About The Author
Alan Root was born in London but moved with his family to Kenya when he was till young. He soon found himself fascinated by the local wildlife, birds in particular, and his talent for photography soon saw him offered a job by the famous father-and-son documentary-making team Bernard and Michael Grzimek.
After the tragic death of Michael Grzimek in a plane crash, he started to make his own films with the assistance of his wife, Joan. He was soon in demand from Anglia Television (for whom he shot many programmes in the Survival series), the BBC and National Geographic, amongst others, for his innovative and insightful portraits of the Serengeti: he was the first to film from a hot-air balloon (and the first to offer tourist flights) and used innovative techniques to be the first to film inside the sealed nest of a hornbill and a termite mound. This last film, entitled Mysterious Castles of Clay, was nominated for an Oscar.
He is testament to the dangers of filming wild animals in their natural habitats, having lost a finger a bite from a puff adder, as well as being injured in attacks by a hippo, a leopard and a gorilla, and suffering from bouts of malaria and river blindness.
His autobiography, Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, covers his entire career, from his first escapades cataloguing African birdlife to the battles with American television executives with narrow views on what might interest the viewing public. Other episodes include the time when he introduced Dian Fossey to the gorillas to which she was to devote her life and his first meeting with Joy Adamson, author of Born Free. Throughout he offers evocative description of the many animals whose behaviour he studied in order to capture them best and the many rescued animals that he and his family nursed back to health.
He also talks about the murder of his wife in 2006 on the shores of Lake Naivasha, which is believed to have been carried out by still unidentified individuals whose livelihoods were threatened by her conservation activities.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Alan talks about the death wish of the natural history documentary maker, the role natural history on television plays in promoting environmental awareness and why he'd like to see bears and lemurs without the burden of needing to capture them on film.
Questions & Answers
You write about your determination to get the first underwater film of notoriously dangerous hippos: "I wanted these pictures, so had to accept the possibility of death, then put the whole issue out of my mind." Is this sort of death-defying intrepidity a requirement for anyone involved in wildlife documentary-making?
No, not for anyone, most of the time one is safely inside a vehicle, or a hide, or is filming some creature that couldn't do much except nip your ankles anyway. But every now and then, for some, yes there is that risk, and I'd say it is mostly with underwater work. There are guys - and a couple of girls - who have dived with killer whales, great white sharks or leopard seals. They knew their subjects, knew the risks, and I'm sure that the same sort of reasoning went through their heads before they went over the side. It's not a unique trait, many people, from racing drivers to front-line reporters must do the same equations.
You express a dislike for the type of natural history programmes in which macho presenters confront dangerous animals. Do you think programmes like this can play any part in encouraging an interest in wildlife or the environment or do they simply function as mindless entertainment?
Sadly, they do encourage an interest, so does bull-fighting and big-game fishing - but the interest is more in the caperings of the presenter than in natural history, which is usually in pretty short supply anyway. I do feel that genre has given wrong ideas to a generation whose understanding and support for wildlife is desperately needed. Thank goodness for the information-packed series that the BBC have been churning out to balance some of that twaddle.
You must watch other wildlife documentaries with a cameraman's eye, as well as that of a naturalist. Do you ever find yourself baffled as to how specific sequences were achieved?
I do replay some of those sequences, and I think I get most of them worked out - and wish I'd had the gadgets that enable such extraordinary images. That said there are some shots of flying insects still have me puzzled.
You talk about the difficulty in getting television networks to invest in your films, especially before you established your reputation. Have there been any projects you were particularly keen on that you've never been able to get off the ground?
Not really, when I started out on my own projects I was certainly on a shoestring, but happy to be independent. Once I had shown I could bring home the wart-hog, every project I wanted to pursue was always backed by Survival Anglia. However, since I retired from filming for TV I have been involved with plans for a cinema film about the research work of the Grzimeks in Africa, and the making of the Oscar-winning Serengeti Shall Not Die that I had worked on with them as a young man. Sadly, unlike the Serengeti, that project seems to have expired.
You've spent most of your career in Africa, along with a few months spent in the Amazonian rainforest. Is there another part of the world that you'd still like the opportunity to film in?
Well I did hit New Guinea, Australia, India and the Galapagos as well, but you know, I really have hung up my 'Dunfilmin' sign. I was working during the best and free-est years for the business, and I now have no interest in struggling with accountants, contracts, producers looking over my shoulder and huge pieces of equipment. Yes, I would still love to see bears catching salmon and bouncing lemurs, but struggle to film them? Nah! I had the best of it, and I'm a Dad now. Maybe I'll take the boys - but otherwise, let it go!
You paint a mixed picture of future of the Serengeti. What do you think is the most important factor in ensuring the preserving of the local environment?
The exponential growth of our own heedless and destructive species is a problem that has never been seriously addressed. There are countless people who are aware of, and concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat and species, but without commitment from business leaders and governments to reconsider the many projects that threaten the environment, and particularly to slow the cancer of population growth, we face an impoverished, and ultimately uninhabitable planet. So for me the most important factor is to educate those masses and get them on side in the struggle to influence politicians. I think wildlife films have made a contribution in that battle, but it is a depressingly uphill fight.