The False Authenticity of Nature Documentaries

During our last class of the semester, one of our classmates described documentary as a culturally assigned truth. By this, she meant that we as society and as audiences have generally accepted documentaries as a form of filmmaking that is genuine, authentic, unadulterated and true. Because documentaries tell stories about real things and real events, people assume that everything that is displayed on screen is real. In addition to that, many would consider nature documentaries to be the pinnacle of cinematic authenticity, due to the innocence of animals. Although it may be unfair to deem nature documentaries as the standard of realism, the fact of the matter is that these films are screening the complex world that surrounds us. This compels society to assign the filmmakers that are producing these films as the keepers of truth, because many people don’t understand the intricacies of nature and the extent to which animals will go in order to survive. In turn, we as an audience are easily swayed into believing that what is displayed on screen is real, true and authentic. However, I believe that the filmmakers of nature documentaries are taking advantage of this presumed authenticity. Knowing that the majority of audiences are uneducated in the complexities of documentary film, directors and filmmakers take creative liberties when producing these films which utilize potentially deceitful tactics.

Each of the three documentaries in discussion cross this line. Winged Migration leads the audience to believe that what is captured on screen are truly wild animals that are carrying out their instinctual, survival tactic of migration. In reality, what they are filming are glorified pets. Next, Planet Earth is a well known, critically acclaimed documentary series that has been accused of falsifying scenes, as well as creating a storyline that misleadingly causes viewers to believe in a false narratives. And finally, Grizzly Man is a documentary that shows authentic, genuine stock footage from Timothy Treadwell, however the animals he is using have subconsciously become the equivalent of pets. Although not recognized by Treadwell or Herzog, these animals are no long the wild beings that they intended to portray. Exploiting the societal trust that audiences have in nature documentaries, Winged Migration, Planet Earth, and Grizzly Man use false, deceitful storytelling and animal training to gain footage that appears authentic. In reality, they are proving that there is never complete truth in documentary, even in the seemingly pure nature documentary.

The first movie of discussion is Winged Migration, directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats. In this film, the audience is exposed to a near first person view through the eyes of “migrating” birds. The quotes around the word migration are necessary because this film has nothing to do with actual migration. Perhaps the storyline that the film makes would imply that the birds filmed are actually migrating, however in actuality this is an incorrect perception. The fact that the movie has the word migration in it is a bit of an insult to real migration because none of the footage used is completely genuine.  This may seem harsh, but after analyzing Winged Migration with the knowledge of what happens in Making of Winged Migration, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these animals are simply pets. As is made clear in Making of Winged Migration, these animals were raised from birth simply for the making of this movie. They were treated as pets, being nurtured by humans from birth, so they had the same mentality as any other pet. If I were to film my dog in my backyard and claim it was a wild wolf on the hunt for prey, that would roughly be the equivalent to this film. These animals no longer have any wild instincts, meaning that this film is essentially staged in its entirety. The birds, cranes, storks and geese  in the film were all trained from a young age to be comfortable around humans, as well as around the machinery that was required to get these shots.

From about the 5:40-6:07 you can see the filmmakers training their animal subjects. This constant training is not a natural thing, as most animals would typically be frightened by the sound of machinery, especially something as loud as the contraptions that they are using. In addition, it must have taken years to train these birds to be comfortable flying near massive engines and human beings. That is what allowed them to get stunning shots like the following.

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When I first saw the film I intrigued by how they could have captured these shots. I figured that it was most likely a product of either drones, planted cameras on other birds, or something of that nature. However, when it was revealed that these shots were captured using trained animals, the film really lost its magic for me. To be honest, I surprised myself with my reaction. I understand why they would release the behind the scenes version of the movie in Making of Winged Migration, however I think it led to unintended consequences. I believe that the directors felt that the audience would be interested in how they managed to capture these shots, however I don’t think they expected a visceral reaction like I had. However, I think that this reaction of mine stems from more than just the actual shots of the birds flying, but also from the somewhat disturbing shots that were a result of directorial greed to create a compelling storyline. One such scene begins at 53:09.

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In this scene, these birds are seen flying into, and waddling around what appears to be an industrial plant which has deposited all of its waste into nearby bodies of water. Knowing that these ducks are trained to follow their owners, this means that the filmmakers lured these ducks into this toxic wasteland. Not only does this make me feel cinematically deceived, but it also makes me consider the ethics of this film. Towards the end of this scene, a duck can be seen noticeably struggling to remove itself from the puddle of black muck, causing me to only imagine the harm that the animals have endured during the making of the film. If this was actually included in the film, imagine what could have been left out. By forcing these animals into potentially hazardous settings, these filmmakers are taking advantage of the trust that these animals had developed towards humans, as well as the trust that audiences have in the ethics and morals of filmmakers.

The next film of inspection is Planet Earth. The critically acclaimed and world renowned documentary series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is regarded as possibly the best of its kind. Produced and screened on the BBC, Planet Earth documentaries have covered everything from deserts, to jungles, to oceans. However, this series has not been without its own controversies. For example, many have criticized Planet Earth for utilizing fake or augmented sounds. Many of the things they catch on camera are too far away, or too difficult to actually mic, so in order to satisfy the viewers, they were forced to used sound that was not truly captured during the time of the filming itself. In addition, there have been accusations of actually staging shots entirely. In fact, they have even admitted to committing such acts. For example, in Frozen Planet, a documentary produced by the BBC and narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the BBC and production crew has admitted to filming parts of a scene within the confines of a zoo.

(Video can be seen on this link. Ignore the speaking in the background. Staged shots begin at 0:54)

The makers of the film claim that they did nothing wrong by showing clips that were taken from within a zoo. Although they recognize that the shots are staged, they assert that it would be impossible, as well as immoral to impede on a wild polar bears den. While I agree with this sentiment, they can not deny that they were trying to mislead their audience. It can be argued whether or not filming animals in a zoo is acceptable for a documentary about wild animals, however it can not be disputed that the Planet Frozen crew was attempting to pass these shots off as authentic. The fact that the shots in the den are sandwiched in between real footage of polar bears in the arctic proves to me that they were attempting to make the shots taken in the zoo seem authentic. You can see clearly that the first shots shown in this scene are of wild polar bears roaming the frozen ground, as well as landscape shots revealing the brutal habitat that wild polar bears are able to thrive in. Immediately following this is footage of a mother bear with her cubs in their den. Next, the film returns to shots of the arctic tundra once again. By placing these shots one after another, they are trying to display a sense of continuity in the sequence. The sequencing of this shot makes it clear that they are trying to deceive the audience. Due to their attempt to link these shots together, it is clear that the director too liberties to create a shot sequence that falsely portrays the reality of what they actually obtained.

In addition, Planet Earth and Sir David Attenborough have arguably deceived their audiences using simply storytelling. Nearly every scene that Attenborough narrates has story telling that doesn’t tell the whole story, or in many cases tells more than the actual story. For example, in the following scene Attenborough narrates a sloth crossing a river saying that it is looking for a mate.

The sloth crosses the river and begins to climb a branch, getting to a higher ground. Although Attenborough infers that he does this in order to get a better view of his potential mate, the reality of it is that the sloth is most likely simply looking for safety. Sloths are animals that live and dwell in trees as they are not fast enough to survive and fend for themselves on the ground. However, Attenborough continues with this “love seeking sloth” narrative until it is revealed that the female sloth already has a baby. Following this, at the 1:10 mark, there is a shot showing the sloth sitting in what many humans would describe as a dejected, sad posture. In addition, Attenborough narrates the shot saying, “Even life on a paradise island can have its limitations.” Then, the film goes even further by showing another shot of the river with audio of a sloth mating call being played, followed immediately by the sloth looking back towards the river as though the mating call had been made at the exact time this shot was being taken. Attenborough again narrates this saying, “But at least she can’t be far away.” Although this storyline, editing and shot selection may just seem playful, it is still deceptive in the sense that it is not a true representation of what happened. There is no way to know that all these shots in the sequence were taken at the same time period, in fact I would say there is almost no chance that that is the case. Some may say that this is simply film making, which is true, but the cultural “understanding” or labeling of nature documentaries as real has allowed the director to get away with this type of storytelling.

The final documentary of discussion is Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. In this film. Timothy Treadwell reveals his life among wild animals in the Alaskan wilderness. Although this film is more about the life of Treadwell and his eventual death, the breathtaking film that he is able to accrue over the span of his final five summers on this Alaskan reserve reveals that there is no such thing as complete truth in nature documentaries. This film may be considered a biographic documentary; however, I feel that shots Treadwell accumulated involving wildlife allowed it to act as a nature documentary as well. With that in mind, I think it is worth looking at the effectiveness of this films ability to create the perception of legitimacy to the stock footage that Treadwell took. For some reason, despite the fact that this film contains the most human to camera interaction, it seems to be the film that captures the true realism of nature. With the other two films, there are aspects that we know are “faked” or staged. However, because all of the nature shots from Grizzly Man are taken by Treadwell, a cinematic novice, it gives a sense of authenticity to what he is filming. For example, here you can see wilderness creating an amazing, unintended shot that would be incredibly difficult to recreate organically.

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In fact, Herzog himself is amazed by this shot. “Now the scene seems to be over. But as a filmmaker sometimes things fall into your lap which you couldn’t expect, never even dream of. There is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema.” Herzog is right, but only to an extent. Yes, this shot is amazing and really does display nature in its finest, most awe inspiring form. However, I think that Herzog is wrong because this is not a shot that truly “fell into his lap.” I see this shot as a shot that is just as staged or faked as anything in Winged Migration or Planet Earth. If we really look into the film that Treadwell collected, there is evidence of Treadwell essentially domesticating these animals as well. Although he does treat the grizzly bears with immense respect due to their raw power and their ability to end Treadwell’s life if they so desired, Treadwell still treats them somewhat as pets. He is seen throughout the film talking to them in such a manner that would resemble somebody communicating with their dogs. For example, at 17:03 Treadwell introduces us to one of the bears on the reserve, affectionately named “The Grinch.”

As the bear begins to creep towards Treadwell, he speaks to it in a high pitched, caring tone. Only once the bear makes an advance that endangers him does Treadwell speak up and assert dominance. However immediately after this, he apologizes to the bear and pleads for its forgiveness saying “It’s ok. I love you. I love you. I’m sorry, I love you.” Using this language and this tone tells me that Treadwell is essentially treating these animals as domesticated beings. Even the fact that he is naming these animals is proof of the subjugation of the wildlife he is in contact with. Among the names are The Grinch, Mr. Chocolate, Sergeant Brown and Mickey to name a few. These names are clearly evidence of trivializing the danger of these animals.

On top of the naming of these animals, he speaks to them as though they are human beings or his friends. He talks to them intimately about his life and his struggles throughout life in everything from women to alcoholism. At 44:50, Treadwell begins confessing to a fox named Irish that he used to be an alcoholic and he reveals that living among these bears has helped him cope with his problem.

His ability to reveal himself to these animals and speak to them as though they are human beings shows how he has lost the sense of understanding that these are still wild beings. His domestication of these animals and his comfort around these animals in turn made these animals comfortable around him as well. Therefore, the shots that are obtained of these animals are tainted in the sense that these are no long truly wild animals. I would argue that because of the exposure to Treadwell, these animals have adopted the idea of domestication and gained an unnatural amount of comfort to humans. Because of this, I feelthat there is some “authenticity” of these shots that are somewhat manufactured, although indirectly. With that in mind, it seems clear that, even when there is a lack of massive production and directorial influence in the footage, there still lacks a complete authenticity in any type of documentary, specifically nature documentaries.

With nature documentaries being accepted as a cinematic example of truth, directors are able to take directorial liberties while still being thought of as genuine. Through the films Winged Migration, Grizzly Man and Planet Earth, it is shown that there is no such thing as true realism in film, specifically documentary. Although I poked holes in each of these movies, I truly have no problem with using cinematic and editorial techniques to create a storyline that is compelling, however it seems as though most audiences are not aware of these falsities. These exaggerations and alterations are necessary for the production of captivating film. Without directorial agency, these nature documentaries would be a barebones operation with little to no creativity, which would lead to a diminished and lackluster motion picture.