NHU Africa’s Christopher Mason on growing the wildlife and natural history programme genre

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This week, Sylvain Beletre, Senior Analyst at 'Balancing Act' interviewed Christopher Mason from 'NHU Africa', a commissioning body and production house that has shown that making quality African programs in this genre can pay off.

Q: What is NHU Africa all about?

A: Located in South Africa, the Natural History Unit of Africa (NHU Africa) commissions and produces wildlife and natural history documentaries in Africa for national and international distribution. 

We also run Africa’s largest Wildlife Film Festival and Conference, Wild Talk Africa which addresses emerging content markets, issues facing the industry and fosters public interest in quality content. We also run the Wildlife Film Academy that trains aspiring film-makers and host the Wildlife Photography of the Year Exhibition, which happens in December 2012 at the Iziko Natural History Museum in Cape Town.

Interesting links will include those to our site and our youtube page.

Q: Who are your main clients?

A: Our main clients are international television broadcasters interested in African based natural history content. Channels that have screened our programming include Al Jazeera, Discovery Communications, France 5 and the Africa Channel in the UK.

In the future we will continue to actively market our titles internationally and in addition we are also pursuing co-productions partnerships. Some of our previous partners include NHK and Animal Planet.

Q: What are your main challenges and opportunities?

A: Our major challenge at the moment is growing a sustainable wildlife film market in South Africa and Africa. We have the potential to see a vital and productive industry around this genre of film and television programming, and our task is now to create sturdy infrastructure for the development of this niche. Africa is undeniably an important location for the production of wildlife and natural history programming due to our abundant and endemic flora and fauna. However, a viable industry based here must encompass Africans within the process of production. Our wildlife film academy and wildlife film festival and conference are both integral platforms from which to integrate South Africans into the industry.

The opportunities to tell authentic stories about important issues around wildlife in Africa are exciting because these issues are pertinent and can appeal to an international audience. An example of this is the recent NHU Africa release "Saving Rhino Phila" which deals with the brutal realities around the issue of rhino poaching in South Africa. We have found that the film really spoke to people, allowing them an insight into the foolishness and greed that drives the rhino horn trade. The film is currently a finalist for the Wildscreen Panda -Nature Conservancy Environment and Conservation- Award 2012.
Q: Have you received any other awards?

A: NHU Africa Films performed well at several film festivals. One of our films that did well was "Into the Dragon's Liar" which received 16 separate festival wins and awards. Also receiving acclaim was Nature of Life, Saving Rhino Phila and Gorillas: Journey for Survival.

Q: Have you joined in any major events this year?

NHU Africa had a strong presence at this years at Durban International Film Festival, arguably the most important film festival on the African continent. DIFF provided an excellent platform for NHU Africa to showcase our films and communicate with South African producers and filmmakers around the process of commissioning and producing wildlife, conservation and natural history film. We presented world premieres of “All the President’s Elephants” and “Dragons Feast” 3D as well as a workshop on the natural history genre and what it entails.

As Wildlife filmmakers, we often focus on single compelling stories, forgetting that there are many animals and ecosystems critically endangered by human activity and population growth. That’s why reserve areas and their management are so important. After attending the International Wildlife Management Congress in Durban this July, I reported back on what may be the biggest challenge facing Wildlife management at the moment, the challenge of managing human behavior towards wildlife.

Q: Tell us about your recent productions.

We have some exciting projects in production and a new that have just been completed, including Dragon’s Feast 3D, the first 3D natural history film of it’s kind. Cheetah Diaries, an in-house production from NHU Africa, recently launched its second season. The series follows NGO group Cheetah Outreach as they rear and train cheetah cubs to become ambassadors for the species and travel throughout the country to help educate South Africans on the plight of the cheetah, a species is being threatened by increasing conflict with man.

Q: How can filmmakers and producers in Africa start out or pursue projects with natural history themes?

A: If producers have a wildlife or natural history story, we are in the process of commissioning for next year, so they must send their proposals to us and do so according to our commissioning brief.

We also advise that producers attend Wild Talk Africa film festival and conference in 2013. Our website (www.wildtalkafrica.com) is under construction as we are building a better network infrastructure for our delegates, but you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter until the website is up in a month's time.

The Natural History genre is a broad one that includes topics such as origins of life, anthropology, science, history, travel, adventure, expedition and the list goes on… we hope to attract more factual producers to Wild Talk Africa as we provide a platform for the local industry to pitch to international broadcasters, learn invaluable insights about the international and local market, as well as have an opportunity to be inspired and network with like-minded people. Our festival is attended by over 350 delegates and have included representatives from NHK Japan, BBC, Smithsonian Networks, National Geographic Channels, Animal Planet, SABC, TopTV, e.TV and more. It is a great event for African producers to have access to these companies in a relaxed environment. Producers are also encouraged to submit their film into Wild Talk Africa's film awards – the Roscar Awards – which will be open for submissions towards the end of September.

Festivals are so important to the health of an industry and we hope to see more far-reaching collaborations across this great continent.

Q: You have mentioned the Wildlife Film Academy, when and where is the next session?
A: The Wildlife Film Academy has been running for several years, in exciting locations from Kwa-Zulu Natal to Botswana. But even good things can be made better and the academy will not be running another course until 2013 in order to take some time to polish the curriculum offering.

Q: What makes the Wildlife Film Academy so special?

A: The WFA tries to exceed students' expectations with professionalism of the staff and structure of the course. The invaluable information gained from our professional film mentors allows a deeper, more personal insight into the wildlife film profession and not to mention amazing opportunities provided to get rare and unforgettable video footage of the eclectic African wildlife. This course is an experience of a lifetime. One of our past students – Myles Thompson - won the UK Wildlife Sound Recording Society's Documentary Competition.
If you are a buyer, broadcaster or commissioner, and would like to attend Wild Talk Africa 2013, please send your details to shani@wildtalkafrica.com Likewise if you are interested in sponsorship opportunities a the film festival please contact chris@wildtalkafrica.com



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