Memory, Images, History
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, UCLA Film & Television Archive
While the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival has only shown a few documentaries that one could characterize as "wildlife films,"this genre certainly speaks to the environmental concerns of the festival.
We are now observing a paradigm shift in the functionality of wildlife documentary films and television. For nearly eighty years, filmed images of the natural world conformed to the classic documentary aesthetic: Moving images were perceived to be
1.) an expansion of human vision
2.) a means of entering into a world that was invisible to the human eye,
3.) an extension of the physical body of the subject
4.) the creation of visual pleasure by bringing animals in their natural habitat closer to humans.
And while it is true that such visual documentation of animal life entailed narrative conventions that communicated overt and covert ideologies, these images referred to a real, physical world in which animals existed along side humans.
But we know than thousands of species are near extinction and many more are threatened. And how does our culture confront the extinction of animals, such as the polar bear?
One can legitimately ask, whether the growing obsession to document visually the animal world isn’t at least partially a desperate act "to save" wildlife for a virtual world? Today, the goal of wildlife filmmakers has become "preserving" animal life in a virtual world, so that society and science have a record of what might be lost.
Indeed. the urgency with which "the end of nature" is present in the master narratives of many recent wildlife documentaries, indicates that the worst fears of humanity are no longer unthinkable and may even become a reality.
Every moving image can potentially be the last "living" image of a species, in the truest sense of the word. In the not so distant future, then, our culture will possibly only see wild animals virtually.
Yet, rather than calling for collective action, for social protest, most wildlife films focus on individual naturalists, working in the wild. On television channels such as "Animal Planet," the trope of animal rescue is obsessively played out in the sphere of the private, allowing audiences to feel as if progress is actually being made, while the more difficult larger questions go unanswered.
In the digital world of animals, viewers glimpse the exotic and the familiar, the dangerous and the uncanny, the sweet and the cute, while anthropomorphism allows viewers to consume both the cute and the threatening without discomfort.
In the archive, animals continue to "live" in images.