When you think of Dian Fossey it’s hard not to picture Sigourney Weaver in the hit 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist.
Portraying Fossey, Sigourney depicted a sympathetic look at the life and tragic death of American primatologist who conducted pioneering studies mountain gorillas in Rwanda over a period of 18 years before she was brutally murdered in the country in 1985.
But just who was Dian Fossey? And why was she murdered? National Geographic’s upcoming three-party documentary “Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist” hopes to both shed light on Dian’s ever impactful conservational work and try to resolve her still unsolved murder.
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver herself and featuring a mixture of reconstruction, original archived footage and interviews with those that worked directly with Dian, much is expected from this series.
We spoke to the series director Zara Hayes about what makes this such a unique and highly watchable documentary.
It’s true crime - with gorillas
Drawing from the incredible popularity of true crime shows such as Making a Murderer and podcasts like Serial, Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist takes on a definite crime documentary format, which was a deliberate direction choice, says Zara.
“It was the most intriguing way we could have done it, by the time we come to learn about her war with poaches and you know the way in which she died, it kind of enriches your understanding of the story.
"National history stuff is so popular – people obviously love animals and true crime is incredibly popular too so I would hope this will engage both of those audiences and of course people are interested in Dian too.”
It strives for total accuracy
Zara stressed that the series strives not to sensationalise but to put forth the story and evidence in an accurate and non-biased way. She noted that many of the props used in the reconstruction scenes are original items.
“For the reconstruction scenes in Dian’s hut we used almost all original items. Even the Christmas presents that were found under the tree – very difficult not to open them! And there’s even the love note she had kept and written for Bob [photographer Bob Campbell, with whom Fossey had an affair].”
It lifts the lid on Dian’s private life
Dian was known as the 'Gorilla Woman' by the public and press but who was she outside of this persona? Each episode of the series weaves witness accounts, footage and her own diary entries to create an accurate depiction of the woman herself.
"We came to the conclusion to start by exploring her death. In episode 1 we have these two timelines, one being the day that her body is discovered and the second telling the story of her life in the mountains.
"The second episode takes you from the death of Digit [Dian's favourite gorilla who was killed by poachers] in 1977 to 1985 and it flashes back to Dian’s childhood and background. You leave episode two on the last night that she was alive, and in episode three we pick up on where we left off with the murder and examine who could have committed it.”
Some of what is unveiled may surprise you. For example, in episode one we discover that she had a passionate affair with the married Kenyan National Geographic photographer Campbell and she endured a lonely, isolated childhood in which animals provided a huge support system.
It challenges a common theory
Who killed Dian Fossey in her humble mountain shack in Rwanda on the night of December 26, 1985? The common assumption is that it was poachers, but Zara explains that in fact Dian had many, many enemies, and that the series will put forth an alternative explanation.
“In episode two you start to understand that once she bought attention to Rwanda because of her work with the gorillas and from the National Geographic a lot of people became very interested in visiting and seeing it as a tourist destination. People in Rwanda saw the economic potential of the tourism, and Dian was vehemently opposed to tourism in the way that they were managing it at the time and she made all kind of enemies with the local government, the park departments and park services.
“She started to run her own patrol in the park, an anti-poaching patrol, and so she started to become a vigilante, that put her in the way of people that wanted to make money from the gorillas. And she got embroiled in uncovering illegal activity that was going on in the park – including gold smuggling – which of course would have involved a lot of money and powerful people. So there obviously were a lot of people that would have been very against her.
"People who have heard of Dian and her story assume that she was killed by poachers. But by the end of the series we pretty convincingly knock down that theory. That is shocking to people as that is the conclusion people have traditionally jumped to.”
It highlights Dian’s great work
The fantastic conservation that Dian created and inspired is not overlooked in this series. David Attenborough’s famous footage filmed with the gorillas and Dian is included for his “Life on Earth” series and that he believed she was solely responsible for ensuring that gorillas have avoided extinction.
Dian’s work lives on through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and Zara said she was struck by just how impactful Dian’s work really was.
“I was surprised by just how extraordinary her relationship with gorillas was. The footage with Digit how close she got to him and all the others. On the natural history side, it is pretty surprising. I have never seen such intimate footage with primates and this is definitely credit to Dian and her work.”
Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist, starts on Wednesday December 6, at 9pm on National Geographic. BT Channel 317/373 HD.
Image credits: National Geographic/REX