Thursday, March 12, 2009

African Adventure — Safari in the Okavango: The ones that got away

African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango (2007)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.12.09

You can't help wanting to swat all the reeds away.

Director Ben Stassen's cleverest touch in his newest giant-screen IMAX production, African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango, was his decision to incorporate a "prow's-eye view" during much of the film.
Take a good look at this photo, because you'll get closer to a hippo here than
at any point in this largely disappointing film, which too frequently fails to
obtain — or provide — the "money shots" that characterize other, much
better nature documentaries.

As South African zoologist Liesl Eichenberger and wildlife filmmaker Tim Liversedge take their tiny craft through the weed- and reed-choked waterways of Botswana's Okavango Delta  a flooded region that can't help making American viewers think of the Florida Everglades  their passage is recorded, in part, by an IMAX 3D camera that has been mounted at the very tip of the boat, right at the waterline.

The resulting effect is akin to slowly swimming through these waters, and having to push aside the flora that sticks up from the water. Indeed, the camera lens itself plunges right into the reeds, which gently part as the boat moves forward.

The feeling of actually being there is beyond tantalizing; it's amazing how much this relatively simple little trick fools our brains as we sit comfortably in the darkened theater.

I wish the rest of the film were equally satisfying.

Granted, African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango is a welcome relief from the seemingly dozens of ocean- and underwater-themed IMAX films that have proliferated of late. It's a (mostly) above-ground excursion through a region of Africa that remains largely unknown to us outsiders. In fact, as the narrator informs us, the Okavango's comparative isolation  the degree to which it remained hidden from the rest of Africa, let alone the world  left it largely unexplored until fairly recently.

It's a fascinating ecological paradise: a flooded 20,000-square-kilometer maze of lagoons, channels and islands ... in the middle of an otherwise arid and inhospitable desert.

Eichenberger and Liversedge are entertaining guides; they know the region but aren't the slightest bit blase about its many wonders. Eichenberger's enthusiastic smile is particularly infectious.

But while Stassen's film is visually opulent and the subject matter quite fascinating, the 41 minutes pass so quickly that we're left hungry. To a degree, that's partly because of what the film doesn't show us.

Despite some underwater footage that leads us to believe we'll bump into a hippo around the next corner, it never happens; we get no more than brief glimpses of these massive creatures, and only from the surface. Granted, one impressive shot shows just how rapidly hippos can move, despite their bulk; it's a dramatic shot, but over far too quickly.

The Okavango  according to my press notes  has "one of the largest concentrations of birds on the planet" ... but we never get any sense of those numbers.

Yes, a night-time sequence of Pels fishing owls hunting for food is jaw-droppingly stunning; they're huge, impressively regal birds that seem almost prehistoric due to their size.

But the other bird-oriented interludes are more like the hippo situation: cases of waiting expectantly for "money shots" that never quite happen. After plenty of build-up regarding a diving raptor, for example, we never witness an actual dive; Liversedge only barely gets some footage of one bird after it has caught a fish, as it flies away. That's ... vexingly anticlimactic.

The crew gets reasonably close to several prides of lions, but for the most part the big cats are just kicking back. One pride's effort to bring down a quartet of warthogs is a nonstarter: a brief chase that ends abruptly as the potential prey successfully escapes.

I'm not saying that we needed to see the lions catch and then tear into the fresh meat, but I can't help comparing this abbreviated skirmish with the many magnificent predator-prey chases that dominated the Discovery Channel's 2006 Planet Earth miniseries. That footage was mesmerizing and exciting; this lion sequence, by comparison, is disappointing.

On the other hand...

Eichenberger, Liversedge and the film crew do get up close and personal with a herd of African elephants. Way close and personal. It seems, at one point, that the dominant bull elephant's trunk is curiously exploring the camera lens. This stunning footage makes up for earlier disappointments.

Look closely, as well, and you'll spot a very tiny baby elephant in the water: so small that it can't be more than a few months (weeks?) old.

It would be nice to know, but this is one of the few times that the film's narration lets us down; nobody even calls attention to the infant elephant.

On a more trivial level, the film also indulges in occasional unreferenced jargon. Eichenberger, for example, uses the phrase "the big five" without explaining that she means lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo.

Liversedge is passionate about his work. He was hired at the young age of 20 to help the Smithsonian participate in a survey of deltas; he fell in love with the Okavango and has lived there ever since, becoming one of the region's first game wardens.

Understanding that the long-term protection of wildlife habitats required the support of the international community, he turned himself into a wildlife filmmaker 20 years ago.

His efforts have been successful: Botswana, this film hastens to assure us, is better than most African countries, when it comes to wildlife and habitat preservation. Maintaining such stewardship is a challenge, though, particularly when thirsty neighboring countries eye the water-rich Okavango.

Given the instability of many African regions, the notion of going to war over Botswana's water certainly isn't far-fetched.

Clearly, the results of such a conflict would be devastating to everything shown  or, in some cases, hinted at  in this film. As an advocacy documentary, then, African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango is beautiful and invaluable.

As a film experience, however, it's a frequent letdown: a taste of some as-yet unmade much better movie, that we'll be able to enjoy when Stassen and Liversedge get all those money shots they mostly hint at here.

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