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10 August 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 10:16am

Why Attenborough’s “Dynasties“ has got animal politics all wrong

Presenting certain power dynamics as natural, doesn't mean they're neutral.

By India Bourke

Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries have long reigned supreme in the jungle of wildlife film. No doubt this has something to do with the vast production budgets, which improve access to the spectacular and sublime. But also with something more universal: their openness to emotional connection.

Be it the fear felt by a seal as it succumbs to killer whales, or the romantic perseverance of a naked mole rat – such an approach has proved catnip for audiences, and Dynasties, the latest production from the snowy-haired presenter, is no exception. In fact, by specifically exploring family dynamics, the new series exploits these connections more than ever. 

The first episode, which aired this past Sunday on BBC1, focused on an alpha Male chimpanzee (also called David), who risks everything to hold on to his sexual mating rights. “This is a story of power, politics and the fight for survival,” Attenborough’s voice-over explains.

Thanks to the wonders of close-up photography, what could have been yet another tale of testosterone-pumped power struggle, instead glows with telling detail. Tiny gestures of hands and eyes are shown to be as key to political communication as the ablility to throw rocks.

And yet, for all that I am sure the new series will inspire a new generation of animal lovers, I am not convinced the series is good news for our understanding of politics.

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The environmental commentator George Monbiot BBC has already criticised the BBC for not using these programmes to do more to highlight the unfolding eco-crisis. And in addition to this, I fear this new series will encourage viewers to think of some political realities as more “natural” than others. 

By following a single animal group for a full-hour, the emotional insights that previously only had to carry a short segment, now have to hold consistent for much longer. To help them decided what footage to prioritise, the producers thus appear to have shaped the episode around the wider story-arc of a heroic fall and restoration.

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As the reviewer for The Independent points out, it makes for a gripping story: “From the look of things [the chimps] have also had lessons in Greek tragedy, Hollywood epics and the Old Testament.”

But it also pushes other perspectives to one side. Instead of exploring the less well-known view-points of a central female chimpanzee, or a young challenger (or even the human gold-miners who threaten the species’ future), we are left with an interpretation of chimp society that also happens to back up 

The result is a narrative that says as much about the producers’ political bias (towards physically strong leaders), as it does about chimp society.
This is not to accuse the series of anthropomorphism, which Attenborough has denied in the introduction to the series’ book. But it does perhaps risk naturalising the over-simplified political tropes it contains.

Unlike in the excellent documentary Jane, about the primatologist Jane Goodall, the camera-crew are also kept firmly out of shot during the film’s main section – pushing our awareness of narrative view-point to one side.

An extra “behind the scenes” segment at the end of the film would appear to correct for this fact – but actually ends up reinforcing the artifice. The camera-crew justify the focus on David by talking about his natural “charisma”, while a scientist’s comparison of the group to a “soap opera” supports the film’s highly crafted approach.

The dangers inherent in this approach are inadvertenly revealed by the producer of a later episode: “If there is a human influence on the immediate story, we don’t shy away from it,” tweeted Nick Lyons, in response to complaints the series doesn’t do enough to show the threats the species face. This suggests that portraying animal-human interaction was beyond the producers’ control, when in fact earlier production decisions (about which species to film in which locations) will certainly have helped detemrine the liklihood of human interaction.

And it is not just animal conservation this lack of narrative self-awareness threatens – but the richness of human politics too. It is fascinating to consider the ways in which certain political tropes reach across both nations and species (like the appeal of strong leaders, or the need for cooperation within groups). But the insular, personality-based approach also risks suggestion that some over-simplified tropes are more “natural” than others.

In in a recent interview with the Observer, Attenborough boasted that the new series will provide “A great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts.” Yet, while animal stories are at their best when they engage our sense of shared emotional experience, they must also show that process of emotional construction back to us – or risk heading into a wilderness of reason and understanding.

In making such  rather than a reflection of the producers’ own political and storytelling bias. 

Instead my admiration for Attenborough’s work also leads me to find fault, much like the barnacle geese who push their chicks off a cliff in order that they may better thrive at the bottom.