Super-sized safari with Alastair Fothergill

Big cats. Bigger scenery. The biggest screens. Wanderlust trails African Cats with Alastair Fothergill

Tom Hawker
28 April 2012

Alastair Fothergill is a busy man. He’s taking time out from co-directing a gorilla documentary in Uganda and Sierra Leone to talk Wanderlust through this month’s three-years-in-the-making cinema documentary African Cats.

This means he hasn’t had a moment to revel in the plaudits for last year’s Frozen Planet – we reckon you may have heard of it – his follow up to his other modest successes The Blue Planet and Planet Earth.

Released by Disney, African Cats follows two families – one lion pride, one cheetah clan – as they navigate the brutal circle of life on the Masai Mara. It’s perfect for the cinema, featuring some extraordinary hi-def wildlife cinematography and sounds from the Great Migration: when a lion roars, you will tremble.

It’s also very much a Disney film – a tale of mothers and their young – with Fothergill having to strike a careful balance between drama and audience manipulation like never before.

“You can’t stop anthropomorphism – that’s a natural human tendency – but we ran a fine line,” he tells us. “We were very aware we needed a universal rating, we wanted it to be accessible to all ages. But it’s a brutal world out there – it would be dishonest not to show the harder side of being a cat in the savannah.”

Fothergill is quick to dismiss the adventure aspect of filming among some of the world’s most lethal predators. “It’s not dangerous. The cats don’t see someone in a vehicle as a source of food. If you walk across the savannah, you could be in trouble but the Maasai do it every day. I genuinely think the most dangerous part of the job is driving to the airport!”

But having spent three years filming out on the Masai Mara – capturing some animal encounters and scenery that will have you instantly raiding your piggy bank for tickets to Kenya – does Fothergill have any tips for Great Migration watchers?

“The most important thing is patience. When you’re on these safaris the tendency is to rush around. It’s understandable – you’re only on safari once in your lifetime so you’ve got to see a lion, a cheetah, a leopard… But maybe the best idea would be to spend a lot of time with the cheetah – you might have a richer experience.”

African Cats was released in cinemas yesterday, on 27 April

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