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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Summer 2011

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

In my years as editor, getting to know the documentary community and its various sub-communities, I've taken particular note of the seeming disconnect between nature/wildlife filmmakers and, let's say, human nature filmmakers. By and large, even though they're in the same family, there's not a lot of symbiosis. There is common ground in environmental-issue docs, but you rarely see those makers at Jackson Hole or Wildscreen, and you rarely see nature/wildlife makers at Sundance or Hot Docs.

Barry Clark, who founded the venerable Jackson Hole International Wildlife Film Festival, noted this schism as well, in a review of wildlife filmmaker/educator Chris Palmer's book Shooting in the Wild in the Spring 2011 issue.

So, although we have produced issues on nature/wildlife filmmaking before, this premise spurred me to go to the brink again. I enlisted Clark to explore the Great Documentary Divide a little deeper and take a closer look at the friction among the various subdivisions of the nature genre itself. I also tapped Palmer to share with us his thoughts on the need for an ethical framework in nature filmmaking, with respect to how filmmakers treat animals during production, and how honest they are with their audiences.

The ambivalent dynamic between human beings and the natural world is a well-trodden, yet ever-fascinating conceit that has coursed through some of the greatest works of art, exploring the superficial commonalities and the deeply rooted differences between the two worlds. Tales of man breeching the firm but invisible boundary into the animal kingdom often end badly. Witness Moby-Dick and Grizzly Man.

Grizzly Man has served as a touchstone of sorts for a growing trend among documentarians to look at the complex relationship between humans and animals. Werner Herzog himself was deeply skeptical, stating in the film that he saw only "the overwhelming indifference of nature," and went further in saying "the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder." Other filmmakers are not so nihilistic, and Daniel James Scott talks to some who have made films that explore the depth and breadth of the animal/human and wild/domestic divides.

One filmmaker who crossed over into nature filmmaking several decades ago is Greg MacGillivray, who, with his late partner Jim Freeman, made a number of surfing features before scoring big with a bevy of nature/wildlife/adventure films, all made for the giant screen. Michael Rose talks to MacGillivray about his venturesome, globetrotting career on land and sea.

The giant screen format is an expensive one, but with the right film playing at the right venue, a filmmaker can enjoy an impressive box office run. Valetina Valetnini talks to people on both the business and artistic sides about the challenges of making these films and attracting audiences for them.

But it all begins at school, and over the past decade a few universities have started up masters programs in nature/wildlife filmmaking. Belinda Baldwin looks at a selection of them, and how they're making a difference in moving the genre forward.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White