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When Docs Go Wild: The Challenges of Nature Filmmaking

By Barry Clark

Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom
by Chris Palmer
Sierra Club/Counterpoint
272 Pages

In the spectrum of genres that make up the world of documentary filmmaking, wildlife films have always stood out as a curiosity. For the most part neither nonfiction nor narrative films, these programs have occupied a peculiar niche of their own since their inception in the earliest days of filmmaking. And it is for good reason that today, nature filmmakers have their own festivals, award competitions, conferences and professional organizations--by preference setting themselves apart from the rest of the world of nonfiction filmmaking.

What is the reason for this schism? A plausible theory is that the urge to document the natural world differs, on a fundamental level, from the passion to chronicle the affairs of man or educate viewers about the inanimate things that make up our world. In this view, our need to tell stories about the natural world is rooted in our deep and ambivalent relationship to nature--a relationship that has, throughout history, fueled some of our most vivid dreams, nightmares, myths and fables. Even today, the very subject of nature invites an excursion into a realm of unbridled subjectivity--a world of sentimentality, horror and thinly veiled moralization that is strictly taboo to the dedicated documentarian, to the dispassionate observer of the world as it (presumably) is.

The deconstructivist may argue that the individual worldviews of documentary filmmakers of any stripe are, whether consciously or not, reflected in their works. According to this view, all human expressions, deliberate or not, are acts of advocacy and artifices that reveal more about their authors than they do about the subjects they describe. But with wildlife filmmakers, the role of the subjective is impossible to ignore. It is as if a mirror were held up in front of the lenses of their cameras, and wildlife filmmakers, imagining that they are documenting a world that actually exists out there, capture instead a detailed portrait of themselves. Because of this, the works of wildlife filmmakers (and of all other flavors of nature storytellers) offer to the social anthropologist a rich trove of symbolism, mythology and iconography--a mother lode from which it is possible to mine valuable insights into the shifting world of our personal dreams and ideals.

There are few individuals on either side of the Atlantic who are more qualified to write about the world of wildlife filmmaking than Chris Palmer, a career natural history producer who has filled important programming positions at the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation and, most recently, MacGillivray-Freeman Films. His recent book, Shooting in the Wild, is a must-read for any aspiring wildlife filmmaker and an important contribution to the history of a genre that is little understood even by its longtime practitioners.

Palmer's book, though largely devoted to the mechanics and ethics of wildlife filmmaking, includes a few nods to the subjectivist school. Filmmaker Adam Ravetch, co-director of the National Geographic feature Arctic Tale, is quoted as saying, "[The film] is really a metaphor for humans. It says to our audience that if polar bears and walruses in the Arctic can figure out how to overcome the difficult circumstances of their lives during a changing, warming world, then we should be able to as well."

 Keenan Smart, the head of the National History Unit at National Geographic, echoes the subjectivist view in his defense of his channel's sensationalistic Predators at War, the story of the bloodthirsty competition between predators in the African savanna, when drought puts a crimp on their sources of prey. According to Smart, the program was a product of its time in America--with the US at war in the Middle East. He is said to have felt that Americans, because of these troubling circumstances, were particularly interested in war themes and that the film reflected the prevailing socio-political climate.

The culture-rooted nature of natural history is familiar to anyone who is old enough to have watched Disney's so-called True-Life Adventures, the legendary series that introduced "blue-chip" nature programming to audiences around the world. In this series, as Palmer says, Disney "portrayed nature within a middle-class moral code, [using] nature to promote the values of hard work, faithfulness and frugality." Palmer goes on to suggest that this was the prime reason that the series became not only a hit, but a powerful cultural force.

Nature filmmaking of this type is transparent in its advocacy role and in its departure from any pretense at even-handed reportage. In fact, this kind of filmmaking is often referred to as an "art," a term that is generally avoided by mainstream nonfiction filmmakers. The defenders of these emotion-packed, message-laden films are quick to point out that art, as a reflection of human culture, helps us to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world we inhabit. Art, the argument goes, has--or should have--no pre-ordained social responsibility, and artists cannot be held responsible for the culture they reflect in their work. Predators at War, for example, could be defended not as a celebration of savage violence but as an argument for the equitable division of natural resources, as a means to avoid violent conflicts between individuals and nations. Similar arguments against censorship are used in defense of violent movies and video games, of misogynist lyrics in rap music, and of cartoons that mock the Prophet.

But while many forms of artistic expression are clearly understood by their consumers to be artifacts of their creators--personal expressions laced with frequently wild hyperbole--this is not always the case with nature films. Few readers of Animal Farm would confuse its tale with an accurate account of life in a barnyard, and only the youngest fans of Pogo would imagine that it chronicled the daily doings of an opossum and an alligator in a Georgia swamp. However, it is easy--because of the persuasive power of the words and images in nature films--for audiences watching these films to be seriously misled, imagining that the world they see on the screen is a world that actually exists in real life.

Palmer clearly recognizes the power of myth and the special power of the artfully crafted natural history program not only to reflect, but to shape human behavior. But he rails against what he sees as the abuses of the medium through the distortion of scientific facts and, in the worst of cases, the physical and psychological abuse of the subjects that appear in the films. On the latter points, he is certain to find no disagreement.

But Palmer goes further. For he is not shy about proclaiming his own social agenda--the agenda of encouraging, through the power of the media, policies and practices that will work to ensure environmental protection. As he makes clear throughout his book and ultimately confesses, "My personal allegiance is to true conservation films that motivate viewers to take action." While Palmer is prepared to acknowledge the guilty pleasure to be gained from watching a well-made wildlife fable, he comes down strongly on the side of nature films that promote wildlife conservation. So strongly, in fact, that he stops just short of suggesting that nature filmmakers should join together to vow to make the promotion of environmental protection the primary aim of their films.

 Whether or not his readers will subscribe to this view, Palmer has created a consummately literate, meticulously researched and thoroughly thought-provoking work--a book that demands to be read not only for the wealth of insights that it contains but for the challenging issues that it raises. It is certain to make an excellent companion to a book that waits to be written--one that inspires in its readers an informed appreciation of the importance to our lives of the ancient and enduring art of nature storytelling.


Barry Clark is a natural history producer whose first taste of the genre was as a writer for Bill Burrud's Animal World series in the early 1970's, followed by a long stint at Walt Disney, were he had a hand in creating the Wonderful World of Disney wildlife fables. He is currently prepping a 3D production to shoot in Saudi Arabia, a film that, like his other work, is likely to be another marriage of fiction and imagination.