Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha (Madrid, 1959) is a naturalist filmmaker whose combination of scientific rigor in the observation of the native wildlife of the Iberian Peninsula and great formal and artistic beauty has earned his titles wide and emphatic acclaim. Premiered in Spain’s leading cinemas, films like Guadalquivir and Cantábrico – the best known of his catalogue – have reached large and appreciative audience. It is his ability to meld these three factors, the scientific, aesthetic and popular, that led the jury to grant him the Award for Knowledge Dissemination and communication in Biodiversity in Spain, an accolade he describes as “probably the most important” of his career.
Gutiérrez Acha entered the profession of environmental reporter – like many of his generation by the selftaught route – as what then seemed the best alternative to his true passion: “In those years, it was all but impossible to make wildlife films by your own means. It was vocational or it was nothing,” he recalls. “But what was doable was to go out into the country with a photo camera and write.” And so he began to compose articles and take photographs, which appeared in the top specialist magazines of the early 1980s, such as Arte Fotográfico, Geo, Natura, Periplo or Quercus. His work featured on the cover of these publications on over twenty occasions, winning him a name within the sector as well as several awards.
Moved by his fascination for snakes, in 1987 he teamed up with veterinary surgeon José Luis Méndez to found Spain’s first ever venom extraction center, Bitis Reptilarium, dedicated to breeding poisonous snakes and extracting the venom of a number of species for use in medical research and in the production of antidotes. In parallel, Gutiérrez Acha kept up an extensive labor of scientific dissemination on the subject of snakes, regularly publishing his research and photographs in the journals he worked with.
Ten years into his career, he began exploring the world of the nature documentary “in rough and ready fashion, with a second-hand film camera.” He taught himself to work in 16 mm and super 16 formats, in awe of the storytelling skills of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, to whom he sees himself to some degree as heir. “We marveled at his programs,” he relates. “I am of the generation that was gripped by the way he got his facts across, teaching us first-hand about Spain’s natural history, something that has always interested me.”
The author of the groundbreaking series El hombre y la tierra was certainly an inspiration for Gutiérrez Acha’s first documentary, Los últimos días del camaleón (1989), in which he tried to emulate Rodríguez de la Fuente in appearing before the camera to describe the visual action. When Canal+ told him they wanted to air the film, they made clear that the version shown would be without his “lead-in.” And that, he says now “was what convinced me that the animals should speak for themselves, and what I needed to do was concentrate on the photography, capture hitherto unseen images, and film things in an unconventional way – here at least – with the help of the newest emerging techniques.”
Innovation, indeed, is one of the attributes singled out by the jury, which granted him the award “for capturing the essence of nature in diverse regions of Spain through a sophisticated and striking audiovisual language.” His work, they added, “has resonated with the international public by virtue of its extraordinary rigor, quality and beauty.” These same elements were already appreciable in Gutiérrez Acha’s earliest films, to the extent of earning him the commission for the first National Geographic co-production entrusted to a Spanish director shooting in Spain: El latido del bosque (1997), a documentary on the Los Alcornocales Nature Park between the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga.
Another shot at an international production came just three years later, when the BBC and its prestigious Natural History Unit called on him to make El diablo de los matorrales (2000), a documentary on the Egyptian mongoose, the only mongoose native to Europe and one of the most violent of Iberian wildlife species. That same year he again worked with National Geographic, whose Blindados en la noche (2000) – a feature-length film on scorpions and other armed arthropods – marked the first time a Spanish firm had been charged with the end-to-end production of one of its contents.
Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha has been developing audiovisual projects for television for more than twenty years with the main producers-distributors of nature documentaries, and with scientific- exploration societies from all parts of the planet. But it is the movie theater that has brought him his greatest commercial and audience success.
He made the leap to the big screen with one of his few non-documentary projects: Entrelobos (2010), a story based on real events that tells the story of a child raised in the wild by wolves. The Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro Nature Park (province of Córdoba) was the remote setting for the childhood of the film’s protagonist, with Gutiérrez Acha taking on the direction of Radio Television Española’s Nature Unit, which shot all the images there.
In 2014 came Guadalquivir, the first feature-length wildlife documentary to be nominated for a Goya Award. Shown in cinemas throughout Spain, the film was narrated by Flamenco singer Estrella Morente and achieved major audience and critical acclaim.
Not long after, Gutiérrez Acha and his team spent two years in the Cantabrian Mountains filming the great brown bear in its natural habitat, together with salmon, capercaillies, wolves and wildcats. The result was Cantábrico (2017), one of the most ambitious productions to date on the subject of Iberian wildlife, which also earned a nomination for the Best Documentary Film in the 2018 edition of the Goyas.
In all his cinematographic projects, Gutiérrez Acha has counted on the collaboration of Spanish public broadcaster RTVE. It is with them that he has made his best known titles, focused on the fauna and flora of the Iberian Peninsula, but also depicting the traditional activities and customs of the region being explored. “We want to get across the message that human beings are not necessarily an evil force that visits the countryside to kill animals, lay down poison bait or set fire to the vegetation,” he argues. “And the dehesa wooded grassland is a good example, because it’s an ecosystem where man and wildlife inhabit a common space, making the most of its resources,” the director explains, in reference to what will be his next release.
Dehesa is about to emerge from the cutting room. “It has been a complicated shoot. It appears to be an unchallenging, flat landscape, with dirt tracks you can enter by car; a friendly seeming place, with those well-tended woods, those green pastures and no dense scrub. But the moment the humans turn their backs, it’s a battlefield where large herbivores face off against each other, mighty eagles hunt and the grass harbors Europe’s biggest snakes. All this right next to the most visible evidence of human activity, the bark stripping or transhumant grazing…” A story that seeks to convey that “the dehesa is an artificial, manufactured woodland, where man and wild animals walk together.”
The director and camera operator is deeply admiring of the award he now receives, believing as he does that education and awareness-raising “play a crucial role in the protection of wildlife. Showcasing how animals live so they can be conserved and earn the protection they require from whatever quarter. Putting species and spaces in the foreground.” And after almost four decades on a tireless, painstaking quest for the most beautiful and, at the same time, truthful images of the natural world, Gutiérrez Acha can say with assurance that the work of the scientist and communicator are complementary activities which, together, can speak powerfully to a wide spectrum of the public.