As a child in Victoria, B.C., I went on weekly hikes with local naturalist Freeman King. We called him "Skip". Each Saturday afternoon my parents would drop off my brothers and me in a mall parking lot and some obliging adult among the collected hikers would drive us to a place chosen by Skip. Although Victoria is on the tip of Vancouver Island and surrounded by ocean, I don't recall many treks along the beach. Instead, I remember walking down soft humus-laden trails, aromatic cedar boughs close in around us, as Skip periodically called the group to a halt to point out some interesting aspect of the natural world around us. Years later I found out that my older brother remembered the names of all the plants and trees; that's what his detail-oriented, somewhat obsessive mind retained. Those names are long since faded from my memory; I retain a wonderous understanding of nature as an interconnected system. I remember Skip standing by a fallen log and telling us how the death of one tree opened the way for new life forms: insects, lichens and mushrooms that fed on the rotting wood giving way with time to small shrubs and plants and eventually to a new tree, its roots embedded in the remains of the mighty giant that lived and died before it.
Timothy Treadwell too was a naturalist, though some prefer to refer to him by the more militant-sounding eco warrior. Like Skip, Treadwell lived and reveled in nature, and like Skip he took his message out to educate the public, particlarly children. But the world he chose to inabit was rather more dangerous than the one we tramped through as kids. Every summer from 1990 till his death in 2003, Treadwell travelled from California to Alaska, where he pitched his tent in Katmai National Park and lived amongst the fearsomely large brown bears knows as grizzlies. Unarmed, he observed the bears, befriended the foxes, and, in the last few years, videotaped his life in the wilderness. After he died - he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, mauled and eaten by the bears he loved so much - Werner Herzog was given access to more than 100 hours of film that Treadwell had accumulated over the years. This 2005 documentary resulted from Herzog's use of that material.
Herzog has always been drawn to men who live their lives on the edge. This extraordinary film chronicles such a man, presenting a balanced portrait which acknowledges Treadwell's achievements and his flaws alike. Treadwell shot amazingly intimate footage of bears grazing in meadows, fishing during the salmon spawn, fighting during mating season. He knew how to live amongst the bears and how to react when they became aggressive; one scene shows him driving off a bear who came too close to him in a threatening manner. He was fully aware of how dangerous the ursines are and declares time and again that they could kill him. Yet he romanticized them as well, constantly declaring his love for them, and for the much less dangerous, but very mischievous, foxes. He allowed the animals to become habituated to him; the foxes even let him pet them and play with their pups. He styled himself these wild animals' protector, though what he was protecting them from wasn't clear, as they live in a huge animal sanctuary, in an environment of relative abundance. He was suspicious and paranoid of human outsiders, even peaceful guides bringing tourists on photo safaris. When someone drew smiley faces on a tree in his campsite, he ranted to his camera about what he perceived to be a terrifying , "Freddy Krueger creepy", threat. In his mind, he was the bears' saviour, and no one else had any right to be near them.
Herzog interviews Treadwell's parents, who recall that he was a solid B student, a lover of animals from an early age, a university swimming champion. But when he hurt his back his life began to spin out of control, and he took refuge in alchohol and drugs. He moved to California hoping to become an actor, but descended deeper into alcoholism when he lost the role of bartender on "Cheers" to Ted Danson. It wasn't till he went to Alaska for the first time that his life began to turn around; falling in love with the bears and the natural environment there, he was able to stop drinking and find a purpose in life. Treadwell filmed the bears, but also filmed himself in front of them, sometimes talking about their lives, but also about his own life, his problems with alcohol and women, his loneliness, his aspirations for making the definitive movie about his life in nature, shooting take after take of himself narrating what he hoped would be the film that would make him a star. A friend from his California days recalls how Treadwell could surf and emerge from the water with his hair hiding his receding hairline, every time; many of the shots from Alaska involve Treadwell fiddling with his hair and carefully arranging different coloured bandanas to achieve maximum effect.
Herzog's gentle narration intercedes to discuss the material Treadwell left behind. He remarks, for example, on how Treadwell presented himself as a man alone when in fact Amie was with him, and points out that there are only a few shots of her, almost never with her face visible, lamenting the fact that she remains a cipher. When Treadwell and Amie were killed the camera was running, lens cap on, and another former girlfriend lets Herzog listen to these final moments of their lives. He spares us these harrowing sounds, and advises her never to listen to it, and to destroy the film, for otherwise it will be a "white elephant" in her life. He interviews the eloquent, if rather loony, undertaker who received the garbage bags full of the body parts of Treadwell and Amie removed from the stomach of the bear that the Park Service shot after the killings were discovered; from him we learn some unsettling details of what was contained in the tape.
This is a skillfully constructed film that presents a nuanced portrait of a complex character. Treadwell did something - living amongst the grizzlies - that seems foolhardy to most of us, but that he was able to do so for 13 years before being harmed shows that he knew what he was doing. He was closer to, and more knowledgeable about, grizzly bears than almost anyone alive, and he used his knowledge to educate children about the lives of these great creatures. He battled his inner demons, not always successfully, but he found a purpose and meaning in his life and, strange as it may seem, probably died as he would have wanted to.
This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it.