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Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man

By Ben Nicholson • February 18th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
GRIZZLY MAN (DOCUMENTARY)
Lionsgate Films

Original release: August 12th, 2005
Running time: 103 minutes

Writer and director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man

In the run up to the 78th Academy Awards in 2006 I’d seen two very contrasting nature documentaries. One was Luc Jacquet’s sugary tale of avian endurance March of the Penguins, which went on to beat other nominees like Murderball and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to the prize come the big night. The other, which was not even long-listed for an Oscar, was Werner Herzog’s astonishing Grizzly Man which was not only the best doc of that year but is, to this point, the best feature documentary I have ever seen.

Werner Herzog is a fascinating filmmaker. He began his career in the early 1960’s with the body builder short Herakles and then, after a few more shorts and his first feature, he made his first TV documentary, Flying Doctors of East Africa in 1969 which is a relatively standard documentary given his somewhat alternative narrative films of the period such as Even Dwarfs Started Small. By 1977’s La Soufriere he seems to have moved (via the odd and difficult docu-poem Fata Morgana) much further towards the kind of documentary making which has made him one of the most intriguing documentarians in cinema.

Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell. Using a mixture of footage shot by Treadwell himself and a selection of interviews with friends and relations, Herzog paints us a portrait of a man, a failed actor and recovered drug addict and alcoholic, who spends the summer months of every year living in the Katmai National Park in Alaska. An environmentalist, eco-warrior and most significantly a self styled saviour of the bears, he spends his time camping in areas which he calls the ‘Sanctuary’ and the ‘Grizzly Maze’ learning about the bears and simultaneously getting some remarkable footage of them in the wild.

Treadwell spends the rest of the year championing the cause of the bears and touring schools teaching children about these majestic creatures asking no fee in return. Tragically, in 2003, Timothy and his girlfriend (Amie Huguenard) were killed by one of the very bears he claimed to protect.

Gizzly Man is an incredible documentary for a whole host of reasons. The first and foremost of these is the portrait of this man which is constructed from his own tapes and from other people’s recollections of him. Ultimately he is summed up most succinctly by Sam Egli, a helicopter pilot who assisted in the ‘clean up’ after the attack.

Gizzly Man

“Treadwell was meaning well, I think, trying to do things to help the resource of the bears but to me he was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there instead of wild animals. Those bears are big and ferocious and they come equipped to kill you and eat you and that’s just what Treadwell was asking for; he got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved in my opinion.”

Some people feel that his behaviour in itself was actually doing more harm to the bears than protecting them as it may have led the bears to become habituated to humans and think them safe; the local people of Alaska had always steered clear of the bears and paid them the respect that they deserved. When asked about it, one local man says:

“If I look at it from my culture, Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for seven thousand years.”

Treadwell was clearly a troubled man. Even outside of his behaviour towards the bears (poking their snouts, telling them off like small children and believing them friends and companions) there is also evidence of his wanting to actually become a bear and reports of him acting like a bear when encountering other people out in the wild. Throughout his time in the wild, the camera also acts as his confessional and we Gizzly Manlearn about some of Treadwell’s past mistakes and see him at his most lonely and vulnerable and also at his most aggressive – especially in one scene when he colourfully berates the park services and their attitude towards him.

Some of the footage in the film, taken by Treadwell over his time in Alaska, is truly stunning and the kind of thing we would expect to see on a David Attenborough show on the BBC. In particular there is an intense battle between two bears which the camera can only be a matter of yards from them as they tear at each other with fur flying and, in expending so much effort in attack, one of them loses control of his bowels. The place where Herzog does have intense respect fort Treadwell seems to be as a documentary maker and it’s the moments that come completely by chance – including a scene or two with local foxes – that he feels could not have been got any other way.

Ultimately though, this film is a look not at the bears but at this deeply troubled man and his misconceptions about his own place in the Alaskan wild. His disdain for human society may have driven him to spend more time in the wild, but it is belief that he had been accepted by the bears that led to his death and the considerably more tragic death of his girlfriend on only her second visit to the bears and who was – rightly – terrified of them. He is at times infuriating to watch but the film is always utterly compelling.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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