Humans and wildlife have coexisted since the dawn of civilization, and as urban habitats grow, this symbiotic relationship continues to evolve, with fauna and flora enduring in the city space. Bogotá is no exception to other world capitals, where many species struggle to exist and often come into close contact with unsuspecting residents.

With its expanse of marshes and river banks extending across the Sabana de Bogotá, and pine forests of the Cerros Orientales flanking the Eastern ridge of this nine million-strong metropolis, a film crew came into contact with more than 40 species of animals, and these encounters became the subject of a documentary entitled Unexpected Neighbours.

Directed by Mauricio Vélez and with photography by the award-winning cinematographer Richard Kirby, who has worked on natural history productions for the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel, Vecinos Inesperados (the Spanish title of the work), raises key questions on conservation efforts and how much citizens know about the existence of wildlife surrounding them in Bogotá.

The documentary is part of Bogotá Vive Natural (Bogotá Lives Nature), a Mayoralty initiative to raise awareness of the capital’s natural environments, which are home to mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. The project involved the participation of scientists, environmentalists and students who recorded hundreds of native species found in their neighborhoods, the Botanical Garden José Celestino Mutis, badlands and Andean forest.

According to the Mayoralty of Bogotá, the initiative aims to promote the recognition, assessment and care of native fauna by telling stories of survival, adaptation, reproduction and predation of these species.

María Claudia López, the district Secretary of Culture, Recreation and Sports, explained that surveys conducted among Bogotanos revealed that 80% consider wildlife in the city to be scarce, and 10% believe it is non-existent.

“Such results motivated us to design a strategy of citizen culture to make people aware and cherish the wildlife around them. Otherwise, it is difficult for people to care for and appreciate something unknown to them. We hope that with this documentary people understand the great natural wealth Bogotá has,” she explained.

Filmed over 137 days between 2018 and 2019, the 60 member team of Unexpected Neighbors headed to the moors of Sumapaz and Las Moyas to record the movement of spectacled bears, foxes and Andean deer. On the bustling streets of Ciudad Bolívar, they encountered hawks and owls. In the woodlands of Cerros Orientales and Monserrate, they spotted little-known birds of prey, including the peregrine falcon and Andean osprey, as well as numerous hummingbirds and threatened species such as the Rufous Antpitta.

The documentary also highlights the abundant biodiversity found in the wetlands of La Florida, Juan Amarillo, La Conejera and Torca, from insects and fish to small rodents and owls.

The wildlife of Bogotá’s many parks – Virgilio Barco, El Salitre, Simón Bolívar, Ciudad Montes, El Virrey, Bicentenario and Nacional – also made it to the silver screen, and many residents will be surprised to know that they can come across, closer than expected, with marsupials and canids.

For director Mauricio Vélez, filming wildlife presented its own set of challenges and surprises such as anticipating the flight pattern of the striped owl to capturing its majestic wingspan, or discovering a mountain fox as it lurked around the film set.

“If I had to define Unexpected Neighbors in a few words, I would say that it is absolutely captivating and unexpected. We discover animals and behaviors that we do not expect in places where we do not normally look for,” remarks the film’s director. “It is a completely new story because we are showing wildlife in a context where we are not used to seeing it.”

The film was financed by the Mayoralty of Bogota and is accompanied by a book launch with the same title – with a print run of 13,000 copies. Both are expected to be a source of invaluable audiovisual material for district schools, public libraries and cultural centers. Vecinos Inesperados also received backing from the Ministries of Culture and Environment for its scientific investigation and inspiring message of conservation.

The soundtrack that accompanies the footage was composed by Daniel Velasco, and performed by 150 musicians of the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra (OFB), under the baton of Eduardo Carrizosa.

For maestro Carrizosa working on the score of the documentary presented a unique opportunity to “create sound images that correspond to the visual image.”

The Bogotá premiere of this documentary takes place December 10 at Movistar Arena and obligatory viewing for all, as it promises to become a powerful tool to teach empathy towards nature, and the importance of preserving green spaces and fragile eco-systems among the public.

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