Documentary Reviews: Blackfish / Grizzly Man / Searching For Sugarman

Last year I stumbled across some excellent documentary films through my generic film rental account and wanted to flag them up here. They encompass diverse subject matter and themes which are variously: fascinating, thought provoking, dramatic, entertaining and eminently watchable in their content.

Blackfish (2013) is a focus on the ethical issues involved in the capture of Orcas for performance show at parks such as SeaWorld. The film’s narrative chiefly follows the fate of one Orca in particular, Tilikum, but also situates the controversies and the concerns in its broader place within the entertainment industry. It is a very powerful documentary that involves interviews with several former SeaWorld employees, and one present. It shows how the animals were captured, separated from family members, trained and taught to perform for the entertainment of the audiences, and how the trainers bonded with the animals.  It also has footage of several trainers receiving serious injuries from the whales, in three cases leading to tragic deaths.  The trainers involved who were now testifying, clearly had great affection for the animals, and felt naively, in their own words, that they were forming positive relationships with the Orcas and weren’t subjecting them to any indecent cruelty.

The witnesses do come mostly from former industry insiders ( trainers ) and  long term critics; and  footage available from the 80s when the whales were captured and during the training certainly helps support and facilitate engagement with the arguments put forth by those most critical. Whilst there is a defending voice present in the documentary, a current employee who attempts to downplay the concerns, the general thrust is understandably polemic in it’s approach. That is not a criticism: from the  evidence and testimony put forth, it becomes a drama in which critics seek answers to the failings that led to multiple human deaths and also whale injury as a result of the practices. It tries to hold SeaWorld in particular to account for its actions, and for anyone watching it seems to hard to deny there is serious negligence and culpability involved to some degree. In doing so it also raises the ethical spectre of capturing wild animals for human amusement.

It is shocking, well narrated and very interesting, at the very least provoking further questions over the means by which animals in general  are utilised for human entertainment. Where is the ethical line which must not be breached? As a starting point, this film highlights at least one tragic case where this has already been crossed.  Ever powerful viewing, it leaves an indelible mark on the mind long after the film has ended.

Searching For Sugarman (2013) – is an altogether different film, removed from such controversial debates. Sixto Rodriguez was an early 70’s musician who after an initial fleeting success appeared to fade into obscurity, in western consciousness, but had become a huge success in South Africa during Apartheid amongst the liberal rock fan community.  After his success has ended there, the rock community has been awash with rumours that ‘the man-the myth’ had committed suicide in outlandish fashion, with the method of death varying from rumour to rumour.

The documentary is made by Malik Benjelloul, who came across Sixto’s story whilst travelling through Africa, and struck by the tales attached to this musician, he charts two particular fans efforts to discover the truth behind the rumours, with plenty of material and interview footage developed in the process. It is a film about music, obsession and questing, as much a reflection of the makers mindset as it is of the subject matter itself, if not moreso.

It is  clearly a very personal project, which is the film’s greatest strength charting the search by a pair of South African music fanatics, with their enthusiasm self evident as they discuss the impact of Rodriguez on their youth in the political climate of Apartheid, and the soundtrack is obviously full of the artists recordings which provide a wonderful rhythm to proceedings. It is worth noting that  the less you know about how the documentary unfurls the better, as it accentuates the enjoyment that little bit further, so I won’t reveal any more details, suffice to say it is a very heartfelt story that is knitted together so well by Benjelloul who ran his funds to the limit, requiring the use of his mobile phone camera for a spell to help complete the project.

Grizzly Man ( 2005 ): It’s a return to human-animal relationships here, with Werner Herzog’s documentary on the life of Timothy Treadwell – a man who has a clear love / obsession with Grizzly bears. The film meshes interviews with those who knew Treadwell with footage that Treadwell himself had taken whilst out filming the bears in the wild. What starts out as an innocent profile of a man with a very keen interest becomes a complex study of his personality entirely. It is clear that Treadwell fancies himself as an educator for children, of promoting an affection for animals in nature, he even believes strongly in the ability to form close bonds with the animals themselves – and these claims and the man himself are examined chiefly through his own words and images themselves. The footage he takes of the animals is clearly very impressive, he gets remarkably close up to the bears – and other animals whose paths he crosses – and is suggestive of a man who has found his calling, yet the portrait develops into an altogether more complicated image.

It is an extraordinary watch, and Herzog has had to go through many hours worth of reel to weave together a profile of the man, of what he – Herzog – believes he can conclude from this tale of obsession. It is an identity that is inevitably partially rooted in how Treadwell’s youth shaped him – interviews with family members suggest he had his struggles – whilst Werner as narrator vocally provides his own impressions too – but it is possibly the confessional nature of Treadwell’s own lens that often prove most revealing of a personality that becomes ever more disturbing and odd the more we see.  The nature of attention and a certain sort of fame he begins to attract, evidently takes hold in his psyche, and affects his own perception of his relationship with the animals.

That there is a tragic conclusion to the tale becomes inevitable after his repeat journeys year on year; he invites a friend up to join him one particularly fateful summer when food shortages have left the bears hungrier and bolder, leading to an unsurprising fatal attack.  We have the coroner marking the final moments of Treadwell in bizarrely detached fashion, whilst the sight of Herzog himself listening to the final moments of Treadwell – the recording equipment was on – heightens the impact further especially when Herzog then immediately warns anyone not to listen to the tape for their own good.

As is the norm with anything Herzog does, there is no set polemical judgement available but rather a profoundly complex distillation of a certain kind of life that reflects the many lights of a human spirit across its broad spectrum, and it leaves you fundamentally engaged and entranced in its encapsulation ( in my view ) of the limits of man’s relationship with nature.