Mike Slee has filmed some of nature’s greatest wonders. He followed herds of elephants in Africa, tracked the Canada-to-Mexico migration of the monarch butterfly, and stalked gorillas in the bush. But as awe-inspiring as those projects were, they were limited in scope. The mission of his new film, Colombia Magia Salvaje (Colombia Wild Magic), was a blank slate. With the financial backing of retail food giant Exito, he set out to capture the natural beauty of Colombia.
Filming all that encompasses is a daunting task, and once the U.K. native got to the country he realized that an ambitious endeavor might just be impossible. “Each step of the way, I couldn’t really put into words the variety of things I was finding,” said Slee. “We called it a mosaic of life.”
But after shooting more than 150 hours of footage over four years in the second-most-biodiverse country on Earth, he unveiled a 90-minute documentary that is the finest portrayal of Colombia’s majesty ever put on film. With his crew, Slee traveled across untouched glaciers and sandy Caribbean beaches to the limitless Amazon and cold, humid páramo. They went from the eastern Orinoco and whale-infested Pacific surf to deserts in La Guajira and rainforests of the Chocó. Amid all the wild magic, the finest site was Caño Cristales, which is known as “The River of Five Colors” for the algae that turns the already-exceptional tributary into a water-color masterpiece of reds, greens, purples, and yellows for several months each year. “The footage was absolutely stunning,” he said. “It was like poetry.”
Though the mountain, jungle, and seascapes astonish, the animals of Magía Salvaje steal the show. Colombia is home to more bird species than anywhere else in the world, and the film shows them in all their splendor. A condor scavenges the eye of livestock, owls burrow underground to evade predators, and toucans appear in as many colors as Caño Cristales. Slow-motion, midair hummingbird clashes are a blend of Matrix wire acrobatics and Zorro swashbuckling – just with needle-nosed beaks instead of sabers. “Who knew that hummingbirds have sword fights?” said Slee.
The true king of the jungle, the jaguar, is the star, hunting prey and enlightening a poor boar-like creature to the fact that its powerful jaw has the strongest bite force of any mammal. Another show-stopping scene features time-lapse footage of a blue morpho butterfly hatching from its cocoon. Then there are schools of prowling hammerhead sharks, venomous golden frogs poisoning ants, whale calves learning to swim, slithering anacondas terrifying anything nearby, baby bears falling from trees, crocodiles cloaking themselves in mud, and family snapshots into the fun-filled canopy lifestyle of the titi cabeza blanca, a monkey only found in Colombia that has spiked white-hair like a troll doll. Even in four years, Slee knows he was fortunate to record so much remarkable footage. “Nature filmmaking is difficult,” he said. “Animals aren’t actors.”
The production was lucky in other ways, too. Slee said that in all their time in some of the most remote areas of the country, he never had any security trouble. “Maybe this is because we did our research,” he said. “Or maybe it’s because Colombia is a safer place.” Slee was happy to share this information and thrilled to share Colombia with the world. He says he felt both nervous and privileged to be a British filmmaker entrusted with that responsibility.
Magia Salvaje isn’t solely a celebration, however. Colombia’s paradise is in jeopardy, and this is why Slee sought to show an animal in each ecosystem whose future would be endangered if it’s home isn’t preserved. One factor in the country’s favor is that it is still so unexplored. The area surrounding the preposterously gorgeous mountain plateaus of the Serranía de la Macarena, for example, is virtually unknown. Other spots, like high cloud forest and swaths of the Amazon, are similarly pristine. But even without direct human intervention, climate change is threatening endemic plants and animals. “Colombia is still quite an unspoiled country,” he said. “So the chance to save Colombia is still there…But we could destroy a piece of landscape before we know what’s there.”
The nation’s lynchpin ecosystem is the páramo. It is a high-altitude transition region between permafrost mountaintops and grassy valleys, and there is more of it in Colombia than anywhere else in the world. Its collection of grasses, bushes and sponge-like shrubs make it unique, soaking up rain then filtering it and diverting the previous liquid towards cities like Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín. By some measures, 70% of Colombians in the capital drink páramo-fed water despite the fact that these lands only make up 2% of the country.
But mining and drilling interests are threatening these fragile, invaluable regions. Slee stressed the need for preservation of all of Colombia’s incredible landscapes in Magia Salvaje. He notes, however, that launching a conservation movement can be a lot easier when humans – not just furry friends who make good movie subjects – are the ones who are endangered. “You remove some of mosses or the moisture-capturing plants, you turn off the tap in the city,” said Slee. “For me, that’s really interesting: The link between nature and what we need. If you want to give a conservation message that wakes people up, you’re at risk as well. The animals and the environment – but also you humans – need nature. You owe it to nature to take care of it.”