Directed by Werner Herzog (2005)
In 100 years of keeping records in Alaska, less than 12 people have been killed by grizzly bears, according to German director Werner Herzog. Herzog's film Grizzly Man documents two of them, the first known bear killings in Alaska's 4.7 million-acre Katmai National Park. In October 2003, the bodies of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell and his friend Amie Huguenard were found near Kaflia Bay when a pilot arrived to pick them up and take them to Kodiak Island. A starving thousand-pound, 28-year-old male grizzly, unknown to the area had mauled Treadwell and Huguenard to death. The film tells the story of the self-styled protector of bears and co-author of the book "Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska."
Treadwell spent more than a dozen summers living with bears in the area he called the Grizzly Maze and videotaped over 100 hours of footage during the last five years. Complemented by narration from Herzog, Treadwell tells his own story in front of the camera. He was an aspiring actor who dealt with drug and alcohol problems in California before he moved to Alaska in the summer of 1989. It is unclear how much of his determination to live among the bears resulted from his love of nature or from his need to escape his problems at home. In any event, he became a friend to the bears and developed a brash confidence around them, giving them names such as Mr. Chocolate, the Grinch and Sgt. Brown, and often getting so close he could touch them. Though the image of Treadwell is of being reckless and foolhardy, according to John Rogers, owner of Coastal Bear Tours who knew him, "his (Treadwell's) knowledge and understanding of bears was equal to the experience of any commercial bear viewing guide or bear specialist in Katmai National Park, better than most".
Far from being delusional or failing to deal appropriately with nature and recognize its dangers, Rogers says, "he was not one to blithely walk up to a bear, he was cautious, even fearful, around bears he didnt know, but he developed relationships and mutual trust with a few individual bears over the years". Though the film raises complex questions that do not lend themselves to easy answers, it has nonetheless been seized upon by the corporate media to denounce environmentalists and those who dare to live on the edge of society. Treadwell has been called a nut, a certified madman, foolish, obsessive, an egomaniac, bipolar, paranoid and schizophrenic. While his on-camera behavior is often bizarre and at times repugnant, we don't know how much this represents who Treadwell really was or even whether Mr. Herzog selected particular footage to produce a desired effect.
Bizarre or not, the fact remains that Timothy did what he said. He lived in open and honest communication with wild animals for thirteen long years, a feat that required mental and physical toughness, endurance, and commitment. In the process, he educated thousands of children by speaking in schools without compensation, and founded "Grizzly People", an organization devoted to preserving bears and their wilderness habitat. Though he does express admiration for his filmmaking ability, Herzog makes clear his antipathy to much of what Treadwell stands for. He refers to environmental activists as "tree huggers" and sees nature as "chaotic, hostile, and murderous". Treadwell's nature photography is beautiful, showing things that we may have never seen before, particularly a fight between two huge bears, yet Herzog cannot resist getting in a dig at unions with his remark that his footage is something "studio directors with their union crews could never dream of".
Grizzly Man, under Herzog's direction, veers toward the sensational. In one sequence Treadwell demonstrates the emotional maturity of an eleven-year old in an expletive-laden rant against the Park Service, but the sequence has no timeframe and no context. Herzog also criticizes Treadwell's celebrity status, describing him as "a star by virtue of his own invention." (He had appeared on David Letterman's Late Show, the Discovery Channel's Discovery Sunday, and other television programs.) Although interviews with people who knew Treadwell appear to be balanced, some of them seem staged for melodramatic effect. Herzog films Timothy's parents awkwardly clinging to Treadwell's childhood Teddy bear and we watch as he presents Timothy's still ticking watch to a former girlfriend, Jewel Palovak in a bizarre sequence that feels contrived. In another scene that can only be described as maudlin, the director listens to the audio tape of the bear attack (pretending to hear it for the first time) and cautions Jewel never to listen to it, yet at the same time titillating us with its contents.
Many critics have called Treadwell delusional for thinking he was protecting the bears. Yet perhaps the most telling fact is that during his time in Katmai, no bear was known to have been killed by poachers. In the first year after his death, five bears were poached. According to leading Alaskan conservationist and filmmaker Joel Bennett, "The recent poaching of bears in Katmai National Park shows that Alaskans should never be complacent about the protection of their treasured wildlife resources. Tim Treadwell's vigilance may well have saved other bears from the same fate." Was Treadwell a friend of the bears or their worst enemy? Was he a man that only wanted to share his observations that grizzlies are not the ferocious beasts we have always thought them to be, or a sick egotist, obsessed with his own demons? It is hard to tell from this film. Perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. Though I am grateful to Herzog for exposing Treadwell's work to a wider public, I am unclear as to whether Grizzly Man celebrates his life or exploits it. "For now", in the words of friend Louisa Wilcox, "it is enough to honor the dead and celebrate a rare life, and the places and creatures he brought into ours."