Each year, the Jackson Wild Media Awards in Wyoming, USA, recognises the best in nature and conservation storytelling. In 2023, the Grand Teton Prize for best film went to BBC’s Silverback, about the journey of award-winning BBC cameraman Vianet Djenguet. He spent three months tracking eastern lowland gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“It was thrilling, I didn’t expect it, considering that I only wanted Silverback to give voice to this critically endangered species,” said Djenguet.
Hundreds of movie entries from around the world compete to win 30 prizes at the Jackson Wild.
“I didn’t realise the film would reach such a prestigious film festival."
Djenguet is one of the best natural world cinematographers from Africa today, and has worked with the BBC, the History Channel and others, filming for movies such as David Attenborough’s Life in Colour (2021), and Planet Earth 3 (2023). One of his proudest achievements, he said, was filming BBC’s My Congo (2016), which won him the 2018 Wildscreen Presenter Award. In it, Djenguet brings viewers to his home, a country rich in natural resources, biodiversity and culture.
Born in Brazzaville, as a child, he enjoyed looking after chickens and ducks at his grandfather’s house nearby. One time, his father brought him a Zenit camera from Russia — “a hard, heavy little gadget” — which young Djenguet used to take still photographs.
“My interest in animals and cameras started from that,” he recalled.
My Congo brought him new attention at home and he was inundated with questions by aspiring filmmakers.
“When they found out it was done by somebody from the Congo, it invigorated so many,” said Djenguet, who is based in Bristol. “Young people in Congo really want to make nature films and are looking for ways to get there.”
Politics and national issues dominate the media space and it is hard to convince government agencies or private funders to support filmmaking in Congo.
Djenguet chose to live and work in the UK instead of France to improve his English and, he said, because the French movie industry was even more difficult for him to penetrate coming from Congo.
Natural history filming is driven by the West and dominated by white males.
Djenguet started as a runner (general assistant) and it wasn’t easy getting proper camera work even though he had studied Film and Moving Image Production in 2006 at Leeds Beckett University.
Opportunities, he said, depend on having connections to the right people. It took one film producer to finally notice Djenguet and give him a chance.
Over the past 15 years, he has filmed in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Europe, North America, Indonesia and Australia. Natural world movies by Africans lag behind the rest of the world, more so in Congo-Brazzaville.
“Kenya is connected to the UK and gets a lot of film crews coming but in Congo, I am on my own.”
Young Congolese tend to go for office jobs and conventional careers instead of “looking at the most important things that surround them,” he said.
Being a wildlife cameraman may look like a glamorous job of travelling to beautiful destinations and handling expensive heavy-duty cameras, but the reality is much tougher, Djenguet explained. Days often start before dawn for the best light or animal sightings. There are long hours in the field doing nothing, waiting for a few minutes of wildlife action or extreme behaviour.
He has been charged by gorillas and elephants, heart-stopping moments that require nerves of steel to stay calm and keep working.
Wildlife rangers marvel at his ability to stay up overnight just for one or two shots. Djenguet says that patience, stamina and confidence are essential otherwise you might give up.
His films are about giving a voice to animals, especially threatened species, and marginalised people so he uses techniques that reveal emotions and deeper messages.
“It is what drives me to extreme places and hostile environments and despite the challenges, and you'll get the ultimate rewards.” Natural world films generally focus on just wildlife but Djenguet, 48 years old, endeavours to show people as well as animals, saying “I think animals and humans have the same story that runs parallel.”
He is a technical cinematographer by nature but also a gifted visual storyteller, able to envision compelling story angles and craft narratives that convey certain messages and moods. He won the Onscreen Presenter award at Jackson Wild 2023 as well, for his engaging presentation in Silverback.