were not named in Attenborough’s narration? One aerial shot of Lake Mutanda in south west Uganda showed a few twinkling tin roofs, but this was the exception. Another, of the Virunga Volcanoes – mountains absolutely surrounded by smallholder farms – seemed deliberately angled to avoid showing any signs of agriculture. After watching this programme, anyone unfamiliar with East Africa could be forgiven for thinking that there is an unbroken chain of natural wildlife habitat stretching from the Rwenzori in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the East. There isn’t.
In Africa, the BBC is selectively editing its images of the African landscape to tell a particular story about nature. When Peter Jackson wanted to portray Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he used the landscapes of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth. To create the fantasy world, Jackson’s team had a huge struggle to find corners of land where the cameras could not see any imprint of human action. This is what the BBC has done in Africa, projecting a story onto a real landscape; a spell that would be broken if there were any sign of human residents or their creations.
The BBC has done this before – the Natural History Film Unit’s last African series Wild Africa (equally novel for its time in 2001) lived up to its name. Yet the BBC knows all about how these representations only tell part of the story. BBC Four ran the excellent Unnatural Histories, which included an episode telling the story of the Serengeti and other East African savanna parks, revealing the extent to which these landscapes are as much anthropogenic as natural, and charting their deeply contested politics. BBC Four also did a fine job of explaining the diverse representations of poverty in Africa in the recent Why Poverty? series. These BBC Four series drew on ideas about the (mis)representation of Africa that are well established in academic thinking. For example, Jim Igoe has used Guy Debord’s concept of ‘spectacle’ to discuss the way images can be used to create a (conservation) product for consumption that has little relation to a real place, and problems with the use of the term ‘wilderness’ are well established.
So why Africa’s deliberate blindness to these issues? Are the BBC’s left and right hands not talking: do BBC departments not speak to each other? Is this is a case of in-built elitism, in which the BBC One demographic is not considered ready for a more complex message? Perhaps this a cynical decision, that nature sells, another click of the ratchet of commercialisation, a step towards NatureReal™ technology? Or, perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to focus on positive stories about nature, rather than the messy reality on the ground – a contribution to the idea of wild hope. And why does any of this matter? If the outcome is a collection of beautiful films about African wildlife that are enjoyed by millions, where is the problem?
The answer is that the Edenic vision of Africa as Africa is not just entertainment. It has real power to shape the way we think about a whole continent. Viewers are led to believe that Africa is not part of the modern world, and that Africans have no place there. Tourists expect to see this vision brought to life when they step off the plane, and the tourism industry makes it so, through a parade of staged authenticity interspersed with quick hops by car or plane between the national parks, lest the tourist gaze fall on the ‘wrong’ scene. All of this affects real-world relations between outsiders (viewers and visitors) and Africa and its people – economic, political, and social – in profoundly negative ways.
At the end of the second episode of Africa David Attenborough reminded us that the first humans evolved in East Africa. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they must have all left shortly afterwards, only to return two million years later as helicopter pilots, Landrover drivers and abseiling camera people. The refusal to portray African people – farmers, traders, computer programmers and entrepreneurs – as part of African landscapes implies that they can somehow be separated from a ‘real’ Africa of nature. This is not only potentially offensive, it also creates the false impression that nothing threatens the nature on display – that all is well in the wilderness. This is also not true: African conservationists face huge challenges, and most of the ‘natural’ ecosystems we see on our screens are to a greater or lesser extent enclosed, managed and threatened.
Africa is a simplistic portrayal of an unthreatened natural wilderness that does not exist. It is as much fantasy as it is documentary: Africa as Africa.
Chris Sandbrook & Bill Adams