I was so pleased to see the award-winning film “Jago - A Life Underwater” on BBC 4 recently. It won two major top wildlife awards: one at Jackson Hole in 2015 with the Grand Teton Award and the Golden Panda at Wildscreen in 2016. However, it took some time for this stunning masterpiece to make its way on BBC 4, even if it is their lowest rating channel. True, it fits very comfortably there because its style is similar to other content found there; but surely, you may ask, if these masterpieces are so great, why are they not shown to a larger audience and aired on popular channels like BBC ONE?
“Jago” is not the only film that has been given this sort of treatment; some are never seen on any British TV channel. For instance, “Green” by Patrick Rouxel, is documentary about a rescued orang-utan who is the victim of the expanding palm oil plantations that are demolishing the wild rainforests. It has never been shown on British TV. So why are these major winning films being given the snub by major broadcasters?
For the record, these films are usually awarded top prizes by the wildlife filmmaking community, not by audiences or broadcasters. So what makes them winners for filmmakers and not broadcasters?
When watching Jago for the first time you may think you are not watching a wildlife documentary. It is so different to regular wildlife films. In fact you may even think you are watching a movie. In some ways it is. The film is a reconstructed drama-documentary of the life of a free diving hunter of the sea from when a boy to old age. Key to making this film is the main character – an 80-year old man Rohani who lives on the stunningly scenic Togian Islands, off Sulawesi in Indonesia. The story is true and the old man who tells the story in the film is real.
Rohani is also known as Jago - Master - his aged rugged face, a twinkle in his eye combined with his fit smooth body is sharply shaped by his life long relationship with the sea. He lives in a stilt house right over the water. He tells his life story with few words. After discovering his natural ability to free dive deep to the bottom of this rich coral garden as a young boy, he becomes one with sea, and soon he is famous for his extraordinary feat within the fishing community. The pivotal moment in his life is when he believes he is responsible for the death of his son, who drowns following his footsteps as a hunter, and now in old age he questions his own ability to continue as a hunter himself. The take away message is clear: respect the sea; but it is more than that, it is the total reliance of one man on this precious resource, a connection that keeps him alive both physically and spiritually.
James Morgan and James Reed and their team have beautifully constructed shots that are both magical and immersive. There’s no question that these filmmakers are highly adept in using their visual literacy by crafting every shot to tell the story. If a successful wildlife film is capable of transporting us to another world, then this film does precisely that. What grips you to the end is the intimate and tenuous relationship between one man and the sea.
I believe the success of this film is down to the filmmakers’ great love for their subject. Every shot is dramatically constructed, every edit carefully executed, every musical note composed in perfect harmony with the story line. Its a love affair that swallows you. It is that which makes it a winner.
Whilst popular TV landmark films will also have the same high standards, they will rarely be made in this way. The form of this film and its sensibility is not in keeping with most popular channels; it simply doesn’t fit comfortably within the brand of these channel. However, the fact they are different makes them stand out; they push the boundaries of filmmaking into new areas, which gives it the winning edge. Over the years I have been making films for broadcasters there’s been a change in the shape of documentaries with more and more keeping with a set format, so instead of broadening out they are turning in to reliable structures, some would say they are more formulaic. So are we ever going to see more films like Jago in the future? Well, we know that the way we are viewing content on TV is changing dramatically. Blue Ant Media, a distribution company, has put Jago in its catalogue to be sold to TV, but I’d be surprised if its sales will ever match that of Planet Earth 2. Perhaps “Jago” will be seen on digital platforms such as Netflix, which I believe is a perfect home for it. It certainly would underline the shift in the way we now see such beautifully crafted films.
But some winning films are not so lucky. In 2009 “Green” won the same top awards, including an astonishing 35 international awards at various wildlife film festivals, but it was never shown on British TV. Only Al Jazeera channel ever showed it. It went further in the form of filmmaking. There is no commentary, relying on the engaging visuals to tell the story. Again it’s high in visual literacy, and it successfully transports you into the world where orang-utans are being brutally ousted out of their homes in the rainforests. Green, one of these orang-utans, is the principle character. We follow her from when she is just been rescued on the back of a pickup on the way to an animal hospital where she awaits treatment. The film cleverly flashes back to the rainforest to explain why Green is critically ill in hospital. Close to the end, the film identifies the logging companies and the palm-oil industries who are responsible for the destruction of these forests homelands, which makes it difficult for most broadcasters to carry. The film ends sadly when our rescued heroine Green dies.
Like “Jago”, “Green” was not made with a broadcaster at the start of production. They are all self funded by the producers using their credit cards, which perhaps is a clue as to why they are rarely shown on TV. Broadcasters like to have their say in the film right from the beginning, so it will fit their channel brand. Any changes would be agreed and made from the beginning. But who knows whether either of these films would have been as successful, if they had? But having a broadcaster on board at the start doesn’t reduce your chances of success. In contrast two nature documentaries that were made for mainstream TV “On A River in Ireland” and “Broken Tail”, produced by Cepa Giblin and John Murray and presenter Colin Stafford Johnson, have also won these top awards, so proving that the TV format can win these accolades. They too had the right ingredients for success – a true passion for the subject, a great story well told with a strong personal protagonist. This along with all the magic of strong cinematography and high post–production values and genius to deliver an engaging and memorable film.
You can see “Jago – A Life Underwater” on BBC iPlayer (UK only) until 28th June 2017 and “Green” on YouTube here