The BBC’s Africa as Middle Earth

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. Continue reading

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