x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Filmmaker goes wild in the UAE

We talk to the documentary-maker Chadden Hunter, in Abu Dhabi for his latest project, Wild Arabia.

Chadden Hunter, the maker of Wild Arabia at the Royal Meridien hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Chadden Hunter, the maker of Wild Arabia at the Royal Meridien hotel in Abu Dhabi.

Sitting in the plush surroundings of Le Royal Meridien in Abu Dhabi, Chadden Hunter resembles many of the high-flying business people dotting the lobby.

But the Australian natural and wildlife filmmaker feels more at home in the world's most extreme terrains, such as the choppy waters of the Antarctic Seas or the Himalayas.

Hunter arrived in the UAE last week - just in time for the Liwa Date Festival - to begin shooting the new BBC nature documentary Wild Arabia, which aims to reveal some of the region's hidden natural beauty to the rest of the world. The three-part, high-definition series will be shot over the coming 12 months - more than a third of it in the UAE this winter, with the assistance of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission - and is scheduled to be broadcast in early 2013.

The project also represents a coup for Abu Dhabi, as the project is headed the famous BBC Natural History Units, home to landmark documentaries such as Planet Earth and Life, and "Mr Documentary" himself, David Attenborough.

"Natural history filmmaking really began with David 50 years ago and we would like to say it is the original and still the world leader," he says.

"We are quite proud about that and about producing these really high-end glossy 'how do they do that?' type of series."

Hunter admits a film focusing on the region is a long time coming and has actually "been germinating" inside the BBC for years. He confides it was a case of finding the "right story" to tell.

"I am surprised it took us this long," he says.

"There has been feeling that the natural history of the Arabian area really has deserved coverage for quite a while. I think it's not the people who have not realised the potential here, but it's more about pulling together a project with the right partners to get it out. I think a lot of people had similar projects, but for one reason or another they have run aground."

Hunter says the project really started taking shape early last year, when the BBC abandoned its search for a production partner and decided to financially back the film itself. Fresh from the Earth's polar regions, where he was filming the forthcoming series Frozen Planet, Hunter was enlisted for the Wild Arabia project, which is being conducted with the support of the Western Regions Development Council. Last year, he and two researchers began the task of sourcing visually compelling material. This included hundreds of phone calls as well as more glamorous reconnaissance visits to the Gulf.

It was only when sifting through the bulk of the research that Hunter and his team discovered that Abu Dhabi contained an amazing treasure trove of human and animal stories.

"We know about the city more for its commerce and development, so I was surprised by the richness of stories here," he says.

"There are the dugongs out on Butina Island and they are amazing, secretive animals. There is the oil platform which protects the marine life and you also have wonderful bird stories, such as the flamingoes nesting near Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, and that is almost a miracle because flamingoes are such sensitive breeders."

The next challenge Hunter faced was how far a geographical net should be cast to tell this story. The solution was found in the region's clearly defined landscape.

"The actual peninsula is a very clean land mass," he says.

"Since we deal with natural stories, whether it's geography or ecosystems, being defined by those natural borders as opposed to political lines in the sand makes it an easy way for us to go."

Wild Arabia aims to tackle the region's natural development chronologically.

The first episode will address the region's geographical history, highlighting the peninsula which used to be greener, and its ancient civilisations.

The second episode shifts to the region's changing biological state, with the discovery of oil and subsequent urban development. The final episode addresses the region's unique features of wildlife and nature. Hunter says viewers could be surprised by some of the environmental revelations in the series. It seems that while humans flock to the Gulf for its economic opportunities, animals and wildlife are also attuned to migrating for ecological benefits. "There are dozens of species that are here because of the development," he says. "Creating your coastline is kind of a weird way to changing your landscape as well greening your desert. Building a golf course here will bring hundreds of passerine [bird] species from Asia and Europe that will not just migrate but nest here." Hunter says the series length and plot lines were chosen to ensure "each episode was brimming with stories" and to retain the BBC's distinctive visual mark. "We want a big-picture look to it," he said. "We want to present it in a big cinematic and glossy scale."

Hunter's obvious affinity for animals stems back to him landing his first job behind the camera. After earning his PhD in animal behaviour in 1997, he headed to Ethiopia for a five-year research project studying the Geleada monkeys. That work attracted the attention of filmmakers from National Geographic and the BBC s.

The positive reception to these programmes allowed him to develop a freelance filmmaking career producing wildlife programmes and segments for 60 Minutes and PBS.

However, it is with the BBC Natural History Unit that he directed large-scale productions including Frozen Planet and Life: Primates and Birds.

Hunter admits it is becoming increasingly difficult to market nature and wildlife television documentaries, with viewers more inclined to watch such documentaries on 3D in IMAX screens.

He vows, however, that Wild Arabia and his future projects will stick to more old-fashioned techniques to draw in viewers.

"The key is story," he says. "If people care about what that desert fox is struggling with and are engaged emotionally, then you've won the audience."