May 17, 2011

Bridging the Great Documentary Divide

In accordance with the received wisdom of our times, every human artifact or utterance--including every nature film or so-called "factual" film--is, at its core, a personal statement: a polemic that is intended, whether consciously or not, to persuade the recipient to take what its author regards as the right course of action, one that is mandated by the current cultural climate. Because both nature and factual filmmakers are generally quick to take issue with this thesis, they probably deserve to be labeled as primitive artists--creatives who, by virtue of their indifference to the forces that shape their work, unwittingly reveal more about the ethos of their age than is disclosed by the work of more "sophisticated" and self-aware artists.

It is this ingenuous quality--the assumption that they are not artists at all, but objective reporters, documenting the world as it is--that can be said to unite the nature filmmakers with their brothers and sisters in the factual (or "nonfiction") camp. And despite the occasional attempts by both sides to do so, neither group can claim the right to wave the banner of objectivity, proclaiming itself to be ideologically "clean." Instead, both schools may be considered to share a broadly humanist agenda, advancing through their works the model-of-the-moment for proper human behavior. That is, even the driest of nature films (picture an account of the mating behavior of pronghorns) or factual films (envision a video on safe practices in the workplace) can be viewed as an agitprop piece--a film that, if deconstructed, speaks volumes about the cultural milieu that dictated its content and form.

So, if they share so much in common, what then divides the two documentary camps? Why do the nature filmmakers and the factual filmmakers studiously avoid one another--staging their own conferences, festivals and symposia and handing out their own awards?

The obvious distinction between the tribes is their choice of subject matter. Products, no doubt, of different patterns of nature and nurture, the filmmakers from the two schools elect to use different sets of props to put forth their philosophical positions. While nature filmmakers employ wild creatures as stand-ins for humans (the selfless lioness who fiercely defends her cubs, the brave baboon who risks his life to save his troop), factual filmmakers choose actual humans as role models (the blind musician who masters the cello, the handicapped gymnast who earns a gold medal).

But that is not to say that each camp is free of its own internal fault lines. While factual filmmakers fall into specialized camps that more-or-less get along (I refer to the camps of the science filmmakers, the social-issue filmmakers, the arts-and-culture filmmakers and the environmental-issue filmmakers), the nature school encompasses at least three distinctive cliques. And between these cliques there exists, at best, an uneasy peace.

Since the late 1920s (cf. the camera safaris of Osa and Martin Johnson and Frank Buck's Bring 'Em Back Alive movies), nature films have used every trick they could find to remind audiences of the wonders and horrors of the natural world--a world that is, on one hand, a living Eden to which we might aspire to return and, on the other, a jungle raw in tooth and claw, devoid of all civilized values. While over the years, the techniques of production have radically changed, nature filmmakers continue to spin the same basic fables. The blue-chip filmmakers--romantics endowed with the luxury of time and money--paint pictures of an earthly Paradise ("With the return of the rains, life resumes on the great Serengeti. And, with the rains, a new generation [cut to a stotting gazelle] discovers a world of limitless promise").

At the same time--and sometimes in the subsequent program on the same cable channel--another branch of the clan paints a darker vision, pitting fresh-faced adventurers against the world's deadliest varmints ("A little closer and Huey will have him [cut to a terrified snake, flicking its tongue]! Or else he will have Huey [cut to commercial]) !"

In defense of the modern-day beastmasters, they are heirs to an ancient tradition. Recall, for a moment, the bear-baiters of Elizabethan England, the bull-runners of Pamplona, the serpent-handlers of Appalachia and the bronco-busters of the American West. All of these rites of human dominance play to our fears of the beasts that menace our lives--not just the beasts who lurk in the wild but those who bully us in the schoolyard, lord over us in the office or terrorize us in the cave. Like a good dose of Dexter, a half-hour of old-fashioned one-on-one with a killer croc can go a long way to reassuring us of our place in the grand scheme of nature and in the competitive world of the workplace.

Though the tooth-and-claw tribe is a tough, libertarian breed, seemingly situated at the farthest remove from the faction of the factual filmmakers, at least one of their number managed to jump the divide. Stan Brock, who may be remembered as the muscular vaquero who manhandled giant anacondas for Marlin Perkins' Wild Kingdom, today heads the humanitarian organization Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit that airlifts medics into forgotten corners of the globe. In his new role, Stan continues to conquer fear, but the embedded message in his videos has changed. While in the past a viewer might have said, "If Stan can wrestle that snake, I can manage my kid," now a viewer, watching Stan in action, might say, "If Stan can parachute into Papua New Guinea with a stethoscope in his pack, I can at least volunteer at the blood bank."

There is a third group of nature filmmakers, a group that, compared to the romantics and the libertarians, shares many of the sentiments that Stan now espouses. This group--the activists--is driven by an urgent need to do what they can to stop the tide of destruction that threatens the wild. And they vent this need in their films ("And so, perhaps for the last time, the boobies gather on the shore. Their future, like the future of all mankind [cut to a booby gazing out to sea], rests in our hands"). Though by their nature the activists are more at home with indignation than are the romantics, they share with the romantics the vision of an unspoiled Eden, one to which, in their fondest dreams, we all might yet return.

Because it casts grizzlies as role models rather than villains, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man fits comfortably into the nature-activist camp. And because it casts humans as role models, Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth fits comfortably into the factual school. The line between these films is the line between those films whose primary goal is to persuade us to model our lives on the lives of wild creatures and those films whose primary aim is to persuade us to pursue a specific course of social action.

In reality, of course, crossovers exist--schizophrenic productions that aim to have it both ways. To this group belong those nature programs that devote the bulk of their time to painting a portrait of the private world of some compelling wild creature, only to devote their closing minutes to the desperate efforts of a field biologist to save the creature from extinction. An audience, exposed to such a film, would be justified in wondering which of the film's heroes to root for. Am I a jaguar, running the gauntlet of perils in a tropical forest, or am I a researcher, conscientiously collecting samples of jaguar scat? At best such a film may provoke a useful response; but at worst it risks causing unwanted cognitive dissonance. 

While all three of these groups--romantics, activists and libertarians--may be spotted together in Bristol, Jackson Hole or Missoula, hoisting beers in the bar and trading tall tales from the field, there is little love lost between them. To the true romantics, the libertarians are amoral opportunists who play to the public's worst fears and urges. And to the hardcore activists, the romantics and the libertarians are equally dammed. For, in their view, both groups squander the opportunity that has been placed in their hands to arouse public outrage and strike a strong blow for the wild. And yet, no matter how annoying it may be for these tribes to spend time together, they share a common toolkit: the set of technical resources, without which they could not practice their art.

Though in the pursuit of their goals, the majority of factual filmmakers need little more than light, compact and eminently affordable cameras, nature filmmakers of almost any stripe are dependent upon an equipment list that includes long lenses, high-speed cams, time-lapse cams, crittercams, robotcams, cablecams, remote-controlled cams, gyro mounts, aerial rigs, jib arms, cranes, blinds and dollies--an arsenal that dwarfs, in weight and cost, the toolkit of typical factual filmmakers. To stay up to date on these tools of the trade, nature filmmakers rely on their own technology confabs. And a general disinterest in this specialized gear provides ample reason for factual filmmakers to stay away from such sessions.

Not only that, but few factual filmmakers are likely to relate to the typical subjects under discussion at Bristol, Jackson Hole or Missoula. Why, for example, would a committed documentarian, dedicated to exposing social injustice, need to know how to program a camera to peer into the private lives of penguins, or how to train a goose to follow an ultra-light in flight? And why would a nature filmmaker, who specializes in close-ups of bugs, need to sit through a panel discussion about securing funding from cultural foundations or spend time learning the skills required to score a slot at Sundance?

Furthermore, while few individuals (Michael Moore and Ken Burns may be exceptions) have earned a tidy income from the production of factual films, the nature genre has spawned more than a few genuine millionaires. And that is because nature programs (which are usually not culture-specific) generally enjoy a much wider reach than factual documentaries. While the global audience is likely to be strictly limited for a program about the plight of the homeless in Detroit, an eager audience around the world is likely to tune in to watch the antics of a family of meerkats in Africa).

Unfortunately, both sides of the Great Documentary Divide tend to view the other with suspicion. For their part, factual filmmakers, while envying nature filmmakers for the license fees they collect, may be inclined to dismiss them as escapists--dreamers who have turned their backs on social commitment and the need for social change. On the other hand, it is the risk of such condemnation that may make nature filmmakers wary of factual filmmakers.

Though it can be argued that the ultimate focus of both is the human condition, for the reasons suggested above--including subject preferences, technology requirements and separate markets--nature filmmakers and factual filmmakers seem destined to stay in their separate camps. But at the very least, through an open dialogue between us, we may hope to gain a better understanding of one another and an appreciation for the many ways we may choose to tell the same important story.


Barry Clark has worked as a writer and producer of nature films of the activist and romantic stripes, and in addition has produced social, political and cultural-issue documentaries. He is currently engaged in the production of a film that explores the challenges and life choices of the common people of Saudi Arabia.