The short description of this film has you from the telling, a man living with wild bears. That’s all it took to have me interested, and the name Werner Herzog didn’t even have an impact on that. It took a screener from one of my local cinemas, the Filmhouse, for me to finally see the documentary, and it turned out to be an interesting journey into the life of a very troubled man.
The documentary starts off as a gorgeous tale of a man trying to get close to and understand these beautiful animals. It could be mistaken for a proper WWF (not wrestling) documentary, there are even direct comparisons to be made with these TV wildlife presenters who seem to carry out insane acts on our television screens and are revered for them. The difference here is that the man pictured on our screens is dead because of his interaction with animals.
This is the most intriguing thing throughout the movie that we hold onto, realising all the time that the man we are seeing talking and interacting with the wild animals is dead because of them, and later we learn that the tape exists of his death. These factors stick in your mind and the rather garish aspect of our personalities keeps us glued to the screen.
Some of the footage from taken by Timothy Treadwell is fascinating, gorgeous and heartwarming to watch. The shots of the bears sleeping or going about their daily business, the foxes playing like kittens do, all set against the stunning backdrop of the Alaskan scenery. These type of shots are the very ones that attract us to the animals, perhaps as Timothy once was, rarely do we see the harsher side of the animals and when we do it’s for the pace of the documentary.
So it does start out with this stylised almost Disney style animal documentary, portraying both animal and man in a positive and glowing light, but that changes throughout the film as the revelations of Treadwell begin to show that he was a confused and troubled man trying to escape human life.
That is quite cleverly created through the documentary, as the excerpts from his footage show more and more of his behind the scenes personality. The editing here is done very well, and nowhere is it better shown than just after the Coroner is talking about his final moments and we cut to footage Treadwell took of two bears in combat. It’s here that the real point of the documentary hits home and any Disney feeling is totally lost.
Treadwell is shown in an light that continually dulls as the film progresses, yet despite his eccentricity and to a degree his madness, you continually feel drawn to him and an aching sorrow for his loss. Again to return to the TV personalities who do this kind of thing weekly on screen, there’s no reason to pick Treadwell out for doing what he did. It’s just the fact that he died makes the requirement to adopt a more judgmental attitude towards his behaviour, ultimately he was trying to understand these animals and increase our awareness of them.
Despite the editing and the progression of the character revelations, there’s still somewhat of a non traditional feel to the progression of the story by Herzog. It does work well, but there are leaps back and forth between showing a negative side to showing a more positive side, taking you from feeling for him to judging from one scene to another. It does seem to lose its way somewhat in the middle of the film, almost adopting the personality of the Treadwell we are shown by this leaping back and forth, yet there’s enough to keep the progression of the character flowing and also to keep you wondering which was the real side of this man.
The other characters shown in this film are quite odd. They are very American in relation to us British folk, and by that I would mean over the top, over emotional and very eccentric. Yes these are the facts and these are the people, but it makes it harder for a foreign audience to access. What can be done about this I don’t know, as these are the characters involved in the real life of Treadwell.
These personalities also lend to another issue with the film, where some of the scenes seem staged and almost acted, not very real at all. It’s not something that happens too often, but when it does you get the feeling that the scene has either been rehearsed or they have run through what they are about to say.
A final aspect of the film I found odd was the involvement of Herzog himself. Through the movie he more than edits and narrates, in some interviews it really is as though he leads the interviewee with loaded and pointed questions, driving them and the story forward. I also got the feeling that he became quite involved as a character in the story rather than the film maker, although I don’t know if this was a deliberate move or not it does stick out from the rest of the movie.
Overall it’s a moving, beautiful and quite hopeless documentary. You do feel for the character of Treadwell, and overall for the film itself, but it is continually on and off as you are taken through an emotional moment and then shown another scene of happiness with the creatures, it’s not the most structured of documentaries, but it is one guaranteed to make you feel something. An interesting and engaging documentary, although by no means perfect.