A conversation with René Araneda, director on location of “Our Great National Parks: Patagonia”

Netflix just released “Our Great National Parks,” a new docuseries focusing on national parks around the world. An entire episode is dedicated to Chile’s national parks in Patagonia. Chile Today spoke with René Araneda, the director on location of the episode.

Netflix’s new docuseries, “Our Great National Parks,” focuses on the importance and benefits of national parks and protected areas. According to its synopsis, it is “as much a celebration of nature as it is a call to action.” René Araneda, the director on location for the episode on Chile’s national parks in Patagonia (and also known for the documentaries Into the Puma Triangle (2020), Wild Chile (2017), and Wild Expectations (2016)) explained that, although the producers are not making any large scale political decisions, it is their responsibility to tell important stories about nature and conservation.

He expressed his hopes that the beautiful imagery and impressive cinematography would give viewers the impression of being right there with the animals and make them want to venture into nature in order to see things for themselves. “It’s impossible not to feel something special if you’re in a place like Torres del Paine national park watching the mountains, or if a little kid gets to see a puma crossing the road, or when you go see a whale in its natural environment. [These are] things that will change people’s mindsets forever.”

The series itself is family focused and aims to be accessible to all by making complex concepts such as conservation and rewilding accessible, with the objective of sparking intergenerational conversations about the environment and teaching children about the importance of protecting nature.

When asked about the storytelling behind the sequences, Araneda explained that the animals were filmed like characters in a show. “When you have a character, you need to show [the character’s] struggles, you need to show [the character’s] day-to-day and challenges. That’s how people engage with that animal on a deeper level and that’s how we fall in love with nature. And sometimes you have sad moments, you are worried and concerned about your character, you see [the character] overcome certain obstacles — like the classic story of the mother that needs to hunt to feed her cubs and you don’t know if she’ll succeed or not — and all these struggles are genuine. That’s the day-to-day of wildlife.”

A challenging filming process

Araneda said the biggest filming challenge was Covid-19. “Every day you have some challenges with animals, there are some days on which you don’t film because you don’t have any good sighting, but usually when you work for a decent amount of time you have one, two, three, or sometimes five really amazing days that make up for the others,” he explained. “But the biggest challenge was Covid-19, because it changed our whole calendar and also affected us catching some specific events, because we couldn’t travel at the time that we needed to.”

The initial team which was set to travel to Chile in order to film the main sequences was much larger, but in the face of Covid-19 travel bans and closed borders, the first few months of filming were done exclusively by a trio comprised of Araneda and his two cameramen/nature experts Ignacio Walker and Christiaan Muñoz Salas, who were then joined by the rest of the crew later on. They drove through remote locations non-stop for four months in search of material. “It was such an adventure. We were able to get what we needed in 2020 because we had this small three-man crew, and thanks to that, we were luckily able to salvage that year of filming,” he recalled.

The team was also accompanied from a distance by a team from the United Kingdom including producer Emma Brennand, production coordinator Jane Shirley, and researcher Alex Ponniah. “This teamwork was very necessary,” he explained, while emphasizing that it was the constant collaboration between the team in Chile and the team in the U.K. that made the entire project possible. They also worked together with the producers of the show, Sophie Todd and James Honeyborne, to ensure that all of the episodes were cohesive and had clear messaging.

Wildlife’s spontaneity, unpredictability, and even its predictability, presented further challenges. “We can’t force events, situations or behaviors to happen. We don’t go there with a dead animal for a predator or a scavenger to eat because it would be unethical. All these documentary films work on an ethical basis. You have to have patience and you have to be there at the right time of year and at the right moment and that’s what makes the challenge, because when you want to capture animal behavior, many key events only happen for one or two weeks a year,” he explained. “The guanacos giving birth for example, that specifically happens during a period of a month in which there’s a peak of two weeks. You can have some births a week earlier or a week later, but basically all females are pregnant at the same time and they’re all giving birth almost at the same time, so you have to be there.”

Most of the crew working on the film had a background in wildlife studies. Without the knowledge of how animals acted and interacted, as well as their habits and movements, it would have been impossible to capture them in such vivid detail. “There’s obviously a game of patience in there, you have to be really good at observing and reading your environment, reading what’s going on around you, hearing the alarm calls, watching your surroundings properly and knowing how to track and find things. And that’s where all of these skills come together, because there’s so much research to be done before you put the scripts together. It’s not just going there and saying, ‘let’s see what we get.’ And when you do get it, you need to see how it develops and you sometimes need to be able to adapt and improvise according to what’s happening.”

New Netflix documentary Our Great National Parks showcases Patagonia

Rewilding Chile’s parks

Despite the film being visually driven, it also spotlights a topic that was very close to the team members’ hearts: the conservation of Patagonia’s natural wonders. Many of what are now Patagonia’s national parks were donated to the Chilean state by the Tompkins Conservation Fund, now Fundacíon Rewilding Chile. Douglas Tompkins, who founded sportswear giants The North Face and Patagonia wanted these natural areas of Chile to remain untouched, so he and his wife Kris Tompkins acquired many of them throughout his lifetime. They were then donated to the state after his death and made into national parks.

As Araneda mentioned, “the topic itself of protected areas and the fact that there are a lot of important concepts in there like rewilding, connecting different parks and creating biological corridors, is very important. Our job is not only going and showing people how nature looks, it’s also talking about how all of this comes together for humanity and why it’s important to continue protecting the areas. The fact that you have someone like [former U.S. president] Barack Obama [who narrated the series] with so much authority talking about it also weighs a lot.”

A key message of the docuseries is that wildlife conservation is beneficial for all involved. In many scenarios, if done properly, wildlife protection and ecotourism can create a circle for local communities by attracting tourists to the area and bringing in additional income, as well as creating jobs. A striking example of this is the case of pumas in Torres del Paine National Park. Pumas, which were previously hunted down by farmers who wanted to protect their livestock, have progressively been making a return to many areas and subsequently attracting nature-loving tourists, whose aim is to catch a glimpse of the big cats in their natural environment.

“People started realizing in local towns that pumas are one of the big five cats and lots of people want to see them. They started learning about how to see them close up and how to track them in a responsible way. They saw that there was value in the cats being alive instead of dead. And eventually, even the farmlands around the park started protecting the cats instead of chasing them.” 

“So locals are currently learning to coexist with these predators in the surrounding farms and they have also been building biological corridors enabling the pumas to move between farms, and thanks to that the risk for livestock isn’t as high as it used to be.” Araneda explained. “The potential for ecotourism is immense and there is a whole variety of things that you can develop and that a lot of surrounding towns can use.”

Going beyond politics

When asked about his hopes for a new constitution for Chile in terms of conservation laws, Araneda mentioned that the scope of the documentary is wider than just the Constitution. He explained that their goal was not just to incite political action, but also to tell these stories “to make people fall in love, to make people aware of what’s outside of their cities and outside of their windows. That is the only way of educating and engaging people,” he said.

“I think it goes beyond the Constitution, which is just one thing. This is more about global awareness, not only here in Chile. It takes place on a larger scale; it’s what they teach you in schools, it’s what every parent has to teach their kids. We can go and protect many lands on paper, but that’s all just paper. At the end of the day, the biggest problem is that people are away from nature. We’ve lost that link, and no paper will fix that,” he concluded.

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