Dian Fossey National Geographic Special: Behind the Scenes

The three-part television series “Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist” premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Dec. 6, 13, and 20 (at 9 p.m. EST). The series was directed by Academy Award winner James Marsh and is narrated by Sigourney Weaver (who played Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist,”). It features interviews with Fossey’s colleagues and friends, including Sir David Attenborough as well as great footage of the current day gorillas. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund worked closely with National Geographic on the series, including extended filming with our staff in Rwanda and the gorillas we monitor today, who are descendants of the gorillas Fossey studied. The film crew joined our trackers for filming in Rwanda in late 2016 and early 2017, focusing mainly on the historic Pablo gorilla group. Pablo group was led by the last silverback that Dian Fossey knew – the elderly Cantsbee. He was still leading the group as the film crew prepared and was going to be a focus of the filming. However, just a few days before filming was to begin, Cantsbee disappeared from the group and it was thought that he might have died, due to his elderly age. (He reappeared early the next year but then died shortly afterwards.)
The Pablo group with silverback Cantsbee in front
The film crew then decided to film how the group coped with the absence of their long-time leader and to see how Cantsbee’s son – Gicurasi – gained confidence as the new leader. Although Gicurasi took the lead, another silverback in the group, named Kureba, was creating some conflicts, and indeed later on left to form his own group. But after the first day the crew shifted their focus to 11-year-old blackback Ubwuzu, whose inquisitive attitude made him a perfect subject for filming. Ubwuzu was intrigued by the extra people and the large cameras, which caused may of the other gorillas to be curious as well. After this, the whole group was very calm and Ubwuzu moved confidently and fearlessly in front of the cameras, thus becoming an unwitting film star. A group effort! When the filming started, Pablo group was located in the low-lying bamboo zone of the forest but within a few days had moved to a much higher area. “Pablo’s group moved uphill a beautiful area of the alpine zone that is very difficult to reach,” says Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program manager. “It required two to four hours of hiking each way, carrying heavy cameras and other equipment. I was impressed at the crew’s determination to get good images as the group moved toward the summit quickly!” The film crew also spent a day in one other gorilla group, where they filmed elderly female Poppy, now the last surviving gorilla that Dian Fossey studied herself. They also filmed an interview with Karisoke Director Felix Ndagijimana. Numerous Fossey Fund field staff at our Karisoke Research Center assisted with the filming, including Ndagijimana, Vecellio, research manager Dr. Winnie Eckardt, research assistants Didier Abavandimwe and Jean Pierre “Samedi” Mucyo, and others, including the award-winning Karisoke gorilla trackers, who are responsible for everyone’s safety, including that of the gorillas. The trackers always remained close to the cameramen to help them safe, as well as keeping an eye out for the best filming opportunities and helping to transport the heavy camera equipment.
Poppy, 2016