The Fear of Turning Corners

by Clara Wetzel

I was filming a short documentary in Gabon for UNDP, CAFI (Central African Forest Initiative). With borrowed boots, socks and pants - everything but the shirt I was wearing - and a 15 kg backpack full of camera gear, I entered the rainforest for the second time. I was there to capture beautiful images of it’s flora, fauna, water sources, the water, the village, the people and the park rangers. It was important to me to get these images because they would make the film a lot richer, but also, if I’m being honest with myself and with you, I really wanted to see and film gorillas. I wanted to find gorillas so badly. My long lens was fasted to my camera and the tripod on my shoulder, was ready to be set up at a moment’s notice.

Filming in the rainforest can be challenging for a multitude of reasons. One of which is that when you visualise your shot you have two options: you can either properly set it up using a tripod, properly expose, focus and shoot; or you handhold it - shoot, focus and expose on the go. The problem with the first option is that by the time you’re done setting up the shot, you have probably already missed your chance: the bird has flown away, the monkey has disappeared up a tree, the caterpillar has borrowed it self under the leaves. The problem with the latter is that you might ruin your shot by not focusing properly, messing up your exposure or maybe just have shaky shots because you’re sweating and because of the swarm of flies buzzing around you.

Gabon has an extraordinary geography: you will find Savannah and rainforest next to each other, so walking into the shade of thick canopy is an abrupt experience, you literally step into the forest and in that second everything changes: the light, the temperature, the sounds. 

My guide and I communicated via some kind of improvised sign language not only to keep the silence and awareness, but also because I do not speak any French. From his signing, I understand that the strategy was for him to walk a few meters in front of me and would whistle when I was to follow. A few whistles and pauses later, I realised that this specifically happened every time we turned a corner.

Gorillas can watch you without you knowing; up in the trees or walking parallel to you, in silence, hidden from view by dense vegetation. What I was told was that they follow you for some time, walking beside you, until they find a place in the narrow path that you’re walking on, and wait for you. This is the scary part. They wait for you, so right as you make a turn there could be a gorilla waiting for you. And if you do make a turn and happen to find a gorilla waiting for you, you would be within 3 meters from them - you are in their space, and they’re not cool with that. They will provoke you, using their arms and hands to gently push you, the advice from the guide is that if that happens you should not move at all. Even if you want to run, even if you want to get the flies off your face (because gorillas come with flies) do not move, wait until they are bored with you and leave, and then run away as fast as you can in the opposite direction. 

Realising that the following words might take some intensity away from the story, I will say: none of this happened to me, this is what I was warned about and this is what was in my head every turn I took. So for those 4 hours that I was in the rainforest searching for gorillas, every time I was about to turn a corner I would get this thrill, these mixed feelings inside me that wanted to film, run, not run, meet, not meet a gorilla.  

Sometimes I still get the feeling that if I turn the corner I’ll find a gorilla. And I want to. But not really. Maybe.

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Nessim Stevenson