The “wild” guide to filming in Africa


SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: Joanna Sterkowicz writes….“If you film in the bush you need to understand the bush,” said South African wildlife filmmaker Peter Lamberti during a session at the Wild Talk Africa Film Festival & Conference on 28 March at the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.

Aimed at providing guidance on the challenges of wildlife filmmaking in Africa, the session was punctuated with hair-raising accounts of lost equipment, cameras accidentally falling into rivers, bribing African officials, “smuggling” in equipment to avoid dodgy customs, waiting months for film permits, and even having camera crews arrested.

James Honeyborne of the BBC NHU wryly noted that one of his crews was meant to do aerial shots over Libya last week. “But perhaps we shouldn’t be too focused on the negative aspects of filming in Africa as the rewards can be incredible. And, the success of any shoot in Africa really depends on the effort that goes into preparing for it.” 

Earth-Touch’s Graeme Duane stated that no matter how much you prepare in advance there are inevitably hoops to jump through when you arrive on location in Africa. “The shoot can be brought to its knees by official red tape, however much you might have prepared beforehand. It’s good to have a local associate producer on the ground to help troubleshoot these situations.

“I think it’s vital to have respect for the local community in which you are filming. Take the Masai in Kenya for example. If you film them they will want something in return.”

Tania “TJ” Jenkins of Afriscreen Films added: “It’s important to communicate to the community in the location in which you are shooting how much you value it.”

Marjolein Duermeijer of Amsterdam based Nature Conservation Films stressed the importance of having a “fixer” in African countries. “We have set up a base in Tanzania and have local staff who are familiar with the challenges inherent in shooting in the country. As for brining in gear into Africa, I would advise you to take really important equipment, such as cameras and lenses, into your hand luggage on the plane.”

The fact that wildlife budgets are shrinking means that a lot of people are not doing recces anymore, said Joe Kennedy of Table Mountain Films. “This can lead to big problems when the crew arrives on location. And when filming in Africa, I would always advocate having two cameras on location instead of one because cameras get damaged easily.”

As to the thorny issue of using bribes to facilitate the filmmaking process in Africa, Honeyborne posed the moral question – when does a gift become a bribe? Duane suggested that it’s perhaps better to get the local “fixer” to handle the bribes, rather than the filmmakers themselves.

The importance of doing research before venturing into Africa was emphasised by Jenkins. “It’s possible to find a lot of good information about African countries on the Internet for a start. And, as Guy Nockles of Namib Film always says, ‘Never underestimate the power of local knowledge.”


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