Laurence Tressler

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Last night was the first night in ages when I have not been woken by lions outside the tent. Shame! But what an honour to enjoy a nine-day master class with a filmmaker legend like Warren Samuels. What was it like? Well we were based in an authentic safari camp in semi-luxury tent accommodation with en-suite loo and shower but with a structure that rippled in the dark as roaming wildlife brushed the sides. I awoke each morning at 5.45am, splashed warm water onto my face and then enjoyed an African tea and biscuit. I dressed, downed a bowl of porridge and then grabbed camera bags before heading out at 6.30 am in time for sunrise. Each day was different even if the structure was the same. One morning we found mating lions and I reacquainted myself with the cheetah brothers before stopping for breakfast in the Mara. Then perhaps a lion kill, and a croc kill at the crossing as frenzied wildebeest flocked across the Mara River. Our soirees in the Mara were accompanied by a series of challenging debates as our heads wondered backwards and forwards, with binos to eyes, carefully scanning foreground and background. How can the long-term survival of the Mara be maintained? How can you balance access to this area, a site worthy of world heritage status, and at the same time preserve its natural beauty? And access must not be reserved solely for the privileged wealthy few. Not an easy answer. And access must be available to those who just simply appreciate wildlife, the amateur photographer (and yes amateur filmmaker) and not just those driven by a professional need. But most of all it must remain accessible to local Kenyans. Income needs to increase to protect the Mara but without the need for a massive increase in the number of vehicles or the imposition of prohibitive charges. Up go the binos – a pride of lions, giraffe with young, then Bella’s granddaughter. My heartbeat increases with the sighting of a beautiful leopard and my hands shake as I race to activate my camcorder. Another discussion begins. How can driving discipline be improved and enforced? The off road rules are frequently ignored and cats regularly crowded and leopards in particular, arguably intimidated. We parked appropriate distances away for me to fill the frame of my XL2 with 2x converter but I sometimes struggled to film a cat without a vehicle sneaking into frame holding tourists pointing cameras with two-foot long lenses. Fit all vehicles with GPS? That would do it! Herds of topi, a family of elephants, hyenas, a cheetah makes a kill. We watch tommies and impala as wildebeest gather to cross the Talek. Then idiots in balloons spook the wildebeest that then abort crossing. The migration of around two million wildebeest and the associated dramas is a relatively fragile arrangement but the whole ecosystem depends on it. We are captivated for some time watching the social interactions of a pride of lions – the mischievous cubs, patient lionesses and protective male. And what of the locals? We regularly saw Masai breaking the rules and bringing cattle into the park thereby depleting the valuable grass growth. This is a conflict that can only end in tears. Are there other agricultural opportunities or options available to the Masai rather than grazing their growing herds that will ultimately lead to more frequent skirmishes between man and cats? How can the Masai be encouraged to recognise the long-term benefits of conserving their wildlife assets (and unlike my countrymen) before it’s too late? I filmed hippos and crocs, eagles and kingfishers, sunrise and sunset. And Warren some how made all of this hang together and make sense. His knowledge is encyclopaedic but he answers questions not as a patronising know-all but as one with almost childlike addictive enthusiasm and clearly enjoys sharing his acquired information. He lives and breathes Kenya and it is inspiring to be in the company of such a loyal and patriotic countryman. I haven’t mentioned his ability as a film cameraman yet. Some of his professional colleagues film racing cars. The track is right there; and they know exactly the path that the camera must follow. Some film football. They just follow the ball – it’s easy. Some film actors – they follow directions to the letter, so predictable. But wildlife? The clue is in the name. Yet Warren makes it look easy and turns it into an art form … check the gain…drop the aperture….. overexposed ….. look at the stripes. We manage to notice and appreciate every bird and animal we pass in the now iconic Warrenmobile, expertly driven and positioned with respect to wildlife. My close up with the lion (memorable till the day I die) was his choice as he walked alongside us and then peed up against the tyre. Warren’s extensive CV includes Big Cat Diary and Planet Earth. Mine now includes hanging out of his vehicle with the hand held camcorder, filming from ground level, a male lion walking in parallel with the vehicle. Wild Vision ….. you bet! Warren’s oft stated quip was, “we are making art here chum”. I filmed. He drove, he predicted the wildlife behaviour, he positioned the vehicle to achieve the correct camera angle, he directed using the monitor and if he wanted a challenge then at the same time he filmed me with the handheld camera! We explored at length how the ivory trade problem could be conquered. How do you educate the Chinese and Vietnamese and is the growing Chinese interest in Kenya to be welcomed or feared. Would stockpiling the captured ivory stocks with the threat of flooding the market drive the value and demand down? Then on the horizon far right, he sees movement and a dip in the road far left and an impending sunset in the next five minutes. He drives, positions, suggests camera settings and hey presto my eyepiece fills with an image of silhouetted elephants against a blood red sky. We’re making art chum?….you bet. Every evening we stopped to reflect on the day and stood in the Mara to enjoy a sundowner Tusker beer together …… probably the best beer garden in the world! We enjoyed a lovely meal each evening and discussed the baboons raiding Warren’s tent and then defending their cache. I will dine out on Warren’s stories about Richard Hamster, Sir Bob, the last lion to die and the camp buffalo. All too soon it is time to return home but not before memorable visits to the Nairobi giraffe sanctuary and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where I adopt an orphaned elephant. I can’t wait to start editing the film……I also managed to grab a few snaps along the way.

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