How natural are nature documentaries?
Chasing down honesty in BBC’s The Hunt7
The promise of nature documentaries is that they will show you a world that you otherwise could not see. I will probably never be in a submersible down in the deep, or running alongside a cheetah on the savannah. Few have perfected this form for the mainstream like the BBC. They’ve made a number of blockbuster documentaries: Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Frozen Planet, to name just a few. From this tradition comes the newest BBC documentary, The Hunt, which focuses on the tactics predators use to stalk prey. It is co-produced with BBC America and narrated by — who else — Sir David Attenborough.
I suppose I could feign neutrality, but the truth is, I love these BBC nature docs. After a long day, there’s almost nothing better than settling down with my boyfriend and cat, cracking open a can of beer, and watching footage of wild animals. These shows are uniquely soothing, and the animals are shot so beautifully; well, we all have our own forms of escapism. This one's mine. I have watched so many of these documentaries that I’ve begun to keep track of Attenborough’s verbal tics — "but there’s a problem" — as well as his tendency to be a bit of a drama queen, repeatedly reminding us that the stakes of the footage we’re about to see are life and death. The stakes are life and death, of course; but then, in nature, they almost always are.
And that’s what The Hunt is about, even more nakedly than usual: these predators must kill or starve. The filmmakers focus on the stalk — how hunters attempt to catch their prey. And unlike a lot of other programs about predators, which bill them as "dangerous" or "deadly," The Hunt documents the failed hunts. In fact, most hunts fail; the best predators in the world only succeed about half the time. And to the series’ credit, it doesn’t just focus on those marquee predators (your cheetahs and wild dogs; polar bears and sharks). Some of the best sequences involve bizarre fish, vicious birds, and a particularly clever jumping spider called Portia.
It’s clever, the way the narratives are constructed. The result is an inspired sense of sympathy for predators, a countermeasure to other media that presents hunters as vicious killers. Personally, I never know whether to root for the predators or the prey. I once saw a starving wolf in Alaska’s Denali National Park — starvation is one way predators die, because their teeth are bad or they are injured or otherwise no longer able to hunt on their own — and its emaciated body as it limped away from me was truly pathetic. At first I did not think it was a wolf at all; too skinny, probably a coyote, I figured. But then I saw the radio collar, which only Denali wolves wear. We wound up reporting the wolf to the park authorities; in all likelihood they would soon be retrieving the radio collar from a corpse.
When we treat predators as blood-thirsty menaces, we shortchange them. These much-maligned creatures are often what hold an ecosystem together. Some are even known as keystone species; like the keystone in a building, they are the foundation upon which the ecosystem is built. They help maintain the local environment by eating prey that reproduces quickly. That gives other kinds of animals, which may reproduce more slowly, a chance at food and survival. It prevents over-grazing, allowing plant life to flourish. And predators typically hunt the vulnerable — yes, that does mean babies, but it also includes animals that are weak or sick and near death anyway.
This perhaps explains the way The Hunt handles kills. Usually, the documentary cuts away from mammals after they’re felled. (Though not fish or insects, probably because it’s less disturbing to watch them being eaten.) This mostly passed beneath my notice, except in the case of one of the more memorable sequences: when a group of chimpanzees hunt monkeys. I have seen footage of these hunts before, and I was cringing, waiting for the extraordinarily gruesome moment when the chimps rip the monkeys limb from limb. It never came; the filmmakers cut away.
I asked one of The Hunt’s producers, Huw Cordey, about the decision — and he told me it was approached with a great deal of thought. "We wanted to be much more focused on the strategy," Cordey told me. "We wanted people to empathize with the predators, and I just think you don’t empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi." The full footage of a monkey hunt in particular is nightmare fuel, and these nature documentaries are often watched by children. Even for adults, it is troubling to watch. A large part of the audience would have been alienated by the footage, Cordey felt, and so they did not show it.
"We wanted people to empathize the predators, and I just think you don't empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi."
Some other decisions were made based on footage limitations. In the first episode of the series, a female leopard hunts in a gully, making her effectively invisible to the animals on the plains above the trench. She’s stalking an impala, which she gets and drags into the gully. But then, the impala emerges and runs. "We couldn’t film this, sadly, because it all happened too quickly, but some baboons spotted it and ran into the gully and scared the leopard," he said. "The leopard obviously let go of the impala." No reference is made to the baboons in the narration, but it seems like an understandable edit — why narrate footage the audience can’t see? When you work with fact, whether in documentary filmmaking or in journalism, some facts do get cut.
There’s a danger to nature documentaries, too. It’s most clearly demonstrated with the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. Disney won an Academy Award for the documentary which notably features a sequence with lemmings, mouse-like critters that live in the Arctic, diving over the edge of a cliff to the sea, where they drowned. The narration explains this is a mass suicide. The footage was so striking it gave rise to a new phrase, "like lemmings," which is sometimes used to describe mass hysteria. In fact the whole thing was a hoax; the filmmakers drove the lemmings over the cliff themselves, and the "sea" was a tightly-cropped river. (The Alaska Department of Fish and Game helpfully explains that while lemmings don’t die by mass suicide, they do occasionally engage in cannibalism.)
Most nature documentaries don’t engage in such outright hoaxing, but staging shots or adding sound effects is common. For instance, stories about animal "families" often splice together footage of unrelated animals to create narratives that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to film. In those cases, documentaries are often telling a composite story of what typically occurs in an animal’s upbringing, rather than the story of one specific set of parents raising their young. It’s also common practice to use footage of tame or zoo animals for close-up shots, in order to avoid disturbing wild animals. In fact, Attenborough has been dinged for this particular approach before, on a previous series called Frozen Planet, when shots of polar bear cubs being born in a zoo were cut together with scenes of polar bears in the wild. Crucially, at no point does Attenborough tell the audience that the cubs are born in the wilderness — but neither does he say where they were born. The provenance of the cubs was revealed in behind-the-scenes footage. Hardly secret, but some members of the audience felt deceived nonetheless.
The Hunt also kicked up a fuss when it was revealed that some of its sounds were added afterwards. The noise of a polar bear on the snow was created with custard powder, with salt crystals "for a bit of crunch," Kate Hopkins, the sound engineer on the series, told Radio Times. The noise of cracking bones was created with celery. In these cases, the audio engineers couldn’t get microphones close enough to the animals, but wanted to represent the noise for the audience.
I’m not shocked by this, and I don’t feel deceived; in every case, the practices the filmmakers are chastised for are practices they have admitted to — either in making-of media or interviews. In essence, they are giving their audience footnotes to the film. As the kind of person who likes to read footnotes, I appreciate this. But it seems audiences believe that documentary filmmaking is meant to render a true view of the world-as-it-is. This is a rather recent attitude toward documentaries; most early documentaries contain fake footage. The New Yorker’s Louis Menand credits Robert Flaherty with raising documentaries from propaganda film to art form with his first film, Nanook of the North. "In vérité terms, Nanook is largely a fake," Menand writes. He continues:
Flaherty arranged, for example, to film a walrus hunt in order to show how indigenous people once gathered food. The Inuit had long since stopped walrus-hunting, and they ended up struggling to drag a harpooned walrus out of the Arctic surf and begging Flaherty to shoot it with his rifle. Flaherty pretended not to hear them and kept filming. Later on, Nanook and his family are shown building an igloo out in the wilderness. It was too dark inside the igloo to film, so a special igloo — in other words, a set — was constructed with one wall removed, and the family was filmed, in daylight, pretending to go to bed.
Menand dates the style of "plotless, commentary-less, vérité-style record of life as it is" to the 1950s, as an artistic movement. Attenborough offers a different explanation. In a charming lecture published as "Honesty and Dishonesty in Documentary Filmmaking" in 1961, the young filmmaker credits the rise of literal honesty in documentary film to the rise of television. "When television first arrived a large portion of programs were 'live,' many of them concerned with events like football matches, the Derby or some Royal ceremonial, all of which would have taken place whether or not the camera was there," Attenborough writes. In the previous era, movies were understood to be fictional, and documentary films were thought of "in the same terms as one thought of theatrical film." After television, though, "People then wanted to know whether what they saw would have happened and happened in that way, whether or not the camera was there."
"Of course, all cameras lie," Attenborough goes on. Sometimes these lies are deliberate — as is the case of both White Wilderness and Nanook — but sometimes these lies exist, he writes, "because there is no other way of making a film." Soundtracks are a particular source of inaccuracies, as is the way filmmakers condense time. The Hunt took three years to film; the beautiful sequence of a blue whale eating krill took two years. The first year, the water was too murky for any of the footage to be usable. And the "making of" sequences reveal my favorite inaccuracy: the polar bear section edited out a hunt. That’s because the prey animal in question happened to be the cameraman. (Polar bears are among the few animals that will deliberately hunt humans.)
In fact, the problem is far larger than the lies of the camera. Facts are slippery things; they can render an inaccurate view if they are told in the wrong order, or if some are omitted. Narrative itself is a lie — whether it’s in documentary film, journalism, or any other medium that concerns itself with facts. We believe narrative exists because we travel forward continuously in time, and the chronological progression supplies humans, the meaning-making animals, with a kind of story. But every narrative leaves out facts in order to tell a clear story. In the case of The Hunt, obviously, there are the missing baboons, and the cut away from the kill. Less obviously, the stalk of the camera man and the sound effects. And even less obvious than that: some of the hunters don’t eat other animals as their primary food source. The chimpanzees who hunt monkeys, for instance, average about nine days of eating meat a year, according to Robb Dunn, writing in Scientific American. You would not know this watching The Hunt, simply because it is not relevant to the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. The point of The Hunt is the hunters' tactics and strategies; whether the animals in question eat other food is beyond the scope of the documentary.
"Animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades."
These are fairly trivial, in the realm of nature documentary sins. The BBC crew is lucky; they have a tremendous budget. The filmmakers used 75 Jeeps, 10 helicopters, 41 boats, 10 spotter planes, "a clutch" of ATVs, two horses, and an elephant to get the shots of animals in the wild. (The elephant, named Gotham, was for filming tigers. Tigers ignore elephants.) Most other filmmakers are shooting with tighter schedules and far less money. That’s possibly why, "animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades," writes Chris Palmer, the founder and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Small budgets and limited time mean that filmmakers use captive animals for hunts, chum waters to send sharks into feeding frenzies, and otherwise sensationalize footage, giving audiences a false impression of animal behavior. Worse, these portrayals demonize animals — sharks, in particular, stand out — making it more difficult to make a case they should be protected from human encroachment. As far as I can tell, The Hunt engaged in none of these harmful practices. The same cannot be said for Jeff Corwin, Bear Grylls, or Steve Irwin, Palmer says.
Palmer cites a fairly stern paper entitled "The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Filmmaking," by a British documentarian named Jeffrey Boswall. Published in 1988, it lists several more lies than Attenborough does in his lecture. For instance, Boswall views ascribing human qualities to animals as deception; so, too, is incidental music, sound effects (such as the ones used in The Hunt), and making animals behave in a way they ordinarily do not. Though Boswall feels all these things count as lies, he doesn’t think filmmakers should avoid them; instead, they should make individual calls on what serves their purpose. The producers of The Hunt did just that.
I’m glad they did. My absolute favorite sequence of the series certainly would have qualified as deceptive by Boswall’s standards. It is footage of an octopus called Abdopus aculeatus; at low tide, the octopus crawls from tide pool to tide pool, hunting for crabs. The music used in the sequence is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (there’s even a theremin!); the shots of the octopus on land evoke alien invasion movies. At one point, the octopus is shown in shadow, as aliens are before the big reveal. In the context of Abdopus aculeatus, these choices feel like a joke, a way of acknowledging that a sea creature is "invading" land. I laughed my way through the segment. After I’d finished watching the episode, I rewound the to the octopus footage and watched it again. It was a combination of so many things we think of as artifice — music, clever editing, deliberate narrativizing. But I still laughed with joy and recognition, because something in it felt correct. In the words of a very different documentarian, Werner Herzog, this octopus’ creep was a kind of ecstatic truth. The Hunt is, in other words, art — and art doesn’t need to be perfectly factual in order to be true.