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‘Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist’ review: Occasionally engrossing

Dian Fossey with mountain gorillas in "Dian Fossey:

Dian Fossey with mountain gorillas in "Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist." Credit: National Geographic / Robert I.M. Campbell

THE MINISERIES “Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Dian Fossey spent 18 years in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda studying gorillas, becoming world-famous even before the arrival of 1988’s Oscar-nominated, Sigourney Weaver-starring motion picture based on her memoir, “Gorillas in the Mist.” This three-parter — based on interviews with former associates and with archival footage — explores this remarkable career, and death. On the morning of Dec. 27, 1985, Fossey was found murdered in her cabin at the Karisoke Research Center she founded in 1967. Fossey was 53. “Secrets” explores the various theories surrounding the still-unsolved murder and the various mysteries, too. One of them: How did someone cut open a hole in her cabin wall without presumably waking, or frightening, her? Weaver narrates “Secrets.”

MY SAY “Secrets in the Mist” promises to explore Fossey’s legacy, but what “Secrets” mostly does is explore her cold case. Fossey’s murder remains unsolved and there’s nothing here that promises closure, while it raises more questions.

“Secrets” says that the perpetrator or perpetrators may have perished in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Meanwhile, the most important remaining pieces of forensic evidence — long strands of hair that were clutched in her hands when she was found murdered — either have been lost forever or could not be located, according to the program. Wayne McGuire, a close Fossey associate who was accused of her murder by Rwandan authorities, maintains his innocence in extended interviews here, as he did many years ago. His former colleagues (also quoted here) seem to corroborate his story.

There’s a considerable amount of speculation in the broadcast, much of it circumstantial. Did Fossey have knowledge of a gold-smuggling operation? Could government officials have had a role? She made many enemies — “Secrets” will remind you of that a few times — but what of them, notably the poachers she constantly interfered with?

Fossey’s life and obviously her death are worthwhile subjects of exploration — except, they have been explored before. But what of that legacy? Or the gorillas? The legacy is summed up in the closing minutes of the Dec. 20 episode when Sir David Attenborough, a friend and supporter, says, “If anyone could say they saved a species, Dian could.” Weaver adds that after the movie, “it was impossible for me to go back to the way I saw the world before. It was such a gift to me to be inside Dian’s head.”

Then there’s the irony of this legacy. Fossey had famously argued against tourism because of communicable diseases that could infect or kill the gorillas. Instead, “Secrets” reports that the progeny of her beloved gorillas are now thriving, with a population of just under a thousand individuals, or triple the number when she studied them. The reason you can guess: tourism. Fossey “habituated” them to humans, but it’s left to the imagination what they must think of this strange type of human with their iPhones and selfies — or what Fossey would have thought of them.

BOTTOM LINE Good — occasionally engrossing — overview of Fossey’s murder, but not much on her legacy or on the gorillas themselves.

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