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When Animals Attract: Docmakers Study Relationships between Man and Beast

By Daniel James Scott

Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee wearing a knitted red top. Nim has his arms raised with hands behind his head.

The late philosopher/deconstructionist Jacques Derrida once referred to the animal species as the "ends of existence that refuses to be conceptualized." But this has never stopped human beings from trying to eliminate the boundary between them and the animal kingdom.

Leave it to Werner Herzog to blow the lid off films exploring this phenomenon. His 2005 documentary Grizzly Man told the story of Timothy Treadwell, the self-proclaimed bear expert who spent 13 years living with grizzlies in Alaska, only to be killed by one. Consistent with his longtime fascination with characters whose aspirations take them to the outskirts of humanity, Herzog's film provided the catalyst for a handful of filmmakers to explore the complex relationship between humans and animals. Those discussed in this article are Camilla Calamandrei (The Tiger Next Door), Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant), James Marsh (Project Nim) and Cindy Meehl (Buck).

Unlike Herzog--but no less pessimistic--these filmmakers are forgoing their own presence in their films to behold compelling narratives in which animals share in the drama. These films are not conventional wildlife documentaries. There is no Morgan Freeman or David Attenborough commenting on animals from afar; no troves of title cards listing the numbers of endangered species; no animals that have ever lived in the wild. These films resemble wildlife documentaries insofar as they encourage us to consider the wild--our relationship to it, the very idea of it.

"I used to joke that the problem with my film is that I'm not Werner Herzog and my subject isn't dead," says Calamandrei, whose The Tiger Next Door aired on Animal Planet in 2010.

The film follows Dennis Hill, a tiger breeder and seller who, at one point, owned up to 24 tigers. It picks up toward the end of Hill's career, when the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) threatens to shut down his activities. Hill perceives the DNR's actions as a violation of his freedom-implicitly, his freedom to deprive his tigers of their freedom. These majestic creatures live out their days in cages (15-by-15-feet or slightly larger), pacing back and forth, eating or lazing around. Though Hill's passion for his tigers is undeniable, so too is his culpability.

To the extent that it's a film about animal rights, The Tiger Next Door is about the two-sided meaning of freedom in America. Yet, its preoccupation with animal rights condemned it to be misunderstood.

In shaping her film for Animal Planet, Calamandrei had to cut it down to a 43-minute length, in the process losing much of Hill's backstory, as well as that of his community (For the feature-length version, go to The film's eventual position attests to a few troubling realities: Films about the animal-human dynamic are often confused by distributors, broadcasters and viewers alike as wildlife films; and as such, their potential to address our own lives is often missed.

Over the past two centuries, animals have gone from being our co-inhabitants on earth to being commodities of an increasingly globalized market. If not our companions, they are our food, our clothing, our indexes of knowledge or our entertainment. In the discourse of environmentalism, they represent the result of our own destructive nature.

Wildlife films, the category summoning images of endangered species, are rife with these facts. Their conservationist agendas ring loudly in the ears of viewers seeking refuge from the complexity of their lives in the relative simplicity of animal lives. To us, animals engender that simplicity. Untainted by the power structures of humanity--of language, politics, race, etc.--they signify a primordial sincerity. It is this simplicity that has allowed them to be so completely co-opted into the human family.

"I think there's a big difference between how we deal with animals in the wild and how we look at them in captivity," Calamandrei asserts. "If that line is getting blurred--if my film can be about 'wildlife' when these animals haven't had a day of freedom--clearly that tells us something about the way we live on the planet now. Is there any wildlife left? Are the wild areas really just sequestered areas where the wild has been marked off?"

Another film that poses this question is One Lucky Elephant (2010), directed by Leeman and produced by Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim and Miriam Cutler. Shot over a ten-year period, the film, which premieres theatrically at New York City's Film Forum in June before its eventual airing on OWN, chronicles the relationship between a circus producer named David Balding and the namesake of his show, an elephant named Flora. After 16 years of working together, Balding feels that Flora no longer enjoys performing. Compelled to "do right by her," he tries to return her to Africa. The film explores the challenges of this enterprise. Having been raised among humans, Flora lacks the social skills necessary to interact with other elephants and the survival skills necessary to fend for herself. On top of that, in Africa she'd be vulnerable to poachers. Though potentially an advocacy film, Leeman is quick to eschew that classification: "I'm almost hesitant for anyone to say that about our film because I think advocacy films sort of turn off some people."

She prefers to think of her film as a "sideways social-issue film," a "father-daughter love story." In such a way, she likens herself to other filmmakers who are applying their narrative sensibilities to create frank depictions of interspecies relationships. These films don't sentimentalize animals (though their human subjects might), nor do they address issues of conservation head-on. They appeal, first and foremost, to the emotionality of the subject matter. 

 "These films are all in the zeitgeist," says Leeman. "A subtle shift of how we perceive animals and, by extension, our planet. We filmmakers aren't always aware we're channeling the zeitgeist. But hopefully we're tuned into it, and making these films that are exploring these characters whose own life journey is reflecting that paradigm, in some sense."

Two favorites at this year's Sundance Film Festival were also "channeling the zeitgeist": Project Nim and Buck. Marsh won the World Cinema Directing Award for Documentary for Nim, which explores the life of a chimpanzee that was the subject of a language experiment in the 1970s and ‘80s. Opening in theaters July 8 through Roadside Attractions and airing later on HBO, the film not only follows the progression of the experiment, its objectives and its results, it also deals with the relationships among the people involved.

Marsh, who directed the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, creates films of a very constructed nature. Using every resource available to him--stylized re-enactments, elaborate sound designs, expressive interview set-ups, archival footage, music--his goal is to tell a good story. "I tend to make documentary films about subjects that you wouldn't believe if I made them as fictional films," he says.

Marsh has also directed fiction films, including an installment of the 2009 UK-based Channel 4 series Red Riding, and he anchors each of his documentaries firmly in genre. He hazards to call Project Nim a biopic, tracing the life of a chimpanzee from infancy to adulthood. In the film, the drama stems from the ethical issues of raising Nim among humans. When asked how Project Nim has been received among animal rights groups, Marsh notes, "In Q&As, you get questions about animal rights, and our relationship with animals. And it's not a campaigning kind of film, but if people do have a greater awareness of a chimpanzee's individuality--and indeed the kind of inappropriateness of putting it in a cage--then that's a good thing. But I'm not going to bang on about that in any particular way...I'm not a campaigning filmmaker."

This resistance to advocacy films hints at a tension between the social and artistic functions of documentaries. Yet, simply because they take a more dramatic approach to their material does not undermine their potential as advocacy films. What is of concern to these filmmakers is not the premise of advocacy, but rather the emotional impact on which so much advocacy depends.

Derrida spoke of this in a ten-hour address on the subject of animals. "If these images are 'pathetic,'" he said, "if they evoke sympathy, it is also because they 'pathetically' open the immense question of pathos and the pathological; precisely, that is, of suffering, pity and compassion."

In the face of today's problems--religious wars, economic exploitation, climate change, etc.--such appeals to pity, especially for the sake of animals, seem fruitless. And it is this resignation that these films reflexively examine. The relationships they explore say more about us than they do about animals. And the necessity for them to do so is above all what they call into question.

Enter Buck, the Audience Award winner for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival; the film will be released June 17 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films. Directed by first-timer Meehl, Buck offers an in-depth character study of the man who, by and large, inspired the novel and film The Horse Whisperer. Buck Brannaman has a preternatural connection with horses. In a practice commonly referred to as "breaking horses," he advocates a more cooperative relationship with the animals. This entails earning their respect rather than demanding it. Throughout the film, this methodology is framed through Brannaman's own childhood of abuse. Meehl cites the film's universality as a source of its success: "People look at it and think, 'This is a film about me,' whether they own a horse or they don't."

Meehl, herself an avid horse rider, worked in fashion and fine art before she pursued the project. The film's aesthetic possibilities intrigued her just as much as the film's message. None of the aforementioned films lends itself so readily to genre as Buck, a film as much about a "last cowboy" as it is about horse riding. This was a concern for Marsh, who spoke on a panel with Meehl at Sundance.

"By definition, it's about him [Brannaman]," says Marsh. "And I felt there were other questions that weren't being asked. Essentially, it's about controlling the animals. It's about getting them to do what we want. And that was sort of a given there, that we accept that it's about controlling the animals."

Regrettable as that acceptance would be, perhaps it's part of the zeitgeist that these filmmakers are channeling. The human stamp on the environment has become so indelible that its very existence no longer has meaning. "The Great Divides of animal/human, nature/culture, organic/technical and wild/domestic flatten into mundane differences," writes Donna Haraway, professor of biology and zoology at University of California at Santa Cruz. "There is no assured happy or unhappy ending...There is only the chance for getting on together with some grace."

Buck beholds moments of such grace--as do the other films, for all of their revelations and misunderstandings.


Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He is originally from Los Angeles, and also contributes essays and criticism to Filmmaker Magazine and Cinespect.