Capturing wild film footage

By , Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Animals roam the airwaves in vast numbers. What with so many cable stations offering animal documentaries, to say nothing of "shockumentaries" (like Fox's "When Animals Attack"), it can be difficult to choose.

A haven for nature lovers is always a National Geographic Explorer special, the newest of which, "Wild Passions" (TBS, Jan 27 at 8:05 p.m.), takes us behind the camera to meet some of the world's greatest documentarians. Finally, we have a film that details the art of nature photography.

The men and women who hide in the brush, camouflaging cameras and selves for hours, days, weeks, and months on end lead difficult, almost austere (and sometimes perilous) lives to bring us the truth about animal behavior. Capturing the lives of animals on film has evolved into an art in its own right - an art with an ethical code. That code is all about balance - an antidote to the sensationalism so often found on television.

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"Just to show predatory killing - it's too much like pornography," says Beverly Joubert, one of the featured filmmakers who works with husband Dereck. "It is so important to give context, to show the balance in nature."

Her husband agrees: "When you see a predator hunting, one animal catching another, it is a very strong force, a powerful image, that takes over." He points out that it is the filmmaker's responsibility to show the other side - the lioness or the jackal feeding her young, playing with her babies, or teaching them the tricks of the trade.

But he adds that wildlife films can't be "Bambi" either - the sentimentalization of nature leads to trouble when naive humans don't treat wild animals with the proper respect. The Jouberts are very good at what they do because they go in "knowing and respecting the animal and being conscious of the flick of an ear or the way a tail moves - knowing what that means," Dereck says.

The Jouberts have spent their careers in the bush in their native Botswana and elsewhere in Africa photographing the private lives of elephants and lions, primarily. They don't own a home or apartment. They live in tents, and they love it. The lifestyle works for them in several ways, says Dereck.

"On a daily basis it is fulfilling to go out together and experience how life has been in Africa for thousands of years. Then, it is a rare privilege to see the real behavior of lions, to study them for two years or more, to see them in every season. And many of our films we have pursued with a passion. We've wanted to make a difference, and we have made a difference.

"We do lobby against crimes against animals. One of the great benefits of doing wildlife photography is the credibility it gives you," says Dereck. He tells of making a film about young male lions. He took his footage to the president of Botswana who was deeply impressed by the intelligence and grace of the lions. When the Jouberts told the president that most of the lions in the film had been subsequently killed by hunters, the law was changed. Now only eight lions are allowed to be culled by hunters, down from 100 a year. So the Jouberts have saved the lives of 92 lions a year, plus the lives of females who depend on them, and their offspring - which amounts to thousands of lions.

"Watching a nature program does help people remain in touch with nature," says Beverly. "We do get a lot from animals. With pets we get and give unconditional love. But the same is true with wild animals - we get and we give to each other all the time."

"Wild Passions" follows the adventurous lives of several other filmmakers as well as the Jouberts. We see one couple track polar bears only to narrowly escape the clutches of a large male. Another photographer captures the lives of birds of prey. Another couple handles the insect world.

"I don't think viewers ever tire of nature photography," says producer John Burnette. "The photographers really do get you right in there with the animals to see things we seldom have the opportunity to observe in daily life.

"Clearly all these people are driven by a tremendous love for animals."

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