Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown (BBC Home Entertainment, NR)

africa eyetoeye_75It captures everything from the sweeping vistas of the Sahara to extreme close-ups of individual grains of sand, and, of course, animals at every scale.


When it comes to classy, glossy documentaries about the wonders of nature, there’s really only one name you need to know—David Attenborough—who’s been at it for over 50 years. Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown, a six-part BBC series now available on DVD and blu-ray, does not disappoint, and even manages to find some new things to show you.

Above all else, Africa is a tribute to the technical capabilities of modern video technologies, allowing the crew, who reportedly used over 500 cameras, to capture everything from the sweeping vistas of the Sahara to extreme close-ups of individual grains of sand, and, of course, animals at every scale from helicopter shots of thundering herds to extreme close-ups of zebras and baboons of a type more typically reserved for Hollywood starlets. As expected, there’s no lack of amazing sights presented in this series, with giraffes duking it out by swinging their heads at each other (those long necks act as whips, and they can actually knock each other over) and black rhinos enjoying some gentle courtship after the sun goes down.

All of this is accompanied by Attenborough’s narration and an expressive orchestral soundtrack, which together have the effect of reducing the foreignness of what has been captured by the cameras, in no large part thanks to Attenborough’s folksy tone and its relentless anthropomorphizing. He also loves to appear on camera, injecting himself into scenes without necessity. I realize it is this very approach that endears Attenborough’s nature documentaries to many people, and no doubt introduced many a child to the wonders of the natural world, but the jarring mismatch between the marvelous cinematography and the down-home quality of the commentary feels a bit colonial, as the series is trying to return to a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, and all the marvels of the world could be reduced to nonthreatening, bite-sized portions to be served up in your living room by a representative of that Empire.

One solution is to hit the mute button, but then you don’t get the identifying information about each scene—for instance, exactly what animals are those, and where are they? Perhaps someday an alternative version of these programs will be released, offering the scientific information as subtitles for those who, like Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, are after just the facts and would prefer to make their own interpretations of them.

That complaint aside, this is still a marvelous series and one not to be missed if you are a fan of natural history documentaries. The first five episodes focus on different locations, while the sixth takes on threats to Africa’s wildlife, from poaching to global warming. The series comes with a generous package of extras, including a “making of” featurette for each episode, and a collection of interviews, outtakes, and unused scenes. You can read more about the series on the BBC website, where you can also watch some video clips from each episode. | Sarah Boslaugh

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