At every seminar you attend, at every event you frequent, panelists wax philosophical about how it’s all about the tale.
This year’s Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival was no different. Learn the dogma: What’s important in a film? ‘The story’… whack (sound of stick hitting skull). What should we focus on? ‘The story’… whack. When shall we focus on the story? ‘Always’… whack. Then why do writers get such minuscule credits and pay? ‘Quiet you’… whack.
To still the ringing in my ears, I sought the refuge of a dark screening room to see what all the headaches were for. Surely here it would all make sense…
Couldn’t be further from the truth. In most of the films, it would take a Serengeti tracker to find a relevant plot among all the pretty pictures. Sure, I was impressed as heck with all the new cameras and night-vision technology – although some of it was dubious. (Are we really meant to believe that there are two moons, brightly shining from either side of the frame?) Then there was the critter-cam. Don’t even get me started on the practise of tying/gluing/pinning cameras to animals. (Personally, I’m waiting for aliens to begin the process with accountants…)
There were a few notable highlights – Jen Ciraldo’s Dog Gone! and the BBC NHU’s Spiders From Mars, for example – but it seemed, unbelievably, that the lesson hadn’t been learned.
Then on one afternoon, I found myself sitting in the dark, killing time as I waited for the next David Attenborough film to begin. (Has someone liquidated the surplus narrators in England?) Up next on the slate: some drab, subtitled story about an aging Inuit hunter, whinging on about his life and how it’s over, and how everything now is all screwed up. Well, I did really want to see the film about ants that was to follow….
However, what I witnessed was the most riveting piece of film I had seen all week. The movie: Vision Man, by Lars Aby and William Long of Aby-Long Productions in Sweden. It’s hardly surprising it won the Grand Teton Award as best of the Festival. What was surprising was how much it stood out among the crowd.
I must confess that after one week in Jackson, I’d seen just about every sort of animal you can think of fornicate at least once. I’d also seen every kind of kill you can imagine… twice, generally in slow-motion. There’s only so many animal slasher/porno movies you can take.
What made Vision Man so different? The problem with most natural history filmmakers is that they’re so painfully aware that they’re natural history filmmakers. Vision Man was a beautiful piece of film that happened to be about man and nature. It was not as awkwardly self-aware as most of the other films in Jackson.
The problem is that of competing dogma. Films have stories. Wildlife films have science, and biology, and all the other ologies that make for wonderful educational filmstrips but horrible primetime ratings. (Could it be the broadcasters who want more sex and violence? No!) As long as wildlife filmmakers concentrate on things eating other things (or at least having sex with them), there’s no story – there’s no drama or surprise. Intercourse and death aren’t stories, they’re results of predictable behaviors, and predictable behavior makes for rotten storytelling.
Maybe the dogma tutors need to get a bigger stick?