Streaming Spotlight - Wildlife documentaries

As the Tiger King creates waves, we recommend films that capture animals in their natural environment

by Amber Wilkinson

African Cats
African Cats
If you've been watching the tale of big cat sales and venal scheming in The Tiger King on Netflix or you caught up with Blackfish after we recommended it in this week's Stay-At-Home Seven and you're looking for a few films to restore your faith in relation in terms of human's animal husbandry and conservation, we thought we'd turn our attention to some more documentaries that focus on the natural world - often in a more positive light - for this week's spotlight.

KEDi, Amazon Prime

It was pretty heartbreaking seeing the big cats in enclosures or being passed round for petting in The Tiger King, so Ceyda Torun’s documentary about their much smaller cousins comes as a breath of fresh air. Her documentary follows the street cats of the Turkish capital Istanbul. The film follows these crafty felines on their daily manoeuvrings in the city’s streets, watching as they go about their business and their interactions with the two-legged denizens of the city. Sharply observed by Torun, who describes them as “the soul of the city”, this is a joyful celebration of man and moggie and their interactions. Read more about what Torun told us about KEDi here.

The Crimson Wing, Disney+, most on demand platforms including Google Play and YouTube (£2.49)

Squarely aimed at a family audience this nature film from Disney was the first one it had made in 50 years. Directed by Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward, it charts a year in the life of the flamingos that called Tanzania's Lake Natron their home. It has a firm story arc, focusing on a chick as she grows and faces challenges, including the threat of Maribou storks. If the anthropomorphism might be a bit much for some adults, it makes the film more easily accessible for younger audiences and the glorious footage of the birds flying over or in the lake is well worth catching in its own right. Read what directors Aeiberhard, Ward and writer Melanie Flynn told us about the challenges of making the film here.

Virunga, Netflix

This Oscar-nominated documentary (it lost out to Citizenfour) from Orlando von Einsiedel blends the beauty of the Democratic of Congo's national park with an investigation into the dangers threatening the last remaining mountain gorillas that live there. The World Heritage site is under threat from oil exploration but also the turbulent political situation in the country that means rebel fighters also pose a threat to those working in the park. Gripping and wide-ranging, the film is both testimony to these beautiful creatures and the people who risk their lives to look after them. Read what von Einsiedel told us about saving Virunga, here.

Grizzly Man, available to rent or download from most platforms including Google Play and Chili (£2.49/£5.99)

If you fancy coming at nature from a more oblique angle, then Werner Herzog is definitely the director for you - and this film is, in some ways, a kindred spirit of the Tiger King, since the focus is on man's folly around nature. Herzog considers the life - and horrifying death - of Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric who appointed himself 'guardian of the bears' in Alaska's Katmai National Park, only to meet his end at the paw of one of them. As Treadwell records his encounters with the animals, in which he constantly anthropomorphises them, Herzog offers a counterpoint regarding "primordial encounters". If you get a taste for Herzog's off-beat take on nature, be sure to seek out Encounters At The End OF The World, too, also available to rent from Google Play and YouTube.

Kiss The Water, Available to rent or by from Google Play and YouTube (£3.49/£7.99)

This elegiac documentary is a profile of eccentric Scottish fishing fly-maker Margaret Boyd. More than that, though, it is a love letter to salmon and salmon fishing itself, charting the mysteries of the fish as they return to fresh water to spawn. Remarkably, though they never eat anything in fresh water, they are still attracted by those flies. Shot in a way that captures the beautiful bleakness of Brora on Scotland's north-east coast, this is a celebration of simplicity and eccentricity in all their glory as well as the tale of a life lived by a woman who played by her own rules. Read what director Eric Steel told us about making the film here.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, Amazon Prime

Jennie Kermode writes: Although you might associate Japan with giant monsters, this beguiling documentary operates at the other end of the scale, inviting viewers to share the country’s abiding cultural fascination with the very small. In Japan, insects are not just regarded as pests or useful pollinators best kept strictly out of doors, but are often cared for as pets and are the inspiration for magical pilgrimages to remote sports where they can be appreciated at their most magnificent. By day, director Jessica Oreck introduces us to a small boy who dreams of buying a rainbow beetle, to a man who keeps cicadas for their song. By night, she takes us up into the mountains to see insects of many different species cluster on an illuminated screen. Steeped in the vital sense of oneness with nature, this wonderfully chaotic film unfurls like a newly hatched dragonfly, more alluring because its presence is fleeting.

African Cats, Disney+ or to rent and download from platforms including Google Play and YouTube (£2.49/£9.99)

Another one for the Disney stable aimed at a family audience, this consideration of big cats in their African habitat comes complete with a narrated story from Samuel L Jackson. Among the animals are ageing lion Fang and little cub Mara, who we watch as the seasons come and go. The film also tracks a cheetah and her cubs, as the protective mum tries to stop her brood from becoming the next item on a menu of the passing predators. While the story element of all this might not sit so well with animal documentary purists, Jackson brings a warmth and enthusiasm to the telling that proves infectious and the footage of the animals themselves is breathtaking and immersive.

Finally, our short selection is Hairat, which shows you humans interacting with wild animals a world away from the likes of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Jessica Beshir’s short documentary captures the nightly trips of Yusuf Mume Sales, who for the past 35 years, has fed the hyenas outside the walls of the Ethiopian city of Harar. Shot in crisp black and white, her film illustrates both the playfulness and the danger of his nightly interactions with the creatures.

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