JOHN DOWNER: Natural Highs

For 10 years, PBS' "Nature" series has brought the marvels and mysteries of the natural world into living rooms across the nation. During that time, many viewers have wondered how these stirring and amazingly intimate wildlife documentaries are made.

Tonight, they'll get some answers when KCET airs "Great Moments With Nature's Filmmakers," a two-hour pledge special. The program profiles nine of "Nature's" most accomplished filmmakers, serving up a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and rewards of their craft.

Among those featured is John Downer, a London-born filmmaker and director who has been lugging his camera through the wilderness for 13 years.

In "Great Moments," viewers will learn about one of Downer's most innovative projects, featured in an award-winning "Nature" segment called "In-Flight Movie." To capture a "bird's-eye" view of the world, Downer reared a duck from birth and ultimately filmed the fowl in flight while aloft alongside it in a para-sail.

A university-trained zoologist, Downer, 38, recently spoke with Times Staff Writer Jenifer Warren about some of his most memorable assignments.

Which of your filmmaking experiences would you rank as the most remarkable or inspiring?

There are so many wonderful memories. But one recent trip, for a new series called "Lifesense," was truly extraordinary.

We wanted to do a program on religion and animals, so we went to Bali to film in a holy bat cave. There are millions of bats in this very ancient and holy cave, and we were the first Westerners ever allowed in.

The Hindu priest places offerings deep in the cave for the bats, and conducts a temple ceremony in the opening of the cave. We wanted to film this spectacle from inside.

We took the normal protective gear you wear into bat caves, such as masks to guard against fungal infections. Then we realized that this was an extremely holy place and we couldn't take such things in there. We also realized we would have to go barefoot (according to Hindu custom).

The experience was incredible--on several levels. We were treading barefoot on a mountain of centuries-old bat guano, and there were cockroaches climbing all over it, as well as highly venomous snakes, which feed off live bats. It was quite dark, so fortunately we couldn't really see where we were putting our feet.

It was also amazing because these bats--which covered the walls all around us--were very tolerant of people. Instead of inhabiting the distant recesses of the cave, they would spill out into the opening and look out on the ceremonies.

Have you documented other examples of this religious connection between animals and people?

In January we filmed at a rat temple in Rajasthan, India. The local villagers built this huge marble palace dedicated to rats, and there are 10,000 of the animals living there.

Every morning and night the villagers go to the palace to deliver trays of food for the rats, and when they ring gongs all the rats come running. The villagers believe they will be reincarnated as temple rats, and that the rats will be reincarnated as villagers. They also believe the spirit of a Hindu goddess is contained within the rat and they direct their worship toward her through the rats.

The rats are completely accustomed to people. When you walk in, barefoot, they run up to you and nibble on your toes, which puts you off at first.

Once they got used to the cameras, they would perform these little rat boxing matches--the males competing for the females. Or little posses of males would go chasing after females and we'd follow along, capturing this amazing up-close footage.

Is it difficult to overcome feelings of fear or squeamishness when embarking on these sorts of assignments?

I think the excitement of the place and the thrill of capturing film that hasn't been captured by anyone else overwhelms most of that. Also, with the rats, all of this extraordinary animal behavior that we normally struggle so hard to get was unfolding continually right in front of us. That is a very rare treat.

Beyond the entertainment value your work provides, do you have a particular mission in making wildlife documentaries?

I'm trying to give people a different way of looking at their relationship with animals. At times we get locked into a way of seeing that is very human-centered. The thrust of my work is to say there is another way, another angle, on things. It might not be familiar, but it can be very exciting and might even teach us something about ourselves.

"Great Moments With Nature's Filmmakers" airs tonight at 7 on KCET and Dec. 15 at 5 p.m. on KOCE.

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