Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

“I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals. “


How strange that days after I write about Man on Wire and how ‘documentaries are not something I comment on too much’ and yet, here we are, with another documentary. In fairness – this was made by esteemed filmmaker Werner Herzog and it is something of a cult classic. I watched this years ago when a friend of mine (shout out to Tom Wood) had a dodgy copy of it on DVD. I was staying at a different friends house at the time (Tom E) and, strangely enough, the more I thought about the death of the Grizzly Man and the thought of the audio Herzog hears as the Grizzly Man and his girlfriend are killed by Grizzly bears, the more tentative I was about sleeping. It really had an effect on me. Nevertheless, I don’t know if TV is going through some ‘classic documentary season’, but I just managed to catch this on Channel 4 and, I must be brutally honest here, adverts do affect the watching of a documentary – stalling the story every 20 mins. Nevertheless, it won shed loads of awards – including the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize – for the sensitive portrayal of the man at the centre of the Grizzly Bear tragedy: Timothy Treadwell

What I reckon …

Now it is clear within a few minutes of watching this that Timothy Treadwell did indeed cross the line of Grizzly bears and humans. It’s one thing to see the Grizzly’s running amok on the ‘plains’ and in the ‘Grizzly Maze’ but when he starts touching their noses, or when the music stops showing a mother bear getting angry as Treadwell pets a the young baby bear – you can see how it was inevitably going to lead to his death. But the tragedy is not what pushes this film forward and keeps it entertaining (Treadwells death is discussed early on in the film opposed to some ‘shock’ ending.), it is Herzog’s mastery over telling the story. Through his narration we not only get an insight into the facts and details of Treadwells life and passions, but we also hear Herzogs views on Treadwell and the footage captured by him over 5 years in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

The documentary, to some extent, is discussing what is Timothy Treadwells true reason for his summers with the bears. As a filmmaker, Treadwell manages to capture beauty – the fox playing on the top of the tent and then sitting outside, Treadwell tracking the chase following the playing in the grass, etc. Its fascinating this footage of the foxes – ‘Ghost’ and ‘Spirit’ – and if it wasn’t for the majesty of the Grizzly bears, this footage alone could show a fascinating insight into nature. As Herzog states himself, it really is warm and comforting to watch these playful animals amongst nature.

Interestingly enough, Herzog states his own opinion on things. On one level he agrees with Treadwells reason for capturing such beautiful footage on camera, while also stating how much he disagrees with Treadwell – as Treadwell pleads to the Gods for rain because the bears are ‘eating their babies’, Herzog knows that this is the nature of these animals and that this should be accepted and not looked upon as a heinous crime. This personal link Herzog has with the theme of this film is what pulls this film to a more important plain – there is no hidden truth or unexplained bias, Herzog states his opinion quite clearly, given you the opportunity to agree or disagree. Lets be honest, we all agree with him though.

One opinion he doesn’t state is what he thinks of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend (opposed to the girlfriend who died alongside him). She is quietly reserved about her real personal connection to Treadwell – she was a girlfriend, she was an employee, etc – but did she like him? love him? did she fear when he was out in the summer? did she argue with him about the safety or the danger of he grizzly bears? or did she feel the same? We see her receiving the watch he wore – we even know how it was found, attached to a ripped-off arm, post bear-eating – and she wears it, amazed it still works. It simply feels like she perceives it as some sort of prize or something – I don’t know how I’d feel if my ex-partner was eaten by a bear, but I feel that if I was given anything so attached to them I would simply break down – never having it captured on film and I sure as hell wouldn’t wear the watch. Thats just me. Maybe she is a stronger woman.

Funnily enough, in a film rooted in archive footage we do have a few interesting film references. Notably when Treadwell wakes to find that, around his tent, are piles of rocks – one of which has a smiley face on (uh-oh, a wanring?). Two years after the release of The Blair Witch Project you would imagine he would get the reference but, alas, he does not. He even see’s the message from the ‘poachers’ of ‘see you next year’ as some sort of threat – does it not just acknowledge his -and their – stance. As he will track and trace the Bears next year, they also will will track and do-what-they-do- next year. No ‘warning’, no threat – just a little joke.

The description of the final audio of both Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend is referred to a fair few times – obviously it is exceptionally powerful, but it also explains to us how the situation was in highly moving detail. Treadwell being attacked first, while Amy tells the bear to ‘go away!’ standing loyal to Treadwell before being killed herself. Her death, many people – including people featured in the documentary – is the real tragedy. A woman who wasn’t mad – crossing lines she knew she shouldn’t cross. This woman even thought that Treadwell was “bent on self-destruction”. Timothy Treadwell had demons in his closet – frustrations he vented through the camera akin to diary about the park itself and his trouble with women, etc. Amy did not want to appear on camera and was scared of the bears herself – is it possible that this choice to bring her along changed Treadwells composure and attitude – prompting the attack?

To close this (I need to write shorter reviews!), Treadwell regularly states throughout the documentary “I will die for these bears”, and he was granted this wish. His final videos are clearly very eerie and, although he believes in his ‘quest’, you question whether he understood enough about himself and the bears, to want to fight against it so strongly.

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