ACCLAIMED FILMMAKER PUT KENYAN WILDLIFE ON THE WORLD STAGE
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted September 1, 2017)
Alan Root, the renowned wildlife filmmaker who died late last month on August 26 at his home in Nanyuki, was a Briton by birth. But he spent more than 70 of his 80 years living and working here and all across Africa.
Diagnosed with glioblastoma (a cancerous brain tumor) in April, he retained his adventurous spirit up to the end. With his third wife Fran Michelson and their two sons, Root went ‘on safari’ to Alaska despite the diagnosis.
But it was shortly after his return that he passed on peacefully at his place on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
A man whose films are said to have brought ‘the magic of Africa to millions” of television audiences all around the world, Root made almost two dozen wildlife films. The majority of them were shot in collaboration with his wife Joan in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And many won them awards, including an Oscar, two Emmys, a Peabody, and one from the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. The body of their films even earned Alan an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, making him an officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Among his most acclaimed films are “Baobab: Portrait of a Tree”(1973), ‘The Year of the Wildebeest “(1974), “Balloon Safari (1975) and “Mysterious Castles of Clay” (1978) which was narrated by Orson Welles and scripted by Root himself.
His forte was filming wildlife on their own terms in their natural habitat and without human interference. In fact, he is credited for pioneering a unique film style that made the animals the stars and the sets, their ecosystems. In that way, he introduced a myriad of outsiders (many of whom were lured to this region as tourists by his documentary films) to the habits of everything from termites, leopards and hippos to wildebeests, crocodiles and baby flamingos.
Root is even credited with introducing the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the renowned silver-back gorillas of Rwanda which she subsequently studied in the wild for over 18 years. Fossey died mysteriously and her killers were never found. But her life in the bush was made into the movie, “Gorillas in the Mist” which Root helped to shoot. Fossey was played by Sigourney Weaver.
His own introduction to mountain gorillas could conceivably have put an end to his filmmaking career since one chest-beating silver back claimed a chunk of his calf. According to Root as per the autobiography he wrote and published in 2012, that huge primate came running out from the forest towards him “like a Doberman on steroids.”
Root survived, but the gorilla incident is just one of the many scarring run-ins that he had over his illustrious career. There was the leopard that lunged and bit him on his backside while he was filming in the Serengeti; the angry hippo that bit off a “Coke bottle” sized hunk of his thigh while he was filming underwater in Mzima Springs in Tsavo National Park, and there was even a puff adder whose bite gave him an anaphylactic shock that nearly killed him. Again, he survived but he lost his right index finger which meant he had to reconfigure the ways that he flew his helicopter, steered his air balloon, drove his Land Rover and even flew his Cessna airplane.
Root hadn’t begun life as a rich boy. He was born in London, but his father moved the family to Kenya to take up a job managing a corn beef plant. Root was just nine, and his affinity for animals was already apparent as he kept a host of creatures (including a load of snakes) in the family’s backyard in London. So it was no surprise that he’d one day make movies about African wildlife or that he and Joan transformed their home on the banks of Lake Naivasha into an animal sanctuary for every wild orphan that they found in the course of their filmmaking.
Root started making films about animals soon after he arrived in Kenya in 1946. Born May 12, 1937, he began making movies with a simple 8 millimeter camera while in his early teens. He dropping out of school at aged 16, having found his passion and figuring out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
His first professional film job was working with the German father and son team of Bernard and Michael Grizmek on a project filming the Seregeti Reserve for the Frankfurt Zoo. By a fluke accident, the son died after his plane collided with a vulture and crashed. The father was devastated, and the project came to a halt until Root took up the challenge and finished shooting the film.
‘Serengeti Shall Not Die” earned Root an Academy Award (an Oscar) for Best Documentary Film in 1969. That win set him on a path that led to his making movies produced by BBC, National Geographic and Anglia for its TV series “Survival”.
But what made the Roots’ movies so original was the storytelling skill of Alan. Every film that they made featured a narrative which allowed audiences to learn about hippos, leopards and wildebeests’ ecosystems and lifestyles.
In the words of Sir David Attenborough, writing in 1979, “Alan Root understands animals better than many zoologists do.”
In fact, any number of film critics have claimed that Root’s cinematic work with wildlife rivalled that of David Attenborough’s and Jacques Cousteau’s. He may be better known outside of Kenya than within; but he has left a legacy and treasure trove of movies which undoubtedly will endure the test of time. They will be that much more precious in light of the terrible poaching that has been going on for years and decimated the herds and flocks that he loved to film over the years.
At the funeral of his first wife Joan, Root is said to have wept and lamented over what he called the “heartbreaking holocaust” against African wildlife. He sadly described the cause of wildlife conservation a “disastrous failure”.
When he and Joan divorced in 1990, she had remained in their Lake Naivasha home. And it was there that she was murdered, apparently by the very poachers that she had been advocating against. Her fight had been to save the endangered marine life inside the lake that was being poached mercilessly.
The American journalist Mark Seed wrote about Joan’s murder in a Vanity Fair article and then a book, both entitled “Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa.” Unfortunately, her case was never solved, but the vital yet behind-the-scenes story of her role in the Roots’ rising film career is thankfully recorded in Seed’s thoughtful book.
Even more fortunate is that Alan Root wrote his autobiography in 2012 entitled “Ivory, Apes and Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa.”
But a lot of Root’s life was revealed years before in an extended essay written in 1999 in ‘The New Yorker’ by George Plimpton entitled “The Man who was Eaten Alive.”
Root will be remembered fondly not just for his remarkable wildlife films but for his daredevil streak and adventurous spirit that allowed him to prove the purity of his passion for nature and his desire to capture its beauty before it got lost.