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TV Review: Africa – “Kalahari”

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The series Africa premieres on Discovery tonight with a stunning episode about the oldest part of the continent, the Kalahari. The award-winning production team behind the landmark Discovery series Life explores this fascinating realm in “Kalahari.”

When we think of Africa, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Over the centuries, it has garnered various reputations—where singular words or short phrases that have become equated with a continent of that size fail to capture it in its entirety. Africa is so much more than what a few hundred words could encompass, and rich with so much that has never before been appreciated in such a concentrated way.

“Kalahari” opens with a cacophony of moments, with sharp editing that is at times too jarring, giving me a sense of whiplash. I appreciate the technique of engaging the audience immediately, and of creating a sense of an exciting adventure to come, but there were a few places where the editing crossed the line to too much, too fast; if anyone is sensitive to that sort of editing, this only occurs in the first 84 seconds. From there on out, the editing is flawless.

Viewing the episode was like watching the best ice skaters in action—the grace, the finesse, and the edge-of-your-seat thrill permeated the experience, and just as skaters can make five minutes of a complex routine look perfectly ordinary, as if they were born knowing how to glide and fly when in fact thousands of hours have been invested into their craft, the filmmakers turn 45 minutes of film into something that looks seamless and exquisite, when the seven-episode series was actually four years in the making, involving more than 2,000 hours caught on film. This was a labor of love, and that was evident in all the little details, just like homemade pancakes with that “special ingredient” are especially tasty.

I got rather spoiled with Planet Earth, Life, etc., and for me to invest an hour to watch a nature documentary, it better be worth my time. Four minutes in to this episode, I was hooked. Twenty minutes in, I wanted to sign up for the whole series. The vistas, even seen from my 15” laptop screen, are breathtaking. Seeing this on an HD big-screen TV would be a heck of an experience.

I loved the soundtrack, ranging from the twang of western chords and the foreboding thrum, to melodic, ethereal, and even whimsical. It melts into the background as if it belongs to the scenery.

Actor, filmmaker and humanitarian Forest Whitaker narrates this series, and his craftsmanship as a storyteller shines. I don’t imagine anyone else could have brought the vignettes to life quite as he did.

The camera’s treatment of the animals is a window into their souls, granting us the humanistic sense that, as different to us as they are, they are yet our kin in a deeper sense than DNA suggests. I am continuously awed by how far documentary filmmakers have come in a handful of decades, with innovations opening new doors to hitherto undiscoverable worlds. Twenty-one different cameras were used in the making of this series, including a newly developed camera system that utilizes starlight to capture a wide range shot without the use of other lights, flash, etc.

In the second half of the episode, we’re transported into the darkness and the hope locked deep within the caverns of the Kalahari (the ironically-named Dragon’s Breath Cave, which is cool and serene); this cave was discovered only a handful of years ago (1986) and filmed for the very first time by the Africa crew.

This documentary is family-friendly, depending on the sensitivity of the child; there are very few fight scenes, no gore, and the most terrifying point is a brief cannibalistic scene (twenty-four minutes in, or half an hour in with commercials) where some omnivorous insects turn on one of their own. I would possibly watch this with my 7-year-old cousin if I knew in advance where I could forewarn him. (So, parents, minor spoilers: scary moments include a smack-down between giraffes four minutes in, a standoff between a wasp and a spider about 15 minutes in, and insects infiltrating a nest with baby birds 22 minutes in.)

It’s worth watching every last minute of this episode, as the final vignette captures a tender tradition one would never have associated with one of the world’s most endangered animals. 

This is an Africa I want to know, that no safari could have shown me, and that—up until now—no nature documentary could reveal, either. I’m not surprised that so many executives and filmmakers came together under the banner of this project (it’s a coproduction between the BBC and the Discovery Channel). I’m grateful that the so many people dedicated four years of their lives to make a few hours possible for the rest of us.

Experiencing this documentary, I found myself leaning forward, engaging with the moments and creatures captured, as I rediscovered my compassion and affection for Africa (I first connected with it as a child, visiting my grandmother in Zimbabwe). I walked away with a commitment, however vague, towards the preservation of something as magical as the Kalahari, and I look forward to discovering more about the vastness, paradox, and majesty that Africa encompasses.

“Kalahari” premieres January 8 10 p.m. eT on Discovery. 

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com