A Film by Werner Herzog
Lions Gate Films
Opens August 12
Timothy Treadwell, self-styled protector of bears, spent 13 summers in Alaska living among the grizzlies of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Treadwell loved the bears with a passion that he could barely contain. He filmed the bears fighting, eating, defecating, swimming, and staring, serene or impassive, directly at his camera. It is quite possible that Treadwell would have liked to have been a bear. In October 2003 he—and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard—were eaten by a bear. Would-be rescuers shot the animal and retrieved "four garbage bags of people" from its insides.
In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog tells the remarkably strange story of this eccentric—some would say unhinged—naturalist, blending interviews with friends and detractors with extracts from Treadwell's own 100 hours of film. And extraordinary footage it is too. Two gigantic male grizzlies tussle ferociously over a female, biting great tufts of fur out of each other. An Arctic fox taps lightly on the roof of Treadwell's tent, before tearing off into its lair with the man's hat in his mouth. A bee, seemingly dead, dangles from a flower, then suddenly revives and resumes its foraging.
The most dramatic presence, however, is Treadwell himself, who uses the camera not just as an eye on nature but as a confessional too. In shot after carefully posed shot, he speaks of drinking binges that ended only after he had found solace among the bears, in whose presence he appears to experience a quasi-religious rapture. He speaks of himself as a "kind warrior" with a unique insight into the psychology of the grizzlies, whom he addresses with names such as "Mr. Chocolate" and "The Grinch." He rails against the National Park Service for failing to preserve the animals (although, as one ecologist notes, the 35,000 grizzlies that live in Alaska are not endangered) and calls upon a panoply of gods—among them a "Hindu floaty thing" to send rain after an exceptionally dry summer. (Evidently, the gods comply.)
Gorgeous as it is, Grizzly Man is more than mere nature documentary. In it Herzog asks profound questions about the complex nature of the relationship between humans and animals. To what extent do we Disneyfy our interactions with wild creatures, acting—as Treadwell did—as though he was working with people in bear costumes? If we think warm and fuzzy thoughts about animals, should we assume they feel the same way about us? And was Treadwell really "protecting" the bears or treading on terrain where he had no right to be?
As one native Alaskan points out, indigenous peoples in the region have maintained a 7,000-year-long relationship with the grizzlies only by respecting the distinctions between themselves and the bears. "You don't invade their territory," he says. "It's the ultimate disrespect. He did more damage because then you habituate them to humans. There is an unspoken boundary, and when you cross it, you pay the price."