Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 037: Wild Life
JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. I remember sitting with my grandma Lena, who is in her eighties and together watching the first episodes of Life on Earth. This BBC wildlife documentary was on how life evolved on our planet and it was mind blowing. First of all, it was in vivid color at the time, 1979, when my grandma had one of the first Sony Trinitron TV's in a 100-mile radius. Life on Earthshowed us parts of the world most would never have seen, like the Galapagos Islands, and for me, it helped make science and evolution real. Here's the director and host, David Attenborough.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: There are some 4 million different kinds of animals and plants in the wild. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive. This is the story of how a few of them came to be as they are.
JARED BLUMENFELD: On this week's show, we talk with Andrew Graham-Brown, who is a wildlife TV producer, director and cameraman for the BBC, Channel Four, Discovery, National Geographic, and PBS. His films have won over 20 international awards, including an Emmy. At the beginning of his career, he directed the BBC’s Top Gear,but for the last 20 years he's focused on nature and wildlife filmmaking in Antarctica, the Arctic, seven countries in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, South America, Mongolia, and China. In making the observational documentary, The Hyena Men,Andrew spent three intense months filming on his own with a street gang on a garbage dump in the thick of Lagos, Nigeria. Recent productions which he filmed, produced, and directed, include Kangaroo Dundee, The Great Polar Bear Feast and Mississippi: Tales of the Last River Rat. Bringing it full circle, Andrew was the executive producer of The Giraffes: Africa's Gentle Giants, which was narrated by David Attenborough. Andrew's current focus is helping document chimpanzees in the wild. I start by asking Andrew, who I went to high school with in England, how he got into filmmaking in the first place.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: When I was 15 years old, I got my first camera. My dad gave me a camera and he took me down into a dark room. That was in the days when we were actually using film and we went through that whole magical process of going out and taking a roll of film and going into the dark room with the red light and seeing your image come up in that dish with all the chemicals. It was just a magical, magical experience, and I'm very grateful to my father because I was completely hooked on photography from that moment.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How did you decide what topics to focus on?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Well, in my early days, you would apply to get onto certain projects that you knew that the BBC were making. For example, I worked with a guy called Ray Mears and he was all about going around the world and trying to get into the head of indigenous people. The Aboriginal people or the San Bushmen living in Africa, or a tribe living in Papua New Guinea. And of course, me, who has wanderlust, the thought of just being able to go up the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea to go and hang out with a tribe that only a previous generation had been cannibals, I mean, that's just a dream for me. To be able to go and hang out with these people and to try and find out about how they live and how they live with the forest. Who wouldn't want to go hunting with the San Bushmen? They’re the oldest people on the planet, to see and hear about their wisdom about how they live with the natural world. My first film that I ever made was in Mongolia. I went and spent a month living in Mongolia in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Recently, you made a movie called Hyena Men, which was quite a wild ride.
TRAILER for HYENA MEN: The wild west of Africa, home to one of the world's most extraordinary street gangs, a traveling circus that use an intoxicating blend of Voodoo and dangerous animals to make a living.
JARED BLUMENFELD: They ride the hyenas.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: They ride hyenas like horses. With muzzles so it’s kind of medieval in many respects. They're very superstitious in Nigeria, so they believe in things like amulets and charms and black magic and things like that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: But after watching your program, I did too. Because like the snakes, they have these very poisonous snakes -
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: That they put in their mouths.
JARED BLUMENFELD: But they never seem to bite them.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: But what I wanted to try and do is find out whether behind the image there was actually sympathetic people that you and I could relate to and guess what? They were really very lovely people and they were extremely protective of me. I traveled most of Nigeria with them. One of the activities that they do is this extraordinary form of boxing called Dem Bay where they - it’s a sort of a ritualized sport. It's a very violent sport and for example, they'll go, and they'll bury their hands in a grave for a week, a human grave, thinking that somehow, they'll sort of pick up the power from those spirits gone by. And that will be transformed into power to overcome their opponent. I found myself with my camera, going into arenas in the back, down elaborate passages, so that's pretty good gang to hang out when you're wanting to navigate the streets of Lagos. You know you've got five hyenas, you've got a gang of 30 people, you've got baboons. Baboons, by the way, have huge teeth and they can do serious damage and bite you. Baboons are much more frightening than hyenas because baboons are much more like humans and clever and they scheme and they look for opportunities when you're off, guard. They can throw rocks accurately.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Andrew, here’s a clip of your daughters talking about you.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN’S DAUGHTER 1: This is our dad. He is a wildlife filmmaker, and he goes off for months at a time traveling all over the world, making wildlife documentaries. It sounds like a really cool job, which it is, but he misses quite a lot of special occasions and he misses up birthdays and stuff.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN’S DAUGHTER 2: Last winter, he was away from home for five months in Antarctica, making a film about penguins. He was going to be away from us over Christmas, which would have been awful, so we packed our bags and t-
JARED BLUMENFELD: They all flew down to Antarctica to meet with you. But you had somewhat of a much more difficult journey getting down there.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: I did have to go through hurricanes and endure penguins constantly projectile shitting all over me and over my camera lens.
JARED BLUMENFELD: They’re so cute.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: They’re gorgeous.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So sweet and yet they projectile shit on you.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Yeah. And it's not just shit. It's shit that's composed of Krill and so it's very, very stinky and it also has a consistency
that is like glue so that when they fire with great accuracy at your lens, because the way to film penguins is to be right next to them on a very wide-angle lens. That's how you sort of bring them alive and bring them into people's homes is by being right next to them. I like penguins, but I also have a deep hatred for them, and of course it's light. When I was filming there as a predominantly that during the summer, you never see darkness so that adds to the insanity. Perpetual light is a psychologically very waring thing. I have to say I arrived with great jubilation when I arrived in Antarctica, but by the end I was, I would say I was almost broken.
JARED BLUMENFELD: You must have to be ridiculously patient to be in your line of work.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Some of the wildlife photographers are truly amazing. I mean, I wouldn't, I try to pick subjects that are easier usually than penguins. I mean penguins are easy. They haven't been through evolution, taught to be terrified of humans, so they have no predisposition to be terrified of humans. So, you can literally park 30 kilograms of camera equipment and touch their nose and they don't flinch. They take turns sitting on the egg, one goes out and gets krill and sort of feed and then they come back. And then that sort of relieves the other to go and do it, so they share the incubating the egg and so they only show the egg for a fleeting moment. And then you see the beak come out of the egg, which is a really exciting thing. And then you actually get the shot of it and you’re very happy and then you want to see the rest of it. Well that can actually mean having to hang around for another two days actually. So, you have to sit there.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Wow, amazing. Just on the ice.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: You just sit there in this, in the snow. By the time when the chicks are hatching actually this, they've produced so much shit everywhere that this shit's sort of melted. And it's this slush. So, let's move on.
JARED BLUMENFELD: The reality.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Let's talk about chimpanzees. Okay. Some places in Africa, chimpanzees are a totem animal and they would never dream of killing a chimpanzee. Other parts of Africa, chimpanzees are on the menu. Now humans have been hunting and killing animals ever since we sort of came into existence. But the problem is now because the population is massive and the appetite for a meat is so large, that the numbers of chimpanzees that are being killed either to be eaten or the illegal wildlife trade, the numbers that are being taken from the forest, it's just totally unsustainable. And of course, one can feel very sort of colonial being a westerner going in and wagging your finger saying, thou shalt not eat chimpanzees. But the problem is literally the population of humans is growing so fast that it what perhaps would have been acceptable 50 years ago is no longer acceptable if we want to save the species. When I was born in 1967, the estimate is that there were between 1 million and 1 and a half million chimpanzees. Fast forward 50 years and perhaps there's 180,000 chimpanzees left. So that means has been an 80 percent decline in the chimpanzee population in my lifetime. Fast forward 19 years, there may be no chimpanzees left in the wild. Well, it's very difficult not to try and think about what we can do to try and prevent that from happening because the trajectory of extinction is happening at such an exponential rate that you know, unless we really step in now, there will be apocalypse.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What are we meant to do with that, Andrew? I mean literally what are we meant to do with that?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Yeah, I mean you're absolutely right, Jared. If we give the sense that it's all over, then the prophecy will fulfill itself, which of course we don't want, so we have to have hope. Hope is the most important message that we can get, but practicality, it’s highly, highly complicated issue because there are so many issues facing them. For example, deforestation, the use of pesticides, people illegally trafficking, people eating chimpanzees, and so the list goes on. I think the only way we're ever going to stand a chance of saving wildlife, particularly in places like Africa or Asia, is for the people that are actually living with these creatures, is to feel that they actually have a value. Not just a value financially, but also just an intrinsic value in being something of great beauty, but if you're someone that has absolutely no money and you've got 10 children and you want to feed them and you want to send to school, you can see why if you own a piece of forest that's been passed down through your family, you will chop those trees down and replace it with a quick cash crop of sugarcane. I mean the story of humanity is a wave of blitzkrieg.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What Darwin showed was that there was a direct descendancy between us and other primates and even that word other, that we were connected, that we weren't some completely separate foreign object that miraculously appeared.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: We share this same family album with chimpanzees. We have a common ancestor.
JARED BLUMENFELD: In very conservative communities, the two things that they're very afraid of are evolution and climate change. And evolution is because I think people want to feel special, they want to feel unique, exceptional, and how can we be special, and yet have a family album that's also
shared with chimpanzees.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: The big challenge is to overturn in our mythology that we are indeed exceptional. That is a very dangerous idea to think that somehow a god of some description created us. To be able to fuck up the entire world around us, you know, to have dominion over the earth. That is one of the most worrying, sort of pervasive thoughts in our society. We keep chimpanzees to do biomedical testing on. There are still circuses in America where chimpanzees turn circles on bikes. In China is a flourishing of chimpanzee circuses, and in the Middle East, rich people pay huge sums of money just to have a chimpanzee in nappies sit on their lap so they can show their friends they have an exotic pet. So, I think the challenge that we've got is to actually overturn the idea that we are indeed exceptional. That is probably the biggest challenge that we have got, that we also need to understand the fact that we are animal. We breathe oxygen, we drink water.
JARED BLUMENFELD: People when they see documentary wildlife movies, films, programs, on the BBC, they think that the people behind the must be very objective, but you're a fierce advocate.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: I probably, through my travels, began to see a common picture irrespective of which continent that you're filming on. Chimpanzees is the thing I'm filming at the moment and you go to Uganda, which is the center of where I've been filming. And the forest is vanishing at such an unprecedented right. Everywhere, you see fires burning. There’s either tea or sugarcane fields that we're replacing the natural forest homes.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we just had a cup of tea, you know, I don't know where the PG tips come from. I suddenly feel a pang of guilt that I drank tea that I don't know where it's from.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: In Uganda, the forest, as I say, is disappearing it at such a fast rate and that really is frankly pretty much happening because of sugar cane. It’s palm oil that affects the Orangutan in Asia, but in Uganda where I've been filming, it's sugar.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So literally, it’s everything that that I continue to the English tradition of having tea. So, the biscuits have palm oil for the orangutan. The sugar that you add is from Uganda, from cutting down trees, and then the tea, also plantations. So, the traditional British tea, maybe we need to just ban it.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Probably.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Maybe we get the queen to say this tradition is now going to come to an end.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: That's right. I’m very good friends with the queen, actually. I'll write to her and tell her not drink tea anymore. The thought of British people not being able to drink tea is almost impossible. I mean, can you imagine, Jared?
JARED BLUMENFELD: Some of the cutest wildlife documentaries are painting an overly rosy picture of what's going on. Some films seem to just show the beauty without addressing the massive extinction of wildlife.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: If you scrutinize the films, even the films that I've made myself, you can criticize them for not actually telling the world what's going on. There's been a lot of criticism about the industry that I work in that the filmmakers are incredibly selective about how they frame an image. If you frame two degrees right, there's going to be a pylon in the shot. Well, people watching their television on a Sunday night, they want the spell of some creature living in this so-called Garden of Eden, not being spoiled by a nasty image of a pylon. So. camera men and women are very selective about what they frame. And if you want to show films that are going to be a shown all over the world, a big criticism has been that we haven't told the world what's going on because there's this sense from the commissioning editors around the world that people don't want the doom and gloom about what's going on. They want to be, feel happy and they want to be entertained and all that kind of thing. But there has been something really interesting that happened in a series called Blue Planet Two, which was a mega blockbuster made by the BBC. There was a scene of a mother whale and the mother’s young whale who was covered in plastic basically and choked and died.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Here's David Attenborough, the director of Blue Planet Two.
DAVE ATTENBOROUGH: For years, we thought the oceans are so vast that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them, but now we know that was wrong.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: That has been one of the most powerful natural history sequences arguably of all time because people suddenly got the
message. Plastic is killing everything in the ocean. I defy anyone to watch that sequence and not be in tears because, basically, what you were watching was this poor whale basically suffocating because of us. But the good news is that a film has made a difference and the way it's made a difference is it really does appear that we are going to get on top of our use of plastic.
JARED BLUMENFELD: The idea that the commissioning editors and the people that produce wildlife films are trying to give us this sense of an unspoiled Eden.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: The good news is I do think there's a change. I think we can be criticized about that in the past, but my sense is when I go to commissioning editors now, there is a change. Everyone realizes that we just cannot carry on making these Disney-fied films. It's our duty. You were talking about telling the truth. We can no longer go to these places and make these Disney-fied films that are just happy films about the world. It would be irresponsible. And in fact, lying to the audience.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Part of your role is documenting things that might not be here 40 years from now.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: I certainly don't want my films just to be a museum piece of these great, exquisite creatures that are hanging onto life now. I don't want just to document something to put it in a museum. You can look at it in many different ways. You can either just look at the intrinsic beauty of the natural world and that perhaps just be enough for wanting to save it just how exquisite it is. In an interview I was doing yesterday, I was talking about how we are all made of the same stardust. Because we have the ability to sort of look forward into the future, ninety-five percent of insects in Europe have vanished because of the use of chemicals.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How does that connection to all living things impact your own work?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: I've never felt any connection with a polar bear or kangaroo or a Komodo dragon, but the connection I felt with chimpanzees. This is why I'm obsessed now. It’s kind of like, I've seen the light, kind of weird way. I'm totally obsessed by chimpanzees because I'm sort of thinking if we can't save our closest cousin. If we can't do that, then there's absolutely no hope for anything else. I defy anyone to look into the eyes of a chimpanzee and not to see themselves and to see their children. There's a lot of hope when you go to Uganda. I've been with people that are working day and night to plant corridors of forest that reconnect two fractured disparate parts of forest that used to be continuous forest. They’re now planting thousands and thousands of trees to reach, to make these corridors to allow for the genetic flow between disparate two different communities of chimpanzees to prevent inbreeding, to give them the fruit that they need, the trees that they need to build their nests. There is huge hope, but what we need to do is build an army of people, a much bigger army than we have at the moment.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us a little bit about opportunities that that law enforcement collaboratives have to bring some of the perpetrators of the trafficking and the bushmeat of chimps to justice.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: There's an amazing group that have just granted me access to go and film undercover with them to see them intercepting criminal syndicates in the highly organized wildlife trade and what's so wonderful about what they do is not only do they rescue chimpanzees from a future of imprisonment, say in a circus or a to perform in the Middle East amongst the wealthy. They intercept these criminals and they use the full judicial process to get them into prison for their crimes and the prison sentences are becoming longer and longer. If you get caught with a chimpanzee, you're going to go away for 10 years. They are called Eagle, and they do amazing work. And of course, it's not just chimpanzees, also pangolin, which is one of the biggest, probably the most trafficked animal on the planet. The chimps still are used in animal testing, the breeding of chimpanzees in order to inject them with say the HIV virus or something. That has stopped on American soil, but my understanding is that the way laboratory scientists get around that is that they set up places in different parts of the world. But we test on monkeys, just not on great apes. So, the difference between a great ape and a monkey is a monkey has a tail, but they're still sentient beings that can still feel emotion. They can still feel pain.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So how did we come up with that differentiation?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: We're great apes along with gorillas, orangutans and obeys and chimpanzees. And then you have monkeys who have tails. So, the great apes don't have tails.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, for animal testing, they do still test on monkeys. Just not great apes.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: That's correct. A chimpanzee has 98 point seven percent of the DNA in common with us.
JARED BLUMENFELD: If you could stop the habitat from being cut down for sugarcane and tea, and you could deal with the international illegal trade in pets and you could deal in bushmeat, those three things. Would that provide a solution?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Each one of those things has sore of a knock-on effect, so for example, if you look at agriculture. Well, in certain parts of Africa, DDT is still being used. Well there’s a community I'm about to film in Uganda whereby 25 percent of the population of the community of chimpanzees have facial disfigurement because they're consuming crops that DDT has been used on. It is so poisonous, and it is so ruinous to the environment, but in Africa they've got these huge stockpiles of DDT, and if you can buy that for a knockdown price, people use it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Andrew, what's your recommendation for those who want to follow in your footsteps and become a wildlife filmmaker?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: I think the first thing is to come up with the story. If you've got a good story, it doesn't matter whether you shoot it on your iPhone or whether you shoot it on a camera that costs 100,000 pounds. It really is story, story, story. We do obsess about image and wildlife photography is always about 8K. 8K is the big thing, you know, ridiculous size imagery that so you can obsess about the quality of image and of course it is lovely to get really beautifully lit, high quality images, but arguably the films that are made on really cheap equipment, if the story's good, it's kind of what it’s filmed on is immaterial. There's a saying from an author in Britain called Robert Macfarland. He talks about the undiscovered country of the nearby. I love that because I'm, for example, about to embark on making a film about my local garage. These two old boys have been running this garage for 40 years, and it's a swallow sanctuary. Every year from South Africa. They’re never left their county these two old mechanics and we're going on a bucket list journey of a lifetime to follow them all the way from Somerset, in green and pleasant England, all the way to the southern tip of Africa, a 6,000 mile journey. And on that, we're going to go all the way through Africa and we're going to look at the world from the point of view of the swallow. What does the landscape that the swallows flying through look like? How's the landscape changing? What obstacles does this extraordinary creature, this extraordinary feat of migration? What obstacles do they come across? One of the big ones, for example, is the Sahara desert that's becoming much bigger through climate change. Will the swallow be around? Will it return as it has done mythically? We have great folklore stories about the swallows.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And these guys are going with you?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Yeah. We're going to build a couple of Landrovers. Of course, it's got to be a Landrover because it’s terribly British.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And they break down a lot.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: They break down with great frequency. Anf of course that will add a great narrative to the film, how do you mend a broken down Landrover in Africa? The good news is that the people I've met in every country in Africa are so good at mending stuff.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, it sounds like you want to keep making wildlife films.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: It sure as hell beats the shit out of working in a bank if I'm brutally honest, in my view anyway. Of course, the money is
not as good as being a banker, but who gives a shit about money.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah, you’ve lived a life.
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: A life capsule as my father always used to say.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What have you learned about our relationship to nature?
ANDREW GRAHAM-BROWN: Well, we're fucked basically, unless we do something very, very quickly to try and sort it out because everywhere I've been, I've seen the hand of man. I want to point my camera, because what else can I do to try and tell people about what's going on? We need to prove that the prophecies wrong and the only way that we're going to prove it's wrong is if we change radically what we're doing. I just think, what
do we need? We need a fucking revolution is what we need.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much to Andrew Graham-Brown for talking with us today. He really has had a wild life. Because so few will ever see the secrets of the natural world around us, Andrew is in many ways our eyes and ears. This week, the World Wildlife Fund published a report showing that between 1970 and 2014, the size of animal populations have declined an average of a staggering 60 percent. No wonder Andrew is calling for a revolution. Next week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by canoeing down the Feather River in northern California. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer, David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a wild week.