Mmegi: An interview with Charles Thalefang and Gaokgonwe Seetsele Nthomiwa.
Updated: Apr 23
Our most recent film Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale came out on Netflix on March 3rd. There are two exceptional things about this, which you might not have realised while watching the film. Firstly, it is being aired on a globally accessible platform, which means that local Batswana can actually watch this film and see first-hand the importance of the great Okavango Delta in the country that they call home. Secondly, for what we believe is the first time for a film set here in the Okavango, a black Motswana is credited as a cinematographer. Gaokgonwe Seetsele Nthomiwa joined us in November 2020 as a trainee camera operator and soon developed into a fully-fledged cinematographer. After the release of Surviving Paradise we invited Charles Thalefang, a local journalist for Botswana's Mmegi Newspaper to see our operations for himself and have a chat with Seetsele about what this means to him, and the proud people of Botswana.
"The Netflix film offers a great opportunity for Batswana to finally watch, on demand, some inspiring nature content made from their backyard. For years, natural history films have been made in Botswana, mostly by foreigners and enjoyed by western countries in their own language far away and inaccessible from the people of Okavango. Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale comes at a time when more young black storytellers are venturing into the industry like Gaokgonwe Seetsele Nthomiwa who is credited, amongst others, for Additional Photography.
Ever since the cameras replaced hunting guns, natural history filmmakers have produced great films from Botswana’s incredible wilderness. But the industry is dominated by foreigners who also happen to be white and male. However, Gaokgonwe Seetsele Nthomiwa, 25, is breaking down barriers, trailblazing through it as the only black filmmaker working in the Okavango Delta.
Nthomiwa is currently working as a videographer at Natural History Film Unit (NHFU). It has been two years living in the wilderness and his name already features in the credits of the Netflix Originals film titled Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale, which was released last week.
At their base camp at Mokolwane Camp in the NG29, the young man recounts his journey from Gaborone West to one of the ‘incredible offices’ in the world. ‘Sets’, as everyone calls him in the camp, grew up in a higher middle class family in Gaborone West in the city centre. His father, High Court Justice Godfrey Nthomiwa, and mother, made sure that the boy gets enough natural history content via television and magazines. And he binged on it.
“My parents used to bring lots of National Geographic videos and magazines. And I spent a lot of time watching them,” he recalls. After the parents planted the love for nature into the young man, when he finally made it to the University of Botswana (UB) he joined the university’s Wildlife Environmental Conservation Society (WECS). It was his older cousin Milidzani Mpedi, who ignited his interest to be part of UB WECS. And that’s where his favourite world from the small screen came to life. “Through UB WECS is how I really started travelling the country. I basically went to all the national parks in Botswana with the club.” The UB WECS trips gave him invaluable lessons. “I learnt about the people, how they live, especially around the wildlife areas. I remember when we started, we actually thought we were going to teach communities about human-wildlife co-existence, but instead they taught us how they existed with the animals.
“They also taught us how the modern way of co-existing could be merged with the traditional way so that they could better the co-existence,” he said. After graduating from UB, Nthomiwa had already fallen in love with nature and so he went out in search of opportunities to work in the natural history film industry. He started at the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and went up to Dr Michael Flyman, the then chief wildlife officer at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. “I had a conversation with him about my interest to enter the wildlife filming industry. He was intrigued because he said he was looking for Batswana who were interested to do this. “He (Flyman) said he had previously facilitated for one Motswana who later quit because he could not fit in. “Flyman assisted me to get an internship with the BBC when they were in the country filming their Dynasties series. He later got me in contact with Brad Bestelink of Natural History Film Unit (NHFU) and I applied to be part of their crew.”
As an NHFU cameraman, Nthomiwa drives his own modified film vehicle with all his supplies on board. He spends most of his time following the animals that he is assigned to film and stays in constant communication with the rest of the team via radio. At night, he usually sleeps alone on top of the vehicle, on a bedroll amongst roaming lions, leopards, elephants and mosquitoes, before continuing the following morning. It is on this film vehicle that he had his most memorable moment when he was able to beautifully capture a dramatic leopard kill. After a few days of filming, he returns to base camp for resupply, take a shower and go back out for more filming. Nthomiwa said to succeed in what he does, one must first understand the level of sacrifice to be in the bush. “You do not have a great social life. You are away from your family and partner. You stay in the bush hoping they would understand and be supportive.” He experienced his lowest moment during the height of COVID-19 deaths. “Every week I got news of family, about someone passing and it was really heavy on me because I was away. There was a disconnect from the family and I was always worrying about who was next,” he said. Although it may sound like dangerous work, Nthomiwa believes the rewards are great. “This is a rewarding career because we are working in one of the world's most beautiful places, a paradise. “And later, it is a joy seeing your names are in the credits of international films. Plus, there is a financial reward. There are decent wages,” he said. Nthomiwa, however, says one must put in good work to make it in this career. And that he says the work requires passion. “If you love it, you will be able to stay put.”
He advises those looking to venture into wildlife filming to knock on doors, visit the ministry or any Department of Wildlife and National Parks offices and ask for opportunities. He says Batswana should look to start from any level, be it internship, or partial employment. On how more Batswana could be part of the industry, Nthomiwa suggests that government must include a clause in the film permit rules that all foreigners must incorporate some local talent in their crews. He also says an appeal must be made to the business community to fund wildlife films. Nthomiwa further suggests that more wildlife content must be added to Btv and more wildlife content for local consumption commissioned. Another suggestion is for production houses to host a wildlife film screening at villages around the Okavango Delta to try to inspire the children of Okavango to have different perspectives about the wild animals."
Interview between Charles Thalefang and Gaokgonwe Seetsele Nthomiwa (original interview can be found using the following link: https://www.mmegi.bw/features/nthomiwa-a-new-generation-of-nature-filmmakers/news)