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‘The Flood’ Filmmaker Talks Importance of Making Natural History Storytelling ‘Accessible’

As a fourth generation Botswanan, filmmaker Brad Bestelink spent his entire life watching the waters of the Okavango Delta rise every winter, bringing with them elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, hyenas and other awe-inspiring animals. Now he is sharing that experience with a wide audience through his new two-part documentary, “The Flood,” for National Geographic.

“It’s so bizarre to see that change,” Bestelink tells Variety. “You really have to see a cycle to really understand it — to really metabolize what it’s about. Eight thousand square kilometers of Savannah becomes water, basically. It’s not just a tidal shift. It’s naturally a complete change of environment.”

“The Flood,” which is narrated by Angela Bassett, focuses on the biodiversity in the Okavango Delta, showing just how many animals come together in one area. During the winter, when the Okavango waters rise, the animals descend on the area. And as the waters recede, the animals are left to fend for survival until it happens again a few months later. To capture it all, Bestelink says he and his team “were bouncing all over the place, covering the full breadth of what the Okavango represents — different areas, different habitats.”

“To get the behavior, you have to do the time. And it’s very difficult to just get that behavior just by dropping into a place and dropping out of a place,” he continues. “So we will embed in an area that we know is productive and regardless of what has been commissioned, and then I’ll extract what I need.”

As co-founder of the Natural History Film Unit, Botswana, Bestelink has become an expert at this kind of working environment, and so has his team, who lives and works in 4×4 trucks, driving around and filming during the day and sleeping on the car’s roof at night. Bestelink will film for a week or two, then go back to town to recharge and refuel and see what’s happening in the outside world.

“When I am in town, I’m a sort of obsessive news watcher,” Bestelink says. But even at the hyper-speed at which news moves in 2018, he has noticed that the world at large doesn’t change too much, ultimately, while he’s off the grid.

“The reality is not a hell of a lot of changes from week to week, and it’s really nice not being tied to the tune-in to what’s happening, tied to what the politics and what’s going on in the world. It’s nice to extricate yourself,” he says.

That’s the purpose he hopes nature documentaries like “The Flood” can serve for people who can’t disconnect for weeks at a time. For a few hours, they can focus on the drama of the animal kingdom rather than the political world.

“In a time when things can seem particularly chaotic, wildlife documentaries like ‘The Flood’ provide an element of escapism, allowing viewers to be transported to the far reaches of the globe, explore fascinating places, and get a close up look at some of the world’s most majestic animals in their natural habitats,” says Geoff Daniels, executive vice president of global unscripted entertainment at National Geographic Channels.

Bestelink also works on the network’s “Savage Kingdom,” currently in its third season, about African predators. He feels it is his job to draw direct links between animal and human behavior in his storytelling regardless of the specific subject matter.

“It’s making it accessible. There’s a place for dry scientific information but it’s not for everybody,” he says. “There’s a finite audience that watches natural history.”

Once people identify more closely with animals, Bestelink believes they feel more passionately about conservation and the planet — something he also feels very passionately about.

“There’s no constructing narratives. We haven’t shied away from showing what these animals are. They’re predators; they kill things. So there’s a lot of what a lot of people call brutality in it, but it’s honest. That has to go with it. I think people are not being awoken emotionally when everything is just sort of easy watching. I think you need to have a certain amount of real life,” he says.

Bestelink also believes “there’s such a detachment” for certain people. Using an analogy of seeing steaks in a supermarket and thinking the meat just comes from the shelf without acknowledging the deeper story behind it, he says “it’s important that we get back to get back to being in touch and real about the environment and to just engage.”

Bestelink hopes “The Flood” will also inspire people to travel to Botswana. Ecotourism is a large part of why the country has been able to preserve such large swaths of land — it makes money in a “high cost, low impact” system.

“Travel with purpose; travel with responsibility; go to places where you know that you’re contributing directly to saving those areas. Travel knowing that you’re positively giving back. In a country like Botswana, that’s what puts a premium on our wildlife. By traveling you’re feeding into conservation,” he says. “We need to have these wild protected areas left. If we don’t have them, it’ll affect us [for generations]. The environment’s at a dangerous crossroads. We have an opportunity to fix it; we just need to try.”

“The Flood” premieres Sunday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic.

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