Africa: Untamed, Uncensored and on Celluloid

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1996

Africa: Untamed, Uncensored and on Celluloid

In a style that's more Peckinpah than Marlin Perkins, Dereck and Beverly Joubert have revolutionized wildlife filmmaking with unflinching documentaries that combine violent realism and equally dramatic story lines. Their work has brought them fame, a little bit of flak, and a loyal viewing public that they'd just as soon keep at boom's length.
By Richard B.Woodward

On a savanna in northern Botswana's Chobe National Park, a pride of 19 lions snoozes in the late-afternoon sun, lazily guarding the threadbare carcass of an adult hippopotamus. Furry heads and paws, caked with blood, are draped on the big bones of the kill. A young male gnaws a leg joint while a sibling tunnels into the ripped-open cavity, thrusting his whole body inside as he claws noisily for a last bit of gristle. Vultures, lurking in the reeds nearby, hop within range of the fly-ridden meal before being run off by a pair of burly cubs.

Only a few lion-leaps away, Dereck Joubert kneels on the ground, his eye glued to the viewfinder of an ultralight 35-millimeter movie camera. His wife, Beverly, likewise engrossed and exposed, fires off a few motor-driven frames from a still camera that's turret-mounted on their Land Cruiser and then carefully checks the readings on a sound recorder.

For the next half-hour, the Jouberts barely stir. Soft whirring and clicking are the only sounds except for the soughing wind and the close, steady crunch of jaws on bone.

"I did a calculation once," Dereck whispers as he changes lenses. "Between 1981 and 1991, we probably spent 23,000 hours with lions. That's more time than I spent at university. More time than I spent with my parents." From his smile, just visible behind his gray thicket of beard, it's clear which part of his past he recalls with the most pleasure.

With only ten minutes of prime light left before dusk, the Jouberts pack their gear and make a dash for the setting sun. Today was supposed to be spent filming elephants, and they need to get good footage to justify lingering with the lions. It helps that they live in a pocket of Africa where something amazing is never far off. And sure enough, they soon spot a distant herd of bulls crashing through palm trees. Plumes of dust marking their heavy gait rise in the orange sky.

But as the elephants catch the scent of water from the Savuti Channel, a flowing marsh, they pick up the pace, giving Dereck only a few seconds to intersect their route. Slamming to a stop, he runs off with a camera to set up for a tracking shot. Against the wide African sun, the bulls rumble by, about 200 yards out. Dereck shoots until the dry, soft thump of their feet dies in the night.

"Did you get the shot?" Beverly asks when he trudges back and starts breaking down his camera.

"I think so," he replies, in a tone that says he knows he did. "I had them silhouetted with their trunks waving and their feet kicking up dust. It should be great blown up on the screen."

Basking in the moment, picking straw out of his hair, Dereck is like a successful predator returning to his mate. With a difference, of course. Instead of dragging home lifeless flesh, he's returned with a few more minutes of gorgeous film.

The Jouberts, who are widely considered the finest wildlife filmmakers in the world, don't often invite visitors to their camp, which sits just outside the tiny tribal village of Savuti in a parched stand of trees on the perimeter of Chobe's 4,250-square-mile expanse. In 15 years, they've entertained fewer than 20 overnight guests.

Having recently made five plane connections from New York in 24 hours, the last leg in a two-seater piloted by Dereck, I can see why. Getting anyone here must be more than a nuisance. Until the Jouberts bought the plane in 1994, the drive to the nearest sizable town--on unpaved, sand-choked tracks--took seven hours. Their parents, whom they see once every couple of years, have never made the trip.

"My dad couldn't survive," jokes Dereck, as he stirs lunch on a grill that's built into a termite mound. "There's no pub."

It doesn't take long to realize, however, that the Jouberts like to play up the hardships to ensure privacy. They may live in 16-by-12-foot tents with no electric lights, but solar panels run a VCR, editing table, and film refrigerator. Some of their decorating touches--like the elephant-jawbone toilet seat--display a primitivist chic, and Dereck insists that if they have a role model, it's Robinson Crusoe. But Defoe's scavenger never had a Patagonia wardrobe or two $75,000 Land Cruisers specially fitted for filmmaking.

"We moved here because we wanted to be able to look out for five kilometers in any direction and see wild animals," says Dereck. Judging by the free-range zoo that's on display over his shoulder, they've accomplished that. Clusters of zebras, impalas, hippos, and elephants graze in the noonday heat--fixtures of the landscape. Vervet monkeys live nearby, and elephants are welcome to come in and browse the trees. Less welcome are hyenas, which have put tooth marks on everything from butter in the freezer to film canisters.

"We found this place by following a pack of wild dogs," says Beverly, bringing forth a salad. "They killed an impala right where you're sitting, so we knew it was a good place for animals."

The Jouberts' Edenic hideaway is also a good place not to find people. Except for a young Motswana tribesman who looks after the camp when they go away to edit film in Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.--which can be for weeks or months--the Jouberts are alone out here. "We don't like to go to town," Dereck says with a smile. "That's where you pick up malaria. And rumors." Their isolation is broken only rarely by a plane flying over or a flatbed truck hauling fuel drums to the Motswana villages.

Overall, it's hard to watch the Jouberts in the wild for long without wondering what to envy more: the setting or the fact that scenes of nature red in tooth and claw are for them just another day at the office. In the past 15 years, perhaps no one has spent more quality time with Africa's celebrated animals than this young, South Africa-born husband-and-wife team--they're 39 and 38 years old respectively--or won as much acclaim for their efforts.

"The Jouberts are definitely at the top of the field," says Wolfgang Bayer, founding director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, the biennial international showcase for nature filmmakers. "They've been more successful than anyone at bringing back really unusual footage of familiar animals."

Opening a new window on Africa with their cameras, searchlights, and microphones, the Jouberts have tracked zebras at all hours through a months-long, 500-mile migration. They've revealed the eerie and never-before-photographed practice of bull elephants handling the tusks of a dead comrade, in what they took to be a consciously funereal ritual. They've witnessed lions making an astounding 1,256 kills. Through their work, they've become known for an unconventional, opulent style that combines violent realism with unabashedly emotional story lines. Death plays often in the Jouberts' films, but it isn't anecdotal and contextless, as it can be in lower-budget videos that essentially celebrate gore. Instead, it's the terrifying climax of a brutal, endless struggle, and the Jouberts pride themselves on presenting it in a style that's closer to Peckinpah than a detached scientific observer.

A good example is the documentary that first put them on the map: Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas, a 1992 film that was the top-rated PBS program of that year. It tracks a competing pack of hyenas and pride of lions and features named "characters" who seem motivated by something darker than simple competition for food. The vengeful bloodletting in Eternal Enemies is presented as epic myth, as if lions and hyenas have, like Trojans and Achaeans, warred for generations. "Lions and hyenas hate each other," says narrator Powers Boothe, who later adds that such interspecies violence is a mirror to what lurks "in our own savage souls."

The Jouberts' work has gained a huge popular following, driven by their exposure on National Geographic Television, which since 1988 has broadcast their documentaries in 60 countries. And soon their reach will get considerably wider. Last spring, their Hollywood agent shopped a script they wrote called Whispers, a fictional tale about elephants and poachers that will be told, as usual, with artfully tailored documentary footage. Hollywood picked up the Jouberts' scent when Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the head of production at Disney, screened Eternal Enemies for the studio's animators to demonstrate the emotional richness he wanted to see in The Lion King. Still, everyone was shocked when Whispers touched off a bidding war between Disney and Sony/Columbia. Disney won, budgeting the film at $10 million--an unheard-of amount for a nature documentary. Whispers is scheduled for fall release, and the publicity behind it could make the Jouberts as well known around the world as Born Free's Joy Adamson was in the sixties.

As the Jouberts' fortunes soar, a few grumbles are being heard--mainly from wildlife biologists, who argue that for all their talk of uncompromising authenticity, their aestheticized violence is, in its own way, a Disneyfied distortion of reality. "It may make good TV, but it's lousy science," says Kay Holecamp, a hyena specialist at the University of Eastern Michigan. "The Jouberts have an unparalleled ability to capture animals on film, but I can't abide their silly anthropomorphism. I enjoy their work much more with the sound turned off."

Dereck Joubert shrugs off such criticism. "We're telling stories--not doing species studies," he says. Besides, if prominence has turned the Jouberts into targets, it has also given them a chance to speak out on conservation. Using the connections that their reputation has brought, they have argued successfully to ban hunting in parts of Botswana. In 1993, for example, when the nation's president, Ketumile Masire, learned that some of the resplendent male lions in the Jouberts' films had later been killed legally, he was so disturbed that he drastically cut the number of annual lion-hunting licenses in the country. In addition, the Jouberts' opposition to execution-style culling of elephant herds has so far helped to prevent Botswana from emulating the policies of Zimbabwe and South Africa, where herds are thinned to reduce elephant-human conflicts. As Richard Leakey preached for years in Kenya, Dereck Joubert strongly believes that poachers should be treated as capital offenders, a view presented in the Jouberts' latest documentary, Wildlife Warriors.

Ultimately, though, the Jouberts seem ambivalent about taking on the sticky demands of public advocacy. Instead, as filmmakers, they would rather package science and politics as entertainment, because they believe that a film can do more for animals than laws. "The Lion King will save more lions' lives than any government," says Dereck. "No child who sees that film could grow up and want to kill a lion."

That sounds simplistic, but whether the Jouberts should be labeled wildlife activists or naive purveyors of escapism, there's no denying that they've created new, potent images that touch on some of the culture's deepest feelings about the animal world. In the process, they've carved out what to many seems like a perfect existence.

There's only one flaw in that part of the picture, and the Jouberts are well aware of it. When they arrived in Botswana in 1981, they found a wildlife utopia that, by comparison with overtrafficked places such as Kenya, was unknown. That could change, especially if their films further popularize this sparsely populated region, where the government's preference for high-cost, low-volume tourism has helped keep numbers down.

While the Jouberts aren't misanthropes, they're definitely loners: A while back, after too many people had learned to identify their Land Cruiser from the films, they painted it another color. Hence, for them, Defoe's island-castaway metaphor isn't quite accurate. Their greatest worry is not that someone won't find them, but that too many people will.

"Can we show elephants mating in a Disney film?" Beverly asks. It's early evening, and we're parked at the Savuti Channel, a mile from camp, all eyes focused on two bulls that are wooing a reluctant cow. The question goes unanswered as Dereck zooms in on the giant, aquatic sex scene unfolding 50 yards in front of us.

"It's very rare to see this," Beverly whispers.

Along the water's edge, the first suitor sidles up. At first receptive but then visibly upset, the female wades deeper into the channel to get away. The rejected elephant lingers on shore, looking a little hurt, especially when a larger bull trundles down from the bushes and lures the female toward the shallows. Happier with his attempts, she dallies along the bank and lets him briefly mount her. Then, as if to escape prying eyes, they disengage and vanish around the bend. Dereck chases after them.

Off to the right, breeding herds of elephants are winding through the trees, a long, dusty procession of cows and calves that quickens into a stampede as the animals catch the scent of water. To the left, scores of hippos sigh and bellow, jetting up geysers from the muck. It's happy hour in Botswana.

Soon Dereck comes back in disgust: The mating elephants shielded themselves behind a copse of trees. "I never got a good, clean shot of them," he says, crestfallen. Assessing the evening's work, he figures that he may have decent footage of the herds' commotion, but the truly unusual--a complete mating scene--has eluded him. The Jouberts are also fretting that they haven't found the right clan of actors to star in the Disney project.

Hence, a couple of days later, they decide to drive six hours to visit a series of pans--natural basins that collect water--where elephants congregate by the hundreds to drink, bathe, and socialize. We set out in a Land Cruiser early the next morning, lurching along at an average speed of 15 miles per hour, with constant detours around trees felled by wandering herds of elephants. In all directions, acres of acacia and mopane have been flattened as if by a bomb blast.

When we reach the pans, around noon, elephant activity is slow. The Jouberts usually observe animals for 12 to 16 hours daily but film them for less than two, optimally at dawn and dusk. With little to do during a long stretch of downtime, they share their stories.

They met as teenagers in Johannesburg. "Beverly was the hot number in high school," says Dereck, leaning against the hood. "I'm a very uncompetitive bugger, so I didn't dare speak to her." From her seat in the cab, Beverly brushes off the compliment with a laugh.

"Dereck was a perfect gentleman. His blazer was never creased. But I did not like boys. I just wanted to get out of school as soon as possible and start my life. I told my parents, 'Don't expect me to lead a normal urban existence.'"

Both their fathers worked for mining companies and often took their children camping so that they could, in Dereck's words, "touch Africa." His older brother Eric, a distinguished wildlife illustrator, also exerted a lasting influence. "He has the best eyes of anyone I've ever met," Dereck says. "I want to paint in film the way he does with watercolors."

In the late seventies, after finishing his mandatory tour of duty in the South African army, Dereck returned home to woo Beverly in earnest. While she went to business college, he took a geology degree at the University of Witwatersrand. Their career plans, though vague, were guided by a mutual fascination with wildlife and dislike of nine-to-five routine.

"We knew we didn't want to join the ranks of those who spent their alert hours with strangers who became their best friends, and then drove home to sit in a house for two hours with the person they supposedly loved," Dereck says. "That seemed to us a strange existence."

As newlyweds in 1978, they picked up jobs at a game lodge in Eastern Transvaal. Three years later, their ambitions took them to Botswana, where they joined a team of lion researchers at Chobe. "It was a dual job," Dereck explains. "To observe, helping with the study. And to start documenting the lions on film. That was how we got into this life and into this place."

Initially they worked on a BBC project while they began filming their first major documentary, The Stolen River, the story of how various animals in Chobe migrate en masse during a terrible drought. It took them seven years to complete. Whenever money ran out, they would find commercial work in South Africa or Europe, buy more film, and return to the bush. Their big break came in 1988, when producers at National Geographic Television looked at a rough cut of The Stolen River and paid them $110,000 to finish it. Ever since, they've had a steady employer.

"We've been pretty lucky about getting what we want," says Dereck, who promptly hoists his camera and ends the discussion as a sable antelope strays into view.

Evening at the pans offers enough action for a solid hour of useful filming. Dozens of breeding herds file in to drink--wonderfully, petrifyingly close. Dereck is crouched on the ground when a tuskless cow, wandering toward us, catches a whiff and hits her brakes. Furious at the intrusion, she fans her ears, raises her trunk, trumpets, and takes a few quick steps, threatening to charge. She is soon joined by other females, more timid, who hang back and watch her lead.

The Jouberts are rigidly alert but continue to film while the elephants assess the threat. For several minutes there's a stand-off. Then, reluctantly, the cow turns her head, shakes it at us, kicks up some sand in disgust, and disperses the crowd. Everyone troops down to the water for a long drink.

"What an old grouch," exclaims Beverly after the danger has passed. "It's obvious she never had any children."

One of the voyeuristic thrills of a Joubert film is the sensation of being safely removed from danger but at the same time very close to it. It comes from the Jouberts' willingness to put themselves in situations like this, though Dereck claims it isn't as risky as it looks.

"I never push animals," he explains later, staring at elephants bathing in the moonlight. "If an animal charges the camera, I've failed. But I do like to go to the edge, beyond what a normal shot might be. I think that's the only way to bring something new to a film. Everyone has his own threshold, but I've never been in a situation that's really gone wrong."

The only mishaps he'll admit to are a few "accidents" with elephants. The hairiest took place one night in the field, when a newborn calf crawled under their Land Cruiser while they slept, apparently trying to "bond" with the vehicle. This enraged its mother. After enduring several rammings and a torn-off windshield, Dereck managed to reach the ignition and speed away while the confused infant galloped behind.

The Jouberts don't carry guns to protect themselves. "If an elephant charges, you can always sit it out," Beverly says, "whereas if you have a firearm you might think, well, go for it." Their code of ethics includes "no touching and no interfering," which sets them apart from huggy behaviorists like Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey. "If you've touched an animal, you've tamed it," asserts Dereck. They once rescued a baby elephant that had fallen into a mud-hole left by the ruts of a vehicle, but Dereck sounds almost apologetic for saving its life: "The distress was man-made, so we felt we were justified in remedying the situation."

The Jouberts acknowledge that they might never have confronted such questions--they might never have strayed far beyond the confines of cuddly nature television--were it not for the bloody revolution that began transforming wildlife filmmaking in the eighties. By then, audiences were no longer content to watch Marlin Perkins wrestling creatures on game farms, largely because cable television was showing animals "uncensored," complete with sex lives and brutal social hierarchies. The toothy shark documentaries that followed the success of Jaws helped start the trend, but it was the 1991 BBC series Trials of Life that really awakened executives to the huge market for violent voyeurism. Picked up by Time-Life Video and pushed on Ted Turner's stations with an unforgettable pitchline ("Why do you think they call them animals?"), the series sold over a million copies. Keenan Smart, head of the natural history unit for the National Geographic Society's television productions, believes that Trials of Life helped transform the genre. "That series was a benchmark," he says, "at least in terms of profitability."

The Jouberts decided on their careers in the midst of this shift and have mixed feelings about it. They applaud the new realism but abhor glib butchery, even as they benefit from--and arguably foster--the taste for blood. "When we started, the pressure was, 'Be careful what you show. Mrs. Brown will write and complain,'" says Dereck. "Now there's a formula that says you should have a kill in the first half of the film, a kill in the second half, and then mold the story around them."

The Jouberts say they strongly reject this approach. "Out of the footage that we have not put into our films," Dereck says ardently, "I could cut a blockbuster in two weeks, crammed full of violence. But I refuse. Those images have to be used very carefully. We don't mollycoddle the audience. But we don't throw blood in their faces either." Still, intentionally or not, there's little doubt that their more sophisticated style of violence has helped popularize the trend.

"It isn't often that National Geographic specials come with a warning," a Washington Post reviewer wrote when Eternal Enemies premiered. "But perhaps [this one] should. ... This beautifully filmed documentary underscores the 'graphic' in the usually genteel Geographic."

Another of the Jouberts' concerns is that they work in a highly competitive, increasingly cutthroat market, where jealousy can be a problem. "The rivalry among filmmakers," Keenan Smart candidly says, "can be as fierce as anything you'll find among species in the field."

The Jouberts, with a somewhat bitter laugh, claim that a competitor at the BBC was so sure they'd faked some of their nighttime footage in Eternal Enemies that he conducted a frame-by-frame analysis to try to prove that one of the lions was tethered. (It wasn't.) More seriously, they refuse to divulge the plot of their Disney film for fear of their competitors. "There have been at least two instances when others have heard what we're doing, come in here, and stolen our ideas," says Beverly.

"We're very territorial," echoes Dereck.

Whether or not such a response is necessary, there's no doubt, says Wolfgang Bayer, that the field is overcrowded. Last year at Jackson Hole, he says, there were 240 entrants, and everyone on hand was angling for a feature deal. There was also a sense of creative crisis: "We've all seen the same shots of lions hunting down the same wildebeest. We need something new. Moving up to 35 millimeter, as the Jouberts have done, and adding some Hollywood glitz--that may be the way to go."

Of course, the "glitz"--in the Jouberts' case, the lush, dark, romantic view of nature that makes their films so popular--is precisely what irritates wildlife biologists like Craig Packer, a lion expert at the University of Minnesota. For him, the Jouberts' anthropomorphism isn't just silly, it's dangerous, because it demonizes a species that has enough problems already.

"In other parts of Africa, lions don't 'hate' hyenas," Packer says with contempt. "Lions kill anything that competes with them for food. The Jouberts splice together several individuals and present them as one. It's a false view of behavior."

Dereck doesn't buy it. "Drama has bad connotations in some circles," he says. "But there's fantastic drama out here. If you spend five years with the same animals, it's unfolding in front of you, and you're a fool if you can't see it."

"This place will never survive if governments are fighting off poachers solely to keep these areas stocked as elitist playgrounds," Dereck says gloomily as he pokes a fire. It's nighttime, and we're back in camp, just returned from a quick, unsuccessful attempt to find out what put a pack of jackals into an uproar. "But if the local people have a stake, they'll preserve it. If an elephant destroys their crops, they need to know that the elephant will go back into the reserve. There they'll be photographed for U.S. dollars, which will be distributed to help replenish their crops."

He pauses, as though skeptical of the outcome. "That's the theory anyway."

The uncertainty is telling. For all their cinematic ability, the Jouberts haven't said anything particularly original about African wildlife's biggest problem: people. Their main exploration of wildlife policy--Wildlife Warriors, which National Geographic Explorer aired earlier this year--drew unaccustomed razzing from critics, in part because it was a departure from the Jouberts' normal posture of hands-off aloofness. "[The film] seems like a publicity handout for government officials," wrote Walter Goodman in The New York Times."Well, you can always push the mute button and watch the pictures."

The film documents wildlife destruction by Namibian poachers and the Botswana government's decision to deploy its army, the Botswana Defense Force, against them. Until the worldwide ban on the ivory trade in 1989, Botswana was experiencing a catastrophic decline in its elephant and rhinoceros populations. The 1990 poaching death of the nation's last black rhino sparked a crisis, and the government decided to intervene. The Jouberts were invited to film the crusade.

Wildlife Warriors has some fine moments: It features unforgettable sequences of animals in flight from a forest fire set by poachers. Overall, though, it comes off like a boosterish promo for the BDF, with the Jouberts supplying purple rhetoric about the troops' mission. "Only man slaughters for trade," we're told, "leaving in its wake not only death ... but suffering." Two poachers are killed on camera during a firefight, but the sticky moral issue of people killing people for killing animals is never addressed. Instead, the script sacrifices complexity to hammer home a simple message: Killing wildlife is wrong, often senseless, and illegal. If you try it, it could be fatal.

Perhaps it's unfair to judge a film that originally was intended as an agitprop teaching tool for a local audience. A Motswana subsistence farmer sees elephants, sometimes rightly, as ruinous pests or as a source of extra cash via the black market in ivory. The film argues that wilderness conservation in Botswana depends on the education of these farmers, and it's informative to watch army recruits being trained about the inherent value of wildlife.

In addition, argues Karen Ross, the Botswana field representative for the environmental group Conservation International, the importance--and risk--of the Jouberts' stands against culling and hunting should not be downplayed. "They're out on the edge with that," she says. "Those positions have won them as many enemies as friends in the government."

Even so, notably missing from Wildlife Warriors is the Olympian, hands-off impartiality that the Jouberts apply to the struggles of zebras, lions, and elephants. In fact, as he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1994, the one thing in nature Dereck might like to interfere with is the human population explosion. He sounded almost apocalyptic about the future of Africa, which may contain 850 million people by the year 2000. "It's going to take a big bang to make the human population extinct," he said. "And I'm afraid that when that happens, everything else will go with it. There won't be an elephant left, or a blade of grass, after we're gone."

It may be that like some other environmentalists--Edward Abbey comes to mind--the Jouberts find it hard to show the same range of compassion for people that they brilliantly display for wild things.

They are aware of such paradoxes, including the less important one at the core of their own livelihood. They know that the more enticing their images are, the more likely it is that people will want to board a plane and sample Botswana's natural nirvana. Nearly every week, the Jouberts receive letters from people in the United States, Europe, and Japan who hate their jobs or marriages. Lured by the pristine splendor of the films, they offer to come to Botswana and work for free. "They want to escape to Africa and change their lives," says Dereck. "A woman wrote us who keeps our photograph on her computer. She says, 'It's too late for me. But knowing you're out there helps.' People want to know that someone is here who can translate this, who isn't afraid of it."

The role of shamanic middleman for civilization's mental health is one that Dereck takes very seriously. "The guy on the 33d floor in New York needs to know that this place exists," he says, listening with one ear to the agitated cries of jackals. "There has to be an escape, a way back to the origins. And that's the romance of Africa, that it's one of the few places on earth that's still wild."

All the same, the Jouberts want this exchange--we shoot the images, you experience the romance--to take place at a safe distance. Needing to preserve an authentic wilderness high for themselves, they can't help worrying that their own slice of paradise is about to be spoiled and that it might be past time to move deeper into the night.

In fact, they're worrying about it now. The portion of Chobe National Park where they currently work is reserved strictly for photography--which, obviously, is how they want it. But recently, a new lodge for rich, camera-toting tourists has sprung up in Savuti. It's only a few kilometers away, and on some nights--like tonight--it's lights are visible in the distance. At one point, Dereck turns from the fire and gives them an assessing stare.

"I would like to move," he says, regarding the sight with obvious dismay. "It's time. Not now. But soon."

Richard B. Woodward has written about photography and film for The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair.

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