Reality Television Updates the Safari Documentary

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Guest blogger Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site almost a decade ago as a resource and outlet for documentary media. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.

Osa Johnson

Early 20th century safari documentarian Osa Johnson and friend. Source: George Eastman House Collection.

Since the 1990s and early 2000s, reality television has mushroomed into an extremely popular form of programming. While some critics separate reality TV from more traditional forms of documentary, other critics try to find ways to integrate the programming into documentary history. One interesting connection lies how reality TV expands more established subgenres of the form. We can see these connections in particular between safari films and “The Amazing Race.”

Gaining popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, safari films brought the excitement of adventure and discovery of faraway places back home. A subset of the older travelogues, safari films followed explorers, particularly into Africa, as they searched for native cultures and wildlife. The makers of these films often were explorers. Starting in still photography during the 1910s, American husband-and-wife team Martin and Osa Johnson made several safari documentaries during the 1930s, including Wonders of the Congo (1931) and Borneo (1937).

Started in 2000 and now in its 19th season on CBS, “The Amazing Race” is a reality-contest show that brings together pairs of contestants in challenges that send them on trips around the world. Each leg of the trips involves a combination of tasks and travel. As contestants successfully complete each leg, they win prizes and the chance to continue, or they get eliminated from the competition. The remaining contestants win a large cash prize at the end of the race.

The primary connection between “The Amazing Race” and these safari films is the journey, which involves people moving from one location to another distant one toward some kind of goal. For safari films that goal was the thrill of discovery of new peoples and new animals on the African continent.

“The Amazing Race” expands the destinations of the safari film to across the globe, save for Antarctica. While safari films focused on the inner countries of Africa, “The Amazing Race” sticks primarily to the coastal ones as the show’s producers work carefully with local governments and related officials to ensure the safety of its contestants, though it did face some risks in Egypt and Argentina. With safety issues no longer a concern, the tension of this journey during “The Amazing Race” derives primarily from the competition, depending on which group completes the leg first.

People who took safaris went either as adventurers or tourists. Martin and Osa Johnson embodied this sense of adventure through their numerous safaris wherein they took both still and motion images. People making these journeys needed not only courage and curiosity. Some never returned, either by accident or choice.

Participants in “The Amazing Race” represent a more diverse group of individuals. Most seasons feature pairs of some kind — married couples, domestic partnerships, siblings, other family connections, or even common interests. Just as some safari-goers achieved fame through their films and their discoveries, several “The Amazing Race” contestants achieved some fame after their seasons aired.

Sponsorship plays an important role in both safari films and in “The Amazing Race.” People undertaking safaris needed resources, including supplies, transport, and money to pay for them. They needed money to make the journeys and to return from them. For safari films, car companies such as Dodge would offer their newest models for the explorations in exchange for appearing in the films.

Like most current reality shows, “The Amazing Race” is heavily sponsored. Sponsors contribute to the prizes awarded at the end of some legs and provide tools used by contestants along the way, such as branded credit cards.

The safari film and “The Amazing Race” both have prizes of sorts at the end. For the safari film, the potential for discovery drives the action, the question, with the “prize” (of sorts) being the potential for a new, hopefully exciting, discovery. The prizes for “The Amazing Race” are more tangible — vacations to global destinations, luxury products, and cash.

For viewers, the thrill of discovery may have been enough during a time when the world was not so media saturated or so well known as it is now. For contemporary viewers that sense of discovery might not be enough to retain their attention, so the competitive angle, coupled with generally likeable everyday contestants, offers more of a draw.

The representations of other cultures and peoples offer a key connection between safari films and “The Amazing Race.” Safaris represented danger and constructed these peoples as primitive, uncultured, and tribal. Adventurers, including the Johnsons, offered their own, often disparaging commentaries about them. Further, the adventurers sometimes used the members of local cultures for labor, getting to help with carrying supplies, coaches, and even cars.

The world is represented as much more safe on “The Amazing Race.” The promos for Sunday’s episode highlighted the show’s return to Africa and hinted at the spiritual experience it became for some contestants. The episode brought contests to Malawi, where they sewed clothing, made toys, and kicked around a soccer ball with some kids. At one point the voiceover mentions that people in Malawi carry everything on their heads, and then it connects that supposed cultural feature with the next task of carrying bed frames.

In both cases the local cultures play a supporting role toward the goals. In safari films the local cultures gain little respect and even become labor, while in “The Amazing Race” the local culture becomes a backdrop for their tasks, with people holding the clues contestants needed to move on to the next destination. In both cases the opportunity to represent the rich cultures of these countries becomes overly simplified for the purposes of exploration and entertainment.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.
  • Scarlett3660

    Yep..
    Safaris represented danger and constructed these peoples as primitive, uncultured, and tribal..But in the modern society,it has more varied meaning.Find me on my-travel-mate.com and let’s share more ideas.