Animal features: new nature documentary

As Leviathan hits London cinemas this month, Luke Moody compiles a list of animal features and talks about the endoscopic camera eye in the new nature documentary.


Leviathan (2012)
Leviathan (2012)

I’ve never worked a wave beaten shift on a night time fishing trawler in the North Atlantic. I will never become a motor-powered boat nor squirm like a slowly dying sea fish. Yet, after watching the documentary Leviathan projected onto a screen in London, I feel that I have lived through all of these. However I did not feel that I experienced this as a human, sea gull, starfish or fish, but as a techno-organic hybrid ‘camera-human’ or a ‘camera-fish’: An artificial sensory body, similar to the real eyes and ears on board this vessel, but always feeling a bit ‘tinny’, lens-filtered and plastic.

Whether or not these impressions were intended by the filmmakers, this film, ostensibly a rugged record of one night’s expedition into the wild sea, did seem to be an attempt to give a new documentary experience of the human animal world.

The tradition of nature documentary or wildlife filmmaking evokes images of the human centred exploration by Cousteau and Attenborough, with discovery of animal world perception being the subject rather than the method of the film. However, this zoological desire to be audio visually closer to the lives of animals has benefitted advancement of technological invention; building camera rigged sets, hives, nest boxes and submerging cameras to new depths of the ocean. The scientific need to observe untamed subjects in their natural habitat necessitates evolved approaches filmmaking methodology, see the beautiful early 20th century BFI DVD collection Secrets of Nature.Yet the creative results of these endeavours have often been restrained, conservative and always from a human storytelling perspective.

Leviathan (2012)

The present excitement about increasingly smaller, more mobile and more powerful cameras continues this desire to be given new images, new perspectives on the world. Leviathan seems to embrace combined axis of techno-perceptive advancement. The film adopts the gopro, a small rugged HD sports camera, to cinematically decentre and dehumanise the film audience, offering a journey that is neither simply zoological nor something zoomorphic attempting to embody the animal’s point of view. The resulting journey is engrossing but rollercoaster disorientating with moments of deep thrilling engagement and others of slow anticipatory distance.

What perspective do these miniature cameras provide when removed from the hand, removed from the dexterity of a DOP and thrust freefall into the bestial world? Do we now have an option to see the bird’s eye view or a drones eye view?

Le Quattro Volte (2010)
Le Quattro Volte (2010)

Leviathan continues a recent resurgence of new theatrical nature documentaries, but very few place the viewer in such sensorial proximity with their subject. Bestiare (2012), Nenette (2010), Le Quattro Volte (2010), Bovines (2011), Facing Animals (2012) take a step back and stand in an objective category of nature films, simply observing animals from close proximity and making little human interpretation of their life as story. Other
contemporary examples show entwined worlds of humans and animals in the frame of creative anthropological and traditional narrative cinema: Sweetgrass (2009), Winged Migration (2001), Aatsinki (2013), Grizzly Man (2005), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003), The Day of the Sparrow (2010), Birders: The Central Park Effect (2012), The Moo Man (2013) and Blackfish (2013).

What shifts in perceptive politics are induced by more animal centric cinema? One obvious danger is that the non-human image becomes a misanthropic image, criticising the way mankind ruthlessly constructs, consumes and ultimately abuses that which is non-human. This polemical ‘human vs animal’ cinema has some history in politically motivated environmental and food chain documentaries like The Cove (2009) or The End of the Line (2009). Plus a more creative lineage such as Baraka (1992) or more recently Animal Love (1996) and Our Daily Bread (2005). These two films achieve a sense of distant, alien gaze towards the human, a gaze that is perhaps not human or animal but its awkwardly misanthropic images place sympathy with the latter.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This growing number of new nature documentaries show a willingness to go beyond the tradition of objectifying distance and romanticising narrative construction common of earlier wildlife filmmaking. Yet they still observe animal behaviour, movement and interaction from the exterior perch of a manned camera. Leviathan further disrupts tradition by pushing the viewer into a discomforting, zoomorphic closeness to the animal as a subject, so close that it’s no longer the subject that we tell a story about: The sensorial experience of the subject is the story drive and the camera becomes the sensorial subject. Such documentary proximity prompts the question: If we as viewers become the animal, can we reflect upon the animal world as a human or as an animal? Are we still able to create a narrative in human terms? Is narrative structure necessary in primarily sensorial cinema?

Cousteau's camera
Cousteau’s camera

Humourously one blog comment remarked in response to Leviathan:  ‘David Attenborough saw this in a theatre, and halfway through started shouting out verbs.’ Of course human descriptive language is not of the animal perceptive vocabulary. Perhaps Leviathan attempts a cinema language of the senses where objects, humans and animals, solids, liquids and gases are fused; nullifying external human subjective or objective stance. Almost an anti-intellectual cinema hailing from the intellectual grounds of Harvard Sensory Lab.

It would be easy to label cinema that preferences the stimulation of the senses over narrative as simple childish, primitive and playful modes of looking the world. Yet this form of cinema feels more arresting for the mind and body than hand-holding, dictated narratives that require little reconfiguration of a spectator’s point of view. It’s the beautiful difference between getting lost in the wonder of a place and using a GPS journey planner to get from point to point.

Bovines (2011)
Bovines (2011)

For urban cinema goers, the environment given in Leviathan is extraordinary in its harshness of conditions therefore it takes time and observation to adjust and feel present in such a place. Even if sensorial cinema’s central offering is a very literal displacement of human point of view, the duration of altered exposure has a transformative and transplanting quality for the blackbox cinema audience.

How do we film in a way that makes us feel animal? Fictional cinema such as The Birds (1963), The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) and recently For Those in Peril (2013) readily use the whole body of the animal as totemic devices for psychological and emotional change in a narrative. Robert Bresson moved closer to specific animal body qualities. Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) shows a highly economic use of symbolic framing of the donkey; capturing a sad eye, a scraping foot of impatience, a shaking tale of anger.

However these images are always positing the viewer outside of the animal. Perhaps as technological development permits us to see the animal’s world much closer, from zoomorphic perspectives, the ethical position of new nature documentary will be one of deep empathy rather than distant sympathy, not a question of ‘how do we look at’, but ‘how do we see as’. How do we feel and see as the animal? The answer is not simply attaching a camera to an animal’s head. After watching Leviathan it appears that a disembodied camera offers the presence and point of view of a camera body not the prosthetic host.

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)
Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Why preference the position of the eye being the position of the body as a whole: the body-vision. What happens if we view the world from a camera attached to the bear’s claw, the whale’s fin or bird’s wing? Each body parts give distinct qualities of movement, texture and pace very different from the eye. Why not embody these movements? Would the human viewer become nauseous? Would this form of sensorial cinema be unwatchable? On a very simple level: how do the new images we are afforded by these technologies make us feel when watched at length? I would argue that in the case of Leviathan they make us feel less human, less animal and more like an indestructibly prodding, endoscopic camera eye.

Leviathan (2012)
Leviathan (2012)

The duration of sensorial exposure seems to be a repeated criticism of Leviathan, and perhaps the intensity of scenes awash with waves and drifting starfish make other more straight forward observational moments in the shower or the gutting room feel dull and numb in comparison. In an animal world, absent of dialogue and human emotion, where we place the camera becomes a primary concern for the viewer. Thus the awe inspiring bird’s-eye-view shot becomes a unique selling point for the film. But now that we can poke a camera into almost any bestial space, what will differentiate strength of filmmaking in new nature documentaries of the future?

Nenette (2010) in production
Nenette (2010) in production

Leviathan purposefully makes the viewer aware of the machine, they embody the machine, seeing through the shaken camera body and hearing the tinny sound of a submerged low-grade microphone.  This is sensing the subject through technological perception: The wired eyes and ears pinball documenting its subject as it prods, pushes, blurs, drifts, clashes, shreiks, whines, grinds and blows in an attempt to transmit the material qualities of the camera’s immediate environment, it becomes a mechanical chameleon. Despite numerous waves of mainstream reflexive directing it is rare to see a film acknowledge its own technology of production.  Here the materiality of the subject meets the materiality of the filmmaking technology. It is no less immersive for acknowledging the mediatory machine filter that gives us these images.

The film hasn’t simply provided a step forward in cinematic nature documentary filmmaking but has made an argument for exploration of a sensorial cinema that opens the door to forthcoming affordable digital production equipment such as drone cameras and advanced miniature sports cameras. Increasingly, in an attempt to sense the world of nature, technology and things, the camera will move out of the hand and into the bodyspace of its subject.

Luke W Moody is a cineaste and maker based in London. He currently works for BRITDOC Foundation and runs, literally runs, an artist filmmaker bursary itsgotlegs. You can contact him here.


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