Nature documentaries: warn or just dream away?

Imposing glaciers, endless expanses of ice, king penguins and the rare snow petrel: singer and birdwatcher Ruben Hein encounters them all during his Sounds of the South recorded trip to the South Pole. Hein takes inspiration from nature for his music and gradually realizes that besides being awe-inspiring, it is also vulnerable. He sees animals that may no longer be there within a generation.

Hein is not the first to travel to Antarctica. Sounds of the South joins a history of expedition films, such as the still beautiful The Great White Silence (1924) by pioneer Herbert Ponting. Nature movies like Sounds of the South are as old as cinema itself.

Also read an interview with Ruben Hein: ‘We have lost touch with the natural world’

Two years after the first cinema screening in 1895, curious onlookers could watch Elephants at the Zoo. The short film consisting of one camera setting is illustrative of the first decade of nature documentary. It is mainly made for practical reasons in zoos or in terrariums in film studios. It’s spectacular entertainment, but always with a scientific sauce, like The film of the fallen Katze (1900) by the German film pioneer Oskar Messter, which shows in slow-motion how a falling cat always lands on its feet. The fact that nature films are ‘infotainment’ pur sang is still true.

A few years later, the first hunting films such as Roosevelt in Africa (1909), with former President Theodore Roosevelt. Such early hunting and safari films are full of exoticism about strange peoples and protagonists armed to the teeth, who above all show that nature is something to be conquered.

Nature films and technology are closely related. Without microscopes, micro and macro photography, telephoto lenses, time lapse and slow motion and nowadays ‘high definition’ the genre would be little. The nature documentary excels at making the invisible visible, be it bacteria or the seahorses filmed under water by Jean PainlevĂ©.

A good example is Birth of a Flower from 1910, in which nature film pioneer F. Percy Smith uses time lapse photography to show how different flowers open their petals. It produces wonderfully beautiful, abstracted images that also appeal to fans of avant-garde films. For example, the Dutch Filmliga, a proponent of artistic film, liked to watch the films of Haarlemmer JC Mol, who in From the realm of crystals (1928) filmed crystals through a microscope, with beautiful abstract results – a work that came close to the ideal of the Filmliga: the ‘absolute film’.

Three years after the end of World War II, Disney began a series of groundbreaking wildlife films, filmed in color: True Life Adventures (between 1948 and 1960 fourteen films; 7 short, 7 long). Many a baby boomer grew up with these movies that are now especially controversial. Partly because Disney sometimes staged but mainly because of the anthropomorphism; the ‘Disneyfication’ of nature. For example, animals are assigned human characteristics through the voice-over, we mainly see ‘cute’ animals, the more gruesome aspects of the animal kingdom are left out of the picture and music plays a particularly guiding, sometimes funny role.

Characteristic for Disney’s nature films is the idea that the nuclear family also plays a central role in nature. Worse than the stagings, the ingrained sentiment and manipulation through editing are the countless examples of cruelty to animals. This is how the filmmakers threw in White Wilderness (1958) Lemmings off a cliff. That helped spread the myth that lemmings can collectively commit suicide by jumping off a cliff.

Climate change

In 2008, Disney started the film studio ‘Disneynature’, a part of the influential media conglomerate devoted entirely to nature films. chimpanzee was one of their first productions and entirely in Disney tradition it turned out to be quite anthropomorphic.

That can also be different. Since 1955, David Attenborough has been creating wildlife programs for the BBC that are as influential as Disney’s ever were. Attenborough (1926) is more scientific than Disney, although his documentaries are also full of guiding music and there is mainly attention for the lovely or, on the contrary, cruel sides of nature: birth, love between parent and child, and ‘eating or being eaten’. The fact that animals in the wild often do nothing and mainly rest or sleep is something that is hardly ever shown in nature films.

Only in recent years has Attenborough become more outspoken about the impact of climate change on nature, particularly in his film A Life on Our Planet from 2020. That film follows in the footsteps of the environmentally conscious films from the 1970s. This is how Johan van der Keuken made in 1978 The flat jungle about the imbalance between man and nature in the Wadden area. The trend of films showing humans destroying their habitats culminated in 1981 in The Animals Movie. In it, the consumption of meat, animal testing and other matters related to animal welfare were portrayed in a plastic way.

The Animals Movie was a bridge too far for people who mainly associate nature films with amazement, mystery and comfort, although the explicitly engaged nature documentary, whether or not set to an alarmist tone, is once again on the rise. And with good reason, because before you know it, nature films have unintentionally captured landscapes and animals for a hundred years that will soon be gone for good.

‘Sounds of the South’ is part of the Nature on Tour program with six recent nature films. To be seen from 12 May in various cinemas.

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