By Stephanie Merry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:04 PM
Filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert have made a career of roughing it in the African bush to chronicle the dwindling populations of the animal kingdom. Over nearly three decades and 22 films, the husband-and-wife team has lived among rhinos, leopards and, for National Geographic's "The Last Lions," which opened Friday in theaters, the buffalo and lionesses that roam Botswana's Okavango Delta.
To capture the footage for "Lions," the mid-50s pair, natives of South Africa, spent years living a seven-hour drive from civilization, sleeping in tents and waking every morning at 4 to ford crocodile-populated waters to track their subjects with cameras at the ready.
"We could sit for 16 hours and not roll a frame," said Beverly via phone from Los Angeles.
That extreme brand of patience might explain why, like the lions in the film, the Jouberts are an endangered species.
"The time when [filmmakers] had the luxury of time and space and budget has come and gone," Dereck said.
What's more, in a medium that favors burly men tussling with alligators on screen, the Jouberts are conspicuously absent from their movies.
"When they film, they go out of their way not to disturb or even be noticed by the animals they're filming," said Chris Palmer, American University's distinguished film producer-in-residence, as well as the director of AU's Center for Environmental Filmmaking. "If the animals look up and see the camera, the Jouberts feel they've failed."
Palmer has been critical of the wildlife film industry and has exposed what he sees as unethical practices in his 2010 book, "Shooting in the Wild." To him, two competing forces drive nature documentaries: either conservation or ratings and ad dollars. If many filmmakers in the second camp goad animals to get perfect shots, the Jouberts come across as distinctly above the fray, if not outright saintly. The couple landed in Chapter 10, which looks at a handful of Palmer's heroes of the industry.
As explorers-in-residence with National Geographic, a group that also includes Titanic explorer Robert Ballard and Giza pyramid archaeologist Zahi Hawass, the Jouberts have enjoyed exceptional freedom. Some filmmakers get enough funding for just two days and a directive to capture sensational footage - leading to renting and sometimes even abusing animals - but the Jouberts have time to get acquainted with their subjects and tease out a story line, which is apparent with the strong narrative thread in "The Last Lions."
The movie follows a lioness called Ma di Tau (mother of lions), the single mother of three cubs, and her unrelenting struggle to ensure the safety of her offspring. It's a story that feels remarkably universal, employing the emotions of a family drama and the suspense of a war film. With more than 100 hours of footage, the Jouberts had a few stories to choose from, which is a necessary precaution.
"There's no way for us to predict any of the scenes," Dereck said. A main character could die or disappear, leaving a hole in the story and rendering the filmmakers emotionally drained.
When Ma di Tau found a cub gravely injured, the scene was almost too much for the couple to capture.
But they did, and the result might be the film's most poignant moment. The tiny cub attempts to follow her mother, propelling herself forward with her front paws as the back half of her body lay limp. Finally, mewing, she gives up, while her mother has no choice but to walk away.
As difficult as these moments can be, the pair has resolved not to intervene unless the animals are threatened by something man-made. Otherwise, they stay 20 to 30 yards away. The lions don't always follow the same rules.
"It's 120 to 130 degrees out there. These lions look for the nearest shade and, quite often, that's us," Dereck said, referring to the couple's vehicle, which the lions will occasionally crawl under to cool off. "It's terrible for filming," he joked.
Given their experience with lions, the close proximity to the kings of the jungle isn't nearly so frightening as another species: crocodiles.
When making their daily pilgrimage to the film site on Duba island, the couple had to drive through water. On more than one occasion, they drowned a vehicle and had to swim out through waters so dangerous even the lions are wary of setting foot in. Once, the couple also lost $2 million worth of camera equipment.
"That hurt worse than any crocodile bite," Dereck said.
The pair's daring will be rewarded with "The Last Lions." For the first time, National Geographic will donate all profits from the film to the conservation effort aimed at the lion population, which has shrunk from 450,000 to 20,000 in 50 years.
"If things aren't done pretty quickly on the ground, they could be gone within a couple of decades," said National Geographic Society President Tim Kelly. And until that changes, the Jouberts have no intention of going anywhere.