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15 November 2018

Does David Attenborough’s Dynasties dumb down animal politics?

Animal stories are at their best when they reveal our shared emotional experience, but they must also touch on the ways those emotions are manipulated.

By India Bourke

In some ways the magic behind a Sir David Attenborough documentary is complex: each production involves years wrangling large teams and million pound budgets. And in other ways it is simple: it lies in the nervous twitch of a chimp’s finger, and the fleck of fear in a seal’s eye. It lies in the expansion of empathy beyond our own species.

And yet the launch of Attenborough’s latest BBC1 series, Dynasties, still concerns me. Not only because it doesn’t say enough about conservation, as george Monbiot has recently argued, but also because it says too much about politics.

I have no doubt that animals can feel things similar to anger, anxiety and exhilaration. But do they really have a conception of politics, in the sense that we understand it?

Attenborough’s new series implies that they do: “This is a story of power, politics and the fight for survival,” he announces at the start of the first episode, about an alpha male chimpanzee who risks everything to hold on to his rule.

In a recent interview with the Observer, the 92-year-old presenter also claimed that Dynasties will provide “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts.” The problem with this statement, however, is that it implies animal relationships are somehow purer or more simplistic than our own (rather than similar yet other).

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It also dumbs down our own appreciation of the diversity of animal society. Chimpanzees may favour a powerful male leader, for instance, but among bonobos females are dominant. By only showing us one of these species, the episode sets up a bias in the viewers’ mind about what a “natural” power-hierarchy involves.

These tensions have perhaps crept in due to the episodes’ new structure. By following a single animal group for a full-hour, the new episodes must weave individual dramatic moments (such as when David’s rivals attempt to pelt him with rocks), together into a larger and coherent whole (the fall and restoration of a charismatic leader).

This makes for gripping drama: “From the look of things [the chimps] have also had lessons in Greek tragedy, Hollywood epics and the Old Testament,” summed up the reviewer for the Independent.

But it also creates a pressure for dramatic integrity that may exaggerate certain qualities in David and suppress other viewpoints. At no point, for instance, does the episode set David’s rule against the perspective of one of his competitors, or the females in the group, or even a representative from the local gold-mining community (who we are told are competing with the chimps for use of the forest).

The episode thus leaves viewers with a flat, predictable and unproblematic insight into chimp society.

It also, by inference, gives further credence the tropes of strongman leaders and personality-based politics in human culture too. 

And unlike in the excellent documentary Jane, about the primatologist Jane Goodall and her filmmaker husband, there is almost no reflection on the dynamics of the filmmaking process – and how this shapes the act of perception.

The production team do appear in an extra behind the scenes segment at the end of the film, but only to help support the realist mythmaking, by commenting on David’s natural “charisma”.

Similarly, of all the things the scientists could have been interviewed about, the editors choose to include a quote that compares the chimp’s behaviour to “soap opera” (thus supporting their own storytelling strategy).

Failing to highlight the act of narrative construction, also allows the producers to hide some of their editorial responsibilities behind a realist shield. In response to criticisms that the series doesn’t do enough to highlight human threats, the producer Nick Lyons tweeted: “If there is a human influence on the immediate story, we don’t shy away from it.”

Lyons’ tweet implies that there simply wasn’t much human impact on the animals’ lives to film. When in fact earlier production decisions (about which species to film, in which location) will certainly have helped determine how likely such interactions were to be filmable or not.

The result is a series that dumbs down both animal society and our own. Animal stories are at their best when they reveal our shared emotional experience, but they must also touch on the ways those emotions are manipulated (by politicians and TV producers alike). 

And so much like the barnacle geese, who push their chicks off a cliff in order that they may better thrive at the bottom, I criticise Attenborough because I want him to be better.