CC Magazine welcomes your Class Notes submissions. Please include your name, class year, email, and physical address for verification purposes. Please note that CC Magazine reserves the right to edit for space and clarity. Thank you.
In a new National Geographic film, editor and writer Brian Newell ’05 crafts a tale of the human and environmental threats faced by Africa’s mighty Okavango River Delta.
By Daniel F. Le Ray
he Okavango River Basin, a wild ecosystem that spans Angola, Namibia and Botswana, provides sustenance and habitat to a breathtaking diversity of wildlife. The world’s largest remaining population of African elephants bathes in its waters. Lions and cheetahs hunt the surrounding plains. Hundreds of rare bird species nestle on its banks while crocodiles slip beneath its surface. In northern Botswana, the river turns into one of the planet’s most Edenic landscapes—the vast wetland wilderness known as the Okavango River Delta.
Into the Okavango, a National Geographic documentary film released in December, follows South African conservation biologist Dr. Steve Boyes, Angolan marine biologist Dr. Adjany Costa and Botswanan boatman Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha as they travel by traditional canoe (mokoro) more than 1,500 miles down this massive river toward the delta, a site under increasing threat from human activity.
One million people rely on the Okavango river system for water. These same people, though, pose an ever-increasing danger to the delta’s animal and ecological welfare. The film chronicles activities ranging from agricultural development in Angola to electricity projects in Namibia to human incursion into wildlife habitat in Botswana that are reducing the area’s biodiversity.
Brian Newell ’05 served as editor and writer on Into the Okavango. He and director Neil Gelinas spent 18 months crafting a character-driven story documenting the adventure of a lifetime, one that also encourages its audience to better protect this near-pristine paradise.
But before the final cut hit the screen, Newell started with an “ungodly amount of footage”—literally hundreds of hours of film.
“At some point, you just have to pick scenes and start cutting,” said Newell, who began editing before Gelinas had returned from the four-month expedition. “The most important thing is for people to fall in love with this place right away.”
So although the literal journey began in Angola—where the explorers were escorted through fields of undetonated landmines, a relic of the country’s 27-year civil war—the film opens in the delta.
Once people have connected with the location, “you try to create these ups and downs of emotion to keep people feeling both excited and also worried about the [Okavango].”
Providing structure throughout the film was the protagonists’—Boyes, Costa and Setlabosha—trek from the highlands of Angola to the Botswanan delta.
“That was a great backbone, because even if we were messing around with [the narrative] and jumping around a bit, we knew that these people are thousands of miles up this river with one goal—to get down it,” said Newell.
By journey’s end, the scientists collected data from 50,000 locations along the way, chronicling dozens of new scientific discoveries and shedding fresh light on the delicate interconnections that bind humankind with nature.
“They’re doing all this science as they go, collecting data, but they’re on their way toward the delta. That journey acted as a kind of true north.”
UNLIKE FEATURE FILMS, which have scripts and storyboards, documentaries like Into the Okavango rely on editors and writers to build their narratives after filming is complete.
“There’s really no good word to describe what happens in documentary postproduction. It goes beyond editing. You really are crafting a story from the raw materials in a very writerly way,” Newell said.
Gelinas, who co-wrote and co-edited the film, gave his colleague free rein.
According to Newell, “Neil wanted to give me a good amount of rope to look at everything objectively. Since I was not out in the field [filming], I was seeing it all for the first time, just like the audience would, and could take a really objective look at how we might make this compelling.”
Newell and Gelinas first collaborated on Pristine Seas, a National Geographic ocean conservation project that combines science and media to inspire country leaders, business leaders, nongovernmental organizations and local governments to preserve our oceans.
“Media was a critical part of the project, because a lot of times the way to reach these government leaders is to inspire them and make them feel really proud and emotionally excited about these amazing places,” Newell said.
Working on Pristine Seas, Gelinas met Boyes, the South African conservationist who is an expert on the wildlife of the Okavango Delta. Inspired by Pristine Seas, the pair brought together policymaking and media—what Newell calls “the inspiration angle.” The filmmakers hope that Into the Okavango will make the delta a household name—the first step toward safeguarding its future.
NEWELL FOUND HIS PASSION for editing during his time at Conn.
In documentary film classes, “usually, every person was the auteur—the writer, the shooter and the editor of their own projects,” he said. But in one collaboration, students were told to choose one of five jobs: writer, producer, director, cameraperson or editor.
“I knew how much I liked editing at that point, but that was sort of a cementing moment for me. From there on out, I was pretty confident that editing was where I wanted to focus.”
Marathon four-hour screenings of black-and-white German films taught Newell patience—and gave him the confidence to approach filmmaking as art. This artistic license was put to good use on Into the Okavango.
“Instead of a straight science or expedition documentary, Neil wanted the film to be lyrical, and the great thing is that that was obviously built into the way [it was] shot,” Newell said.
“As an editor that was exciting because it allowed me to go down editing roads that I hadn’t really had a chance to before and get a little bit thoughtful and poetical.”
Newell’s career in nonfiction film, including dabbling in reality television, started in the Washington, D.C., area, which remains his home base.
“Originally it was where I was and where the work was,” Newell said, but after more than a decade, documentary is still where his heart is—even if it’s a tough genre.
“It’s really challenging because it’s just so unpredictable—but that’s also what’s sort of exciting about it.”
And while working at National Geographic can be unpredictable, “you can feel good about yourself. You’re working on something positive.”
As a producer and editor, Newell works on a wide range of films, from feature documentaries to shorts “where we’re targeting a specific political leader and focusing on whatever we need to do to convince them” of a conservation project’s value.
However, in the feature documentary world, where the general public is the audience, a film must have broad appeal.
“We’re just trying to make something compelling. We can’t get bogged down in the science or the policy details,” he said.
For that reason, Into the Okavango foregrounds the human component of the story: the three explorers, two of whom—Costa and Setlabosha—are from the region.
“You just have to step back and try to figure out the simplest way to tell the story and to get to the really good stuff, which is the characters and the heart and the emotion and the excitement,” Newell said.
“We always kept trying to make sure that people were connecting to the characters and also to the place, because the Okavango is definitely its own character.”
Finding the balance between heart and mind—between the beauty of the landscape and the notion that it is critically endangered—is at least partly in the edit. Stunning aerial views of the delta are accompanied by footage of Boyes, Costa and Setlabosha journeying through war-torn Angola, finding tributaries reduced to trickling streams and encountering previously lush woodlands burnt to the ground, forming a “desolate ash-covered zone ravaged by fire” that the locals had set to “flush out animals that fall into large pitfall traps,” according to the film’s press notes.
With these types of documentaries “you do need to find that balance between how much you’re inspiring people and how much you’re scaring them,” Newell stressed.
“When you’re lost in the weeds of editing, you remember that you’re doing this for a reason and the film can actually improve the world and people’s lives.”