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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view

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Posted by Gena Mangiaratti at 4:25PM
Arthur Smith

Blog post written by Gena Mangiaratti, Journalism ‘13, FLEFF Intern, Feeding Hills, Massachusetts

I recently got in touch with cinematographer and director Arthur Smith, who will be screening his documentary What Do Polar Bears Dream While They're Dying at 2:10 pm on Sunday, April 17 at Cinemapolis.

Smith, who lives in Alaska and warned me of the difficulties that could come with making a phone connection to the Arctic, took the time to answer my questions about his work in the following e-mail interview.

GM: When and how did you end up in Alaska? 

AS: I came to Alaska in 1992 on photo assignment.  I returned again in 1993 and traveled to the Arctic for a "bird shoot".  I immediately connected in a way that would prove to become an irresistible draw. In 2004 I came back to the Arctic and have since called it home. 

GM: Can you tell me a little about why you chose to make a film about polar bears? 

AS: It was not that I chose to make a film about polar bears; I came back to the Arctic to make a film about us — to find and identify that which compelled me to return north, to answer questions that I now believe I have just begun to understand. 

There is a connection to life that I believe is critical to the understanding and exercise of our place in the world. 

I feel strongly that if the connection is severed, or denied in total, a chaos, or disunity follows, leading to a free fall of civilization.  I question whether or not this may be the repetitive trigger that so many civilizations before us have suffered.  I question whether or not we are now there, staring into that abyss.

While polar bears are the most amazing animals I've ever witnessed, it's their innocence and purity that strikes a contrast to the corruption and greed that we humans choose to exercise.

Polar bears have become the perfect mirror in which, if we dare look, the state of humanity is reflected.  On so many levels and in so many ways, the Arctic now stands as a turning point in our history.

What I mean is:  we cannot deny the facts that have surfaced; we cannot deny the responsibility of our actions.  We should act to correct our course, but are likely to choose to do nothing, believing that more of what has brought us here, to this point in time, will somehow result in a different answer.

I am making films about polar bears so that we may see ourselves, to understand the true costs at stake, to measure how close we are to so perfect a life that we may soon doom to extinction.

The danger here is not that history will judge the course we elect, but that we'll be our own judges in real time.  The fate visited upon the polar bear is the same fate we are visiting upon ourselves.   

GM: How does the power of the red one camera contribute to your work's purpose?

AS: As an independent filmmaker, the RED is a tool of immeasurable worth.  It presents the ability to translate vision to art in a way that only a full 35mm cine system could previously accomplish.

To a studio setting, to big budget films, it may present a new way to continue what already is, but to someone like me, unsupported in a place such as the Arctic, the RED presents a revolutionary approach, redefining what is possible.

GM: A flyer for your film states: "life poisoned/home denied/death by greed/what if we all are the polar bear." 

Those first three lines almost sound like they could relate to a crisis involving human rights. Is this something you had in mind when coming up with the concept for this film?

AS: This is what I had in mind before I returned to the Arctic in 2004.   How we value and treat life is reflected in all life.   We cannot honestly compartmentalize life, creating single-dimensional aspects separate and apart from all others and then judge that individually, we stand safely.  All life is connected.

The toxification of the Arctic is a human rights issue.  The Inuit are the hardest hit people on earth.  Beyond the Arctic, however, studies are revealing that humans worldwide are carrying a lot of toxins.  I refer to this in my movie as well.

The polar bears share their fate, they reflect what we are doing to others and now, to ourselves, as new studies are revealing.

GM: The trailer for your film states that “Polar bears and pregnant women share many things in common.” How did you come up with the comparison between polar bears and pregnant women?

AS: Many of the same toxins that are appearing in pregnant women have been known to exist in polar bears and Inuit people for many years.  It was thought to be an Arctic problem.  Now we are learning it is a burden visited upon us all.

In a measure of the most sacred aspect of life, renewal, I'm wondering if we retain enough respect for life to not accept that our mothers, wives, daughters and children are to become the bearers of a toxic legacy.

As we have a tendency to study and review and study again, awaiting an answer before we act, I have to believe that some instances represent such an abhorrent and intuitive affront to life, that there can be only one answer:  no.  No levels of toxins are acceptable.  I think it's fairly easy to understand that this is not a situation where we should wait until it's broken before we respond.

These toxins persist for decades.  Studies on PBDE's began in the 90's.  A decade passed before action was taken. The price we will pay has yet to be fully realized.  When the day comes that really bad news breaks, we will bear consequences that we are unprepared to accept.

Read the study on the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill upon Orcas:

GM: How did you stay safe in filming this? How did you make it so your presence did not disrupt or affect the bears?

AS: Polar bears are perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented predators in natural history.  They are in fact social animals that are comprised of members of extended family groups; I like the term "clan".

Their behavior and tolerance toward each other translates to a generalized behavioral acceptance.  Provided one is not the menu, and not a threat, what is left to be concerned with?

As in any and all things, understanding is paramount.  I've learned polar bears.  You must be respectful and sensitive of their space.  One's behavior over time wins a trust and equivalent respect in return.

Many times, polar bears have accepted my presence and become completely oblivious to me.  I never push them.  They come close enough out of their own natural curiosity.

Certainly I make use of long focal lengths and am always mindful of physical exposure.  One point here is important: these bears are in great condition, very healthy and not starving.

Starving or famished predators are dangerous, but as I addressed in so many of the presentations of my first film, Ice Bears of the Beaufort, so would be a population of starving humans.  For me, it's a relatively easy task to safely and properly assess the demeanor of the bears by watching their behavior and judging their "civility."

If there's a touchy or problem bear, so far, I've succeeded in identifying and avoiding them.

GM: What do you hope a student audience will take from this film?

AS: I remember the 60's, the power and change represented within the unified cause for a just and civil state.  That power still exists, but must be realized and acted upon to affect a new direction for our future.  More of the same is no longer going to work. 


Save the date! - 2:10 pm on Sunday, April 17 at Cinemapolis, Arthur Smith will be screening and discussing What Do Polar Bears Dream When They're Dying.

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