International News Safety Institute

27 June 2024

  |  News

Silverbacks and honey-hunters: a journey into the heart of Congo-Brazzaville

By Frederick Martin

Silverbacks and honey-hunters: a journey into the heart of Congo-Brazzaville

Adventure travel programming takes television crews to some of the most extreme, remote and challenging environments on Earth. Recently back from his assignment, seasoned documentary producer and director Frederick Martin told INSI about his exhilarating, but particularly challenging, filming trip through the Congolese rainforest...

When I was asked to direct a documentary series with British presenter Ben Fogle on a journey across the Republic of the Congo, I was both thrilled and apprehensive. Having made many similar films before, I knew it was right up my street but also how tricky it could easily get.

The ambition for the series was to undertake a truly epic adventure: visit traditional communities deep in the wilderness; encounter majestic wildlife face-to-face; experience Brazzaville's vibrant urban culture, and learn about Congo's colonial history and recent conflicts along the way.

This would be a 1500 kilometre road-trip across Congo, whilst filming an ambitious 3-part adventure series.

But there was a catch. We would only have 18 days - start-to-finish, all travel included. I knew from experience it was going to be nip-and-tuck, but also that there are some things you can’t take any shortcuts for, such as keeping the team safe and treating the subject and our contributors with due care and consideration.  

Recce to get it right
There are three main things an adventure series like this one requires to be successful: meticulous planning, a healthy slice of good fortune and a great team. At short notice, we managed to assemble a small but formidable crew, all highly experienced working in difficult environments, remote locations and with remote communities: Director of Photography Pete Allibone, Producer Beki Henderson, Sound Operator Edna Bonareri and local producer/fixer Horeb Bulambo.

Congo’s logistical challenges were a daunting prospect: we would have to navigate terrible roads, hazardous river-crossings and a dense jungle inhabited by wild animals - some quite large. Safety concerns ranged from remote trauma evacuation, tropical diseases and parasites, and vehicle safety, to unruly crowds at a chaotic wrestling event and filming the mighty rapids of the Congo River–one of the most dangerous stretches of water on Earth.
With so many potential dangers and a tight filming schedule, we knew a pre-filming recce was essential, so two weeks after starting production I embarked on a week-long trip covering the entire journey we'd travel on the shoot. Although 90% of my time was spent bumping along dusty tracks, the other 10% was an opportunity to see locations in person and plan.

It was also an opportunity to vet vehicles and drivers – almost anywhere in the world you film, the most likely cause of serious injury is a road-traffic accident. I always make sure to check the condition of tyres and seat-belts before setting off. It’s always worth reiterating to your fixer the importance of experienced and level-headed drivers before you arrive - but the only true test is being in the vehicle with them. In this instance, our careless driver lost control on a slippery jungle track and almost flipped the vehicle into a river – needless to say, his services weren't required on the shoot.

Importantly, the recce gave me face-time with our local fixer to understand and troubleshoot the multitude of challenges we faced. It allowed me to understand the real-life logistics of our journey and local pit-falls such as impassable roads or the idiosyncrasies of local ferry schedules (“oh no, the ferry stops at 12pm on a Friday”) which could have left us stranded overnight on the shoot. The recce was also an opportunity to meet contributors to explain how we work but also explore new ideas for filming - at this point I was still in search of local stories and characters, so my visit provided vital research. For example, local communities near our gorilla research station held rite-of-passage ceremonies for young boys around the time of our shoot but to gain their trust and be invited to film, it was necessary for me to visit in person.

Not every project requires a recce – I've done plenty without - but this one was essential.

Glimpsing the silverback
Two weeks after the recce trip, I was back in Brazzaville with the film crew and the shoot was underway.

The Republic of the Congo is a smaller and more stable country than its neighbour the DRC. This makes it a safer place to operate but it's also a relative back-water when it comes to film-making services: experienced fixers are hard to find and suitable off-road vehicles in short supply (and expensive – close to $500 each per day). Another challenge is the country's lack of infrastructure: fuel supplies are unreliable in the North, so our vehicle convoy included a pick-up loaded with enough petrol for the whole 2-week journey. Remote-location filming is where planning is most essential - for efficiency and also safety.

In some parts of the Congo it can seem like everything's out to get you – dangerous roads, parasites, extreme weather and swarms of biting insects to name a few we encountered ourselves – so we travelled with a safety advisor who doubled as a remote-trauma medic. A reassuring presence in many ways, his expertise extended to setting up jungle-camps, which bought us vital filming time and saved the crew haplessly rigging hammocks in the dark!
Our first main filming location was the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, where we hoped to film Western Lowland gorillas in the wild – but we only had two days to do it. Besides a brilliant production team, projects like this require fantastic collaborating partners to bring story ideas to life. At Ngaga Camp, Kamba African Rainforest Experiences and Sabine Plattner African Charities (SPAC) run a combined gorilla research station and eco-tourism lodge. Theirs is a science/tourism model that's vital to protecting some of Africa's most endangered wildlife. Before daybreak we set off into the rainforest: the team's expert trackers keep tabs on overnight 'nesting' locations of three separate family groups of gorillas but they can still be hard to find – let alone film!

The main risks for this story concern the safety of the gorillas themselves - we kept our team to a maximum of 3 crew to remain as discreet as possible and all wore surgical masks to prevent any risk of passing disease to the animals. Researchers at SPAC always keep a minimum distance of 7-10 metres from the gorillas to ensure the animals maintain their natural behaviour, as well as keeping human-gorilla encounters to a maximum of one hour per day. With thick undergrowth to contend with, this can make observing them extremely difficult.

Thankfully on this day our luck was in – after a few hours’ hiking we found ourselves in the middle of a gorilla family digging for roots in an open area and even managed to film the often-elusive silverback going about his business. It was a truly magical experience to observe and film these majestic creatures up close in their natural habitat.