Scan YouTube for highlights of Planet Earth II, now nearing the end of its run on BBC America (Saturdays, 9 p.m. ET), and one can’t help but be struck by how many compilation fan videos are of the blood-’n’-claws variety. If it bleeds, it leads, seems to be the thinking. And nothing sells like sex and violence. (No, I won’t insert a video link here; I won’t glorify compilation violence videos by making them easier to access than they already are. Suffice it to say that any YouTube video titled “Huge jaguar vs. a caiman crocodile (insane fight)” — in full caps, no less — tells you all you need to know.)
The bigger picture is that, with more people curious about nature every day but with little means to actually experience nature for themselves, wildlife filmmaking, nature documentaries, and conservation photography have never been more meaningful, or influential to popular opinion.
Ethics in nature filmmaking are more topical now than at any point in the history of television and film, as the world’s few remaining green spots are shrinking at an ever-increasing pace.
This was brought into sharp relief recently by environmental film producer Chris Palmer’s controversial book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom.
Like many viewers of Planet Earth, my early life was informed by a steady diet of nature films, from big-screen theatricals like Born Free (right), which I first saw when I was seven, to Disney nature docs like Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and King of the Grizzlies.
What we see at a young age informs us in our later years and shapes our opinions and outlooks on the world. Palmer’s book, as Jane Goodall writes in her introduction, is important and much-needed. It won’t change any preconceived notions about climate change, habitat loss or the increasingly evident man-made mass extinction, but it does raise meaningful questions about how these films are made, the motivations and ethics involved, and what the filmmakers’ responsibilities are to the viewer.
Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, was executive producer of the 2000 Oscar-nominated IMAX documentary Dolphins, so he knows something of what he speaks.
Without a doubt, nature films have helped raise awareness of the wonders of the natural world and the need for conservation. How are these films made, though? Can we always believe everything the narrator tells us? Was that stunning sequence we just saw of a polar bear giving birth filmed in the wild, as implied in the film, or will telling viewers that it was actually filmed in a zoo in Germany make them less engaged and possibly less willing to help a conservation cause? Is it ethical to stage a fight between a leopard and a terrified baboon in order to get a dramatic cover story for Life magazine during Life’s heyday? (This actually happened.)
To what extent are animals otherwise living in the wild disturbed in their day-to-day activities during the making of a film?
Is it right to manipulate footage while editing, so that it appears two animals are interacting when in fact they were filmed on separate occasions in separate locations?
Where do artistic freedom and the need to tell a good story meet the obligation to tell the truth when making a documentary?
How much should the viewer be told, anyway? Disney’s early nature films were designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They were made for children, but directed in such a way that they would appeal to parents, too — charming enough for kids to enjoy, but never boring or too tedious for the adults in the family.
That was the idea, anyway. Everyone likes a good story, and many of us like to watch a good fight. The reality is those early nature films had about as much in common with David Attenborough’s pioneering BBC documentaries as Bambi had to Racing Extinction.
Ethical questions surrounding nature filmmaking will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, in the same way many conservation groups can’t even agree on the seemingly clear-cut question of whether the legal sale of ivory stockpiles will help or hurt elephant conservation in the wild.
As Goodall writes in her introduction to Shooting in the Wild, though, it’s high time those questions were asked, and discussed openly.
“We owe this to the animals themselves,” Goodall says, “to the filmmakers who practice truly ethical behavior, and to the viewing public.”
Amen to that.