From paradise to purgatory in Okavango: River of Dreams

Beverly and Dereck Joubert’s sensational new documentary reveals the true nature of the unique Okavango River.

Award-winning filmmakers, explorers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert’s latest documentary series, Okavango: River of Dreams, follows a cast of wildlife whose destiny is forever linked to this unique desert oasis and its extraordinary journey as it winds its way to the Kalahari Desert, the only river in the world to disappear inland.

Following the tradition of their previous films, from The Soul of an Elephant to Lions and Hyenas: Eternal Enemies, the huge cast of animals’ daily struggle to survive is effortlessly woven into a narrative illustrating just how inventive they must become in order to survive in this extreme environment. Unlike most of the Joubert’s films though, the river itself is not just the stage on which all the drama unfolds, but also the main character in the story of this iconic African Heritage Site.

The first three parts of this mini-series are modelled on the three worlds of Dante’s classic poem The Divine Comedy. The first is Paradise, the area closest to the Delta, where water abounds. Next is Limbo, the middle area, followed by the extreme heat of the outlying desert in Inferno. Through these episodes and locations, the story of the river unfolds via the cast of major (and some minor) players. Featuring an astonishing and visceral soundtrack of rock and metal music, River of Dreams delivers a stunning portrait of this unique life-giving ecosystem – a true celebration of this natural wonder.

We asked the couple to tell us what inspired them to dedicate themselves to the Okavango

Immersing ourselves in the Okavango was a completely new discovery – understanding the desperation and witnessing how inventive life becomes for survival. In the early days, back in the ‘80s when we made Stolen River and Journey to the Forgotten River, we understood how challenging it is for any creature when the water dries up. Rivers are these gigantic veins of life in Africa, and everything feeds off them, on them and in them. We only moved to the Okavango around 2001 and had to immerse ourselves to truly understand it, and to understand it through the eyes of all creatures. We look at the journey of all these incredible creatures and how reliant they are on the water.

A song that features strongly in the film is Sweet Dreams (by the Eurythmics), as performed by Marilyn Manson. Some of the words are interesting in that it shows how everybody wants something. Some use you and some want to be abused by you. And that, in many ways, is the voice of the Okavango. Everything is using it and getting abused by it. When it disappears, they wonder what on earth happened? The river is definitely the film’s central theme.

In order to make complete sense of the Okavango, you can’t live out on the fringe. We lived in all three areas that feature in the series. The first part is Paradise, so we lived up there and got into the water, into that vein. The Limbo section is where we lived most of the time. That is the real heart and soul of the Okavango. And then going out into the desert, which we titled Inferno, is when you really understand the whole body of water. For us it was a very physical journey.

One animal’s purgatory is another one’s paradise – and the central theme in all of this is the water. The cast might be huge, but we always chose stories that – regardless of which animal is shown - centred around the river. Almost eighty percent of the scenes feature water, and the characters – the lions and elephants – are simply your guides on this journey of the river.

We really aimed to show the point of view of the animals, and one creature would hand over to the next, in order to show how interrelated life around the Okavango is. From an opening shot of a tiny bird nesting, we move to a lion’s paw as it steps into frame, as a handover to the next scene. The lion then moves along and the carmine bee-eater then uses the lion as a source of food as it kicks up insects along its way. These symbiotic relationships were key to us, but also with everything being so interconnected, like a spider’s web.

The intense haze of heat from Inferno, and the footage from that part, is really something that stood out for us. The artistry in capturing the animals in that haze of intense heat and lack of water was really special. The desert extension of the Okavango is exactly the same as the actual Okavango, the only difference is the three or four meters of water. The surface is still Kalahari sands, it’s just the water that is missing. But, the opening part of Inferno (episode three) features these heat waves over images of this herd of zebras moving through the desert. They’re all out of focus because of the intense heat, so the water, the river, is in the air, basically on top of the desert. We used some Pink Floyd-type music and the scene is very symbolic of this subtle idea of “water” that runs through the entire series.

When you look at a desolate place like that, it’s almost a canvas, and the animals become the art, especially when seen from the air. We did an immense amount of hours from the air with the helicopter gimbal. It was used in the military and is very steady and very high up, so it doesn’t affect the animals. What we captured from the air was exquisitely beautiful, but at the same time it gives the viewer a better understanding of how remarkable the place itself is, the beauty of the Okavango. That truly stands out for us, beyond focussing on a single species.

Going underwater with giant crocodiles was another highlight for us. Being underwater and having these leviathans swimming above you, made for some incredible imagery. We had a crew that went and laid down some remote go-pro underwater cameras to try and capture these crocodiles’ comings and goings, in addition to the dive crews working elsewhere. When we went back to collect the cameras, five or seven of them had crocodiles sitting on them. We had to walk away from those (laughs). We lost a lot of cameras!

While there has certainly been a shift from merely romanticising Africa (in film and literature), to focusing on conservation and upliftment, the two are very closely linked.

You simply cannot be moved to advocacy without love for your topic, so we’re definitely still romantics. Every day that we go out into the bush we still fall in love with the puff of steam that escapes from the lion cub’s mouth in the early dawn. This film contains beautiful examples of this natural world that we live in … that we might lose. And that is the transition – we simply can’t have one without the other. The final part of this Okavango series points to what we stand to lose if we don’t have these crucial conversations around conservation. Every now and then, a stronger statement can be made by showing the ghastly option that could lie ahead of us, which becomes even more ghastly if you understand how truly precious it is, this place that we might lose.

Watch Okavango: River of Dreams on 5, 6 and 7 September at 18:00 on National Geographic Wild (182)

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