Thoughts on Documentary Films While Watching Flightless Baby Geese Jump from 400 Foot Cliffs

Nature shows are awesome. But what are they? Because they're not quite documentaries.

Perhaps it’s the new father in me. Perhaps it’s an instinct to anthropomorphize the natural world. Perhaps it’s simply the empathy of seeing another creature in a world of hurt.

Perhaps it’s because this is insane.

A new National Geographic nature series called Hostile Planet covers life and death in six concise episodes from around the world: mountains, oceans, deserts, jungles, grasslands, the poles. In one segment you have leopard seals hunting penguins. In another you have polar bears hunting seals. A good deal of the series is nature porn from murderers’ row.

Where there’s death, there’s also birth and the quest for survival. Take the arctic geese that feature in Episode I.

Arctic – or barnacle – geese live in the North Atlantic Arctic islands. They typically build their nests atop cliffs in order to avoid predators. Here’s the catch: geese don’t feed their young with regurgitated food like other birds do. Instead, they need to bring the goslings to a food source. This means they need to get them off the cliffs and into the grasslands where they can feed.

Here’s a second catch: goslings can’t fly and won’t be able to until they’re about a month old. In this segment we meet the geese when the goslings are three days old, haven’t eaten and, we learn, will starve if they don’t eat soon. We learn that they do what they have to do.

They jump. From cliffs.

And the whole thing’s really, really hairy.

Watch. This is what I mean.

While I wince during the entire fall. The sudden thud at the end really gets me. And yes, it gets me even though I know the sound effect was artificially added.

Nature Documentaries are a Weird Gig

If you’re a gearhead with a budget, filming nature’s a wild exploration of the latest and greatest in technology. There are macro lenses and cameras to film the very small, remote control cameras to follow subjects easily spooked, drones to capture the airborne1, underwater rigs to film the ocean depths and on it goes with microphones and lighting and yet more tools of the trade.

But, funny thing is, not much happens in the wild until it suddenly does. Waiting for animals to do anything of interest takes a long time. For the most part they don’t do much of anything. Filming nature’s a waiting game. Creating a nature docuseries can take years to make.

The BBC’s critically acclaimed Planet Earth II was filmed over five years, shot in 40 countries with some film crews camping out for months on end to get the shots they needed. Our Planet, currently out on Netflix, took four years, 50 countries and a crew of 500.

All that footage leaves directors, editors and producers with interesting choices to make. Yes, sometimes the spectacular is captured, say, the wildebeest versus the crocodile. Run the clip as is and you have a dynamic segment to enthrall an audience. But, look under the hood, and we learn it’s not necessarily the particular wildebeest or the particular mother and calf we’ve come to root for that end up in harm’s way.

Instead, with thousands of hours of footage we end up with reconstructed dramatizations of what actually took place. It’s not for nothing, after all, that so many hours of film are shot in the first place. Not much happens in the wild… until it suddenly does.

Filmmakers have been slammed for this. This was especially true after the wildlife filmmaker Christopher Palmer released Shooting in the Wild his 2010 behind-the-scenes book exposing manipulation the industry.

As the Washington Post noted in a profile at the time:

For the 1996 Imax film “Whales,” Palmer used recorded whale sounds to lure whales into a bay for easier filming. He invented the narrative of a humpback mother and child surviving a journey from Hawaii to Alaska, combining images of different whales.

For the Imax movie “Wolves,” Palmer sent a husband-and-wife team to the Yukon for footage. “They spent six weeks,” he said. “They got nothing.” To complete the film, Palmer filmed captive wolves from the game farm Animals of Montana Inc. A scene of a mother wolf suckling her pups was shot on a manufactured set.

Palmer put a disclaimer in the end credits. He doubts many viewers saw it.

This isn’t to say wildlife films aren’t worth our time, or aren’t spectacular, they really are. But it is to say that they lack the documentary vérité most of us attribute to them. To point this out is less a cynical act and more an understanding that much of what we see is reenactment of (a) wild reality.

So They’re Sort of Like the Kardashians?

Documentary as a defined type of film is elastic. Like pornography, we know it when we see it but it’s much harder to concretely say what it actually is.2

Nature films pose their particulars. We see the artifice in staged recreations, the use of studio – or foley – sound effects, but those techniques are also used in traditional documentaries. Ken Burns has had an illustrious career. He’s used the art of artifice to great effect.

It’s the subject though – animals, insects – that makes it difficult to determine whether films about them are documentaries or not. And, if not the animals themselves, the anthropomorphism we give to their actions to add intent and context brings us to strange places. As we follow the pus and guts of animals we build our sensibilities around them.

“There often seems a greater need for voice-over narration to interpret behaviors that might seem foreign to the cultural sensibilities of many humans,” writes the filmmaker and critic Derek Bousé (PDF), “especially in light of the fact that the subjects themselves have no way of explaining or putting their behaviors in context, or telling their own ‘stories’ – though the matter of whether or not animals have ‘stories’ remains problematic.”

Put another way, we use art and artifice to make sense of subjects that can’t explain themselves. The tropes we use are human ones: the protective mother; the surly father; the murderous neighborhood predator stalking playful calves and cubs. It’s what makes nature episodes compelling.

“The rules for presenting strictly factual evidence, or for constructing narratives and telling fabricated stories,” Bousé explains, “are far more vague in wildlife films, and far less inhibiting than in more traditional documentary filmmaking.”

It all makes for great cinema. And we need the story, this hero’s survival arc that we can get behind. The nature series is a thriller with twists and turns and heroes and villains whose intent we understand from a lifetime of watching Hollywood. We know these characters even if they have fur and feathers instead of hair.

But it’s not really documentary. It’s something else.

There’s a reason Netflix invested in Our Planet. The company is in the business of entertaining and nature shows entertain. Technical innovations have brought us closer to the action than we’ve ever been and we like what we see: a spectacular world – our world – that we would never otherwise see. Netflix bets there’s good money in that.

But what is it that we’re seeing? I don’t think it’s documentary.

Instead, I think we need to look at another type of series we watch that trains cameras on a group of subjects, takes the resulting footage and builds artificial narratives around them. They come with names like The Bachelor and Keeping up with the Kardashians. They’re reality shows, similarly place subjects in a petri dish and make stars out of their performers.

We don’t confuse these with documentaries but do find them entertaining. A nature series is similar and can be effective if you take an activist view of the environment.

The majority of global community just passed an agreement to control how plastic is moved and disposed of among nations.3

“Officials attributed the progress,” reports The Guardian, “partly to growing public awareness worldwide – reinforced by documentary films by the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and others – of the dangers of plastic pollution, especially to marine life.”

I’ll take that as a positive outcome. Artifice and all.

  1. In an interview with Indiewire, Planet Earth Executive producer Mike Gunton discusses how they strapped a GoPro camera on the back of trained eagle to capture its flight.
  2. Not that media scholars haven’t tried. It’s just that the more we poke and prod at what it means to document reality, the more we stumble through the technical weeds of what ways we can legitimately do so and still claim that our efforts are, indeed, documentary.
  3. Notably absent from the agreement that 187 nations signed on to is the United States which in our current day and climate is disappointing but not at all unexpected.
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