Wildlife documentaries have come along in leaps and bounds since their entrance into cinema in the mid-1950s. With David Attenborough leading the charge, the genre has developed its own innovative filmmaking techniques. Over time, with the advancement of technology, wildlife documentaries have gained the ability to put us right in the middle of an animal’s natural habitat, allowing us to witness wild behaviour that would otherwise be completely unknown to us.
While wildlife documentaries are regularly produced, those that focus on one species or a lone incident are less commonplace. These are far more intimate documentaries, and the best have the ability to show how animals respond to the presence of humans within their environment.
Here are my top 5 picks for wildlife documentaries with a singular focus.
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Virunga is a national park in the Congo that is protected habitat for mountain gorillas. With the encroaching danger of oil companies wanting to drill on the edge of the park, the documentary explains the political history of the area, and puts a microscope on those who are serving to protect the mountain gorillas that rely on this park for survival. While it has more of a focus on its human subjects, Virunga still takes the time to introduce us to the individual gorillas residing in the park and tells us the stories of how they each came under the protection of the rangers. Each gorilla has its own strong personality that shines through interaction with their caretaker André Bauma and one another.
Tyke Elephant Outlaw (2015)
Director: Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore
This is a hard one to watch. Tyke Elephant Outlaw is about a circus elephant that killed her trainer during a circus performance, then broke free into the streets of Honolulu where she was eventually shot dead by police officers.
Directors Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore don’t shy away from showing the live news footage from that day, even down to close-ups of the elephant being shot. The documentary repeats a lot of its vision throughout, but this never makes it any easier to watch.
What lets this documentary down is it’s timing. The incident took place in 1994, so at times it feels like it has been made too late to have any significant impact. Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting, informative and emotionally exhausting documentary.
Director: Ceyda Torun
Kedi is a less serious documentary about the thousands of cats that live on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey. Focussing on just seven cats, we follow each one as they perform their daily routines and survive on the streets.
The documentary mainly consists of observational footage intermixed with interviews with the people who regularly interact with each cat. The cats each have a distinct personality that comes to light as we follow them on his or her adventure. This has to be one of the less emotionally charged documentaries on the list, however that in no way detracts from its charming, and at times, comical nature.
Project Nim (2011)
Director: James Marsh
Project Nim is the follow up to director James Marsh’s previous documentary success Man On a Wire. The documentary follows the life of Nim, a chimpanzee who is taken from his mother as a baby and brought up as a human child. The experiment, originally devised to see if chimpanzees could grasp the human language through the use of sign language in a human child’s environment, ultimately became an experiment on nature vs. nurture.
Given the ethics that are now involved in using animals in science experiments such as these ones, it is both heartbreaking and bizarre to see the life of this particular chimpanzee play out on screen. Intertwined with Nim’s story are the people who were involved intimately in his life at certain points. The film is made up of archival footage and photos of Nim, but it’s the interviews with the people looking back on the experience that are most interesting, especially in some of the regret and guilt that is expressed now that they are able to view the events retrospectively.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Blackfish is one of my favourite movies of all time. The documentary discusses killer whales being held in captivity at entertainment parks like Seaworld and the psychological effects it has on them. The focus is on one specific killer whale called Tilikum, and the numerous incidents that have occurred between him and his various trainers.
The documentary is comprised of interviews with past trainers, witnesses and family members of those who have been involved in accidents involving Tilikum, scientists and professors who study killer whales, and even a gentleman who used to work on a boat capturing the whale calves to be sold to the likes of Seaworld.
Rather than becoming a manhunt for Tilikum, the documentary offers an intelligent insight into Tilikum’s past, and unpacks reasons for his behaviour, all while educating people on killer whales and the detrimental effect captivity has on them.
Virunga image courtesy of Netflix Inc. & IMDb, Tyke Elephant Outlaw image courtesy of ABC Commercial & Honolulu Star Advertiser, see tykeelephantoutlaw.com, Kedi image courtesy of Hi Gloss Entertainment, Oscilloscope & IMDb, Project Nim image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution, Roadhouse Productions & IMDb and Blackfish image courtesy of Madman Entertainment, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures & IMDB.