Reality is Indifferent as to Whether or Not We Believe: The Ethics of Found Footage

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Chronicling the tragic death of self proclaimed ecologist Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man draws upon over one hundred hours of video footage shot by Treadwell himself. Having devoted more than the latter decade of his life to studying wild grizzly bears in their native Alaskan habitat, the circumstances surrounding Treadwell’s death by bear attack were, at once, both ironic and sobering. As Bill Nichols, in his essay Telling Stories with Evidence, states: all documentaries are, to a given extent, fictional. The truth in this pronouncement stems from the fact that  filmmakers typically function as voices of authority and as narrators, and thus documentaries are fictional in the rather unique sense that the documentary brings to light a specific version (i.e. the filmmaker’s) of the real world (Nichols 112).  By the use of persuasive argument, documentary, is intended to expose a truth about the nature of the world in which we actually live. However, the eventual “truth” that is revealed can often be manipulated according to the perspective of the filmmaker. Herzog’s use of Treadwell’s footage thus has many ethical ramifications. Herzog occupies a multifaceted and somewhat omnipotent position in that he is, basically, the final arbiter as concerns the editing, production, narration, and, most notably, the interpretation of Treadwell’s work.

When one considers this more carefully, and objectively, it seems painfully obvious that  Herzog (as does any filmmaker for that matter) possesses a great deal of control over what eventually emerges as the final product. This is troubling in that he thus has the capacity to mold and manipulate the opinion of his audience regarding the life and memory of Timothy Treadwell according to his own subjective viewpoint. By utilizing his  cinematic authority and control, Herzog does exactly that. Consequently, his documentary assumes a nature that is both worrisome and exploitative in that the footage is not allowed to simply “speak for itself,” but has been systematically chosen, often rather blatantly, to reflect Herzog’s own personal sentiments regarding the matter of Timothy Treadwell and his relationship to the bears he was studying. Herzog very nearly overwhelms viewers with negative commentary and carefully selected visual excerpts and thus inhibits them from critically assessing his argument. By means of this use of actual footage taken by Treadwell himself, Herzog creates a spring board of sorts by which to propel the viewer toward a predisposed outcome, one which conforms to his own particular way of thinking, and cosmological campaign. Herzog initiates his focus by first attempting to debunk Treadwell’s conception of the world around him as a loving place with much potential for harmony between man and nature. He sets about doing this by painting a cinematic portrait of Treadwell as a psychologically disturbed individual who managed to get himself killed in the process of pursuing his “pipe dream.” Herzog makes no real effort at introspection in an attempt to understand Treadwell from a deeper level of being, much less giving equal consideration to any perspective other than his own. Herzog methodically nurtures the impression that he has a direct access to reality which, in truth, no filmmaker or human being could actually possess.

“I discovered a film of human ecstasies, and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confinements of his humanness, and bond with the bears, Treadwell reached out, seeking a primordial encounter, but in doing so he crossed an invisible border line, . . .” In the film, these very words are uttered by Herzog with the seeming conviction of a Moses who had heard the voice of God on high.

Almost immediately, following this pronouncement, the documentary embarks on what is to quickly become a continuing monologue of deception. This false credo does not originate from an inherent insincerity displayed on the part of Timothy Treadwell, nor does it stem from any doubt regarding the authenticity of the footage being shown. On the contrary, Herzog begins by acknowledging that Treadwell was the creator of the images of the bears that he (Herzog) used in the documentary (Oregon 58). Instead, the documentary’s spurious aspects are the residue of the uncanny wrongness that permeates Grizzly Man, even from its first few scenes. The all-embracing, “father knows best” tonality of Herzog’s voice almost instantly evokes a fictive quality from the outset. Herzog delivers his narrative with the emotional appeal of a well-thought out eulogy for a misguided youth (i.e. Treadwell). However, in the end, Herzog’s rather solicitous narrative eclipses the footage and, ultimately, the dreams of Treadwell.

Indeed, from shots intended to display Treadwell’s supposed insanity in the Alaskan wilderness to the interviews with his family and friends, which, at times, feel unpleasantly inauthentic and contrived, to random tasteless quips from Treadwell naysayers, Herzog is the only common denominator tyingthis story (Grizzly Man) together. Fascinatingly, in the end, he seems to get away with it. Unlike modes of documentary cinema such as the essay film, which is openly subjective and reflexive in nature, Herzog spends virtually no time acknowledging any viewpoint, save those that align with his own thinly-veiled vision. In his representation of Treadwell’s family, friends and supporters, he gives an air of  infatuation and blind, near religious, loftiness. Herzog’s treatment of his subject matter (Treadwell, his life, and his work) is not merely suggestive of his viewpoint, but is actually not openly subjective and reflexive so much as entirely subjective, and deceivingly one sided.

Had Herzog omitted, or at the very least, minimized the startlingly physical presence of his voice as a narrative vehicle, one could imagine that the discussion surrounding the ethics of Grizzly Man would be much less controversial and/or provocative. Viewers would likely, in many cases, find themselves transfixed by the spectacular wildlife footage captured by Treadwell, and feel either impressed or disgusted by his almost inhuman ability to connect with the animals he encounters along the way. This, however, is not what Herzog did. In many ways, it could be said that Herzog does a disservice to the viewer by leading them to a predetermined conclusion while simultaneously crediting them with the intelligence to judge for themselves. Despite being allowed to construct a documentary gleaned from the footage that Treadwell bequeathed to Jewel, his ex-girlfriend and long time friend, Herzog metaphorically hijacked Treadwell’s videos in order to make his own argument, in due course depicting Treadwell as unstable, blissfully delusional, and possibly suicidal, and the bears he loved in a way that Treadwell himself would likely not have approved of.  Herzog implicitly casts dispersions on Treadwell’s character and, in the final analysis, relegates him to the status of a proverbial nut case, pitiable and well-meaning, but a nut just the same. Establishing a “Treadwell is that loon who went and tried to be one with the bears, and look how things turned out for him,” undercurrent, subconsciously, it is hard to resist compliance. Influenced by Herzog’s scene selection, and coupled with the carefully scripted narrative, the viewer may easily and unknowingly find him or herself  swept into the politics of Herzog’s logical and calculating view that chaos and disorder are the natural way of things, and that bears do not have the capacity to love. Nor does Herzog spare Treadwell’s friends and supporters in his effort to establish his diagnosis of Treadwell “the nut.” Not surprisingly, they are oddly lumped into a category that one, without much imagination, could dub “left-wing tree huggers” who, like Treadwell, preach love and understanding as the universal harmony, and are likely doomed to a similar fate, or at the very least, to a hard dose of reality.

Depicting their love for Treadwell as a delusional god-like worship rather than the affection born of a friendship, Herzog seems to question the veracity of Treadwell’s relationships. Is Kathleen Parker really just his friend? Herzog appears doubtful, noting that: “She insists that she was nothing more than a platonic friend.” His choice of the verb “insists” is, perhaps, very telling indeed. Whereas Bill Nichols suggests that the world portrayed in a documentary, “. . . is destined to bear propositions…” the most common and basic of which asks “. . .this is so, isn’t it?” Herzog’s documentary does not ask that its argument be verified, but probes, and states unambiguously, “This is so.” (Nichols 114).

In retracing Treadwell’s past, Herzog renders an image of an all-American upbringing. His search to discover who Treadwell was takes him first to the Florida home of  Treadwell’s middle class parents. Blonde, handsome, and athletic, Treadwell seemed for all the world to be the picture perfect boy. “Just an ordinary kid,” his mother said. However, his parents seem to insinuate that Treadwell’s life started to slide down-hill for Timothy after he moved to California around the age of nineteen. The catalyst for his downward spiral occurred when he was denied a role on the soon to be aired show, Cheers. He became an alcoholic, a drug user, and in order that he might distance himself from this dark spot in his past, he fabricated a fake persona, billing himself as an Australian orphan. “He was troubled,” Jewel, Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, explains in one of the interview segments, somewhat inadvertently fueling Herzog’s agenda to bathe Treadwell in a less than optimal light. Jewel continues explaining that Treadwell was advised by a physician to take antidepressants, something that he refused to do, leaving the darkness that he felt beneath the veneer of his bright, shining personality. Unaware of Herzog’s particular penchant for piecing together stories of the “seemingly accidental” (Orgeron 58), this particular interview demonstrates Herzog’s ability and willingness to encroach on the trust and naivete of others. Jewel likely believed that Herzog was sensitively delving into Treadwell’s life in order to better understand him; Herzog interprets this darkness as the trigger mechanism which eventually caused Treadwell’s brain to go haywire, and prompting him to flee humanity in order to hide away and seek a new family with the bears; it became his raison d’etre and he sought his solace in “wild and primordial nature” (Orgeron 60).

While it may have been true that Treadwell was troubled by his past and his addictions, the picture of Treadwell as an unstable and emotionally disturbed individual may be over stepping the boundaries between truthful description and overt dramatization. Treadwell may simply have shed the indignant burdens of dwelling in the past and moved forward. It also may be that he did achieve a blissful harmony in the trappings of nature, as others have done before him on countless occasions. Living with bears in the Alaskan wilderness could easily have constituted his own sort of Walden’s pond. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau 143). The mere fact that he devised a new persona for himself is not inherently escapist, but a tactic used by countless aspiring celebrities in order to make themselves more interesting, mysterious, or even marketable; Bob Dylan himself (nee Robert Zimmerman) is a case in point. Keeping in mind that Treadwell had been, and in many ways still was, an aspiring actor during the time that he was filming for his organization, Grizzly People, it comes as no surprise that he would want to mitigate the failings of his past while, at the same time, popularizing himself and putting a positive spin on his image. More importantly, although Treadwell interacted with the bears in a very paternal manner, his infatuation was not just with the bears themselves. His sense seemed to meld with the eternal beauty of the landscape within which he had immersed himself. Treadwell loved the bears, the foxes, the bumblebees, the rivers, lakes, streams and tress. It can be said that he was a child of nature and in a true and genuine understanding of what it is to exist with the bears, Treadwell comprehended and even expressly acknowledged the very real possibility that he could be killed by them. “If I show weakness, I’m dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces – I’m dead. So far, I persevere. I persevere.” While some read Treadwell’s blatant acceptance of this potential horror as a death wish, a close examination of Treadwell, his actions, his words, and his work, reveals that he regarded this sort of death as almost poetic. He feared it, but if it came to be, then it was as it should be, that is the way of things. His eventual death was dealt by the old bear 141, incidentally labeled a rogue due to its infrequent appearance in the area where Treadwell conducted his work. It was, perhaps, this lack of familiarity that led to his eventual tragedy, and in a sense, he was killed by a stranger, and not by any of the bears with whom he had cohabited for thirteen years. Although Herzog insists that Treadwell’s mission to exist harmoniously with the bears was, in final analysis, a failure, in order for Treadwell to have survived for that long, he must have been doing something right.

Throughout the film we see many takes of Treadwell, frequently at his most contemplative, goofy, and yet perhaps, sincere, interacting with the bears and his inner self. However, these shots are contrasted with statements and images of Treadwell’s deepest turmoil and existential crises, as Herzog sees it. Naturally light-hearted and cheerful, Treadwell often viewed his camera as a companion, transforming his personality to coincide with whomever he would  have liked to interact with, like a video journal into which he could pour his sentiments regarding his failures and his successes. While some of these scenes depicted Treadwell exhibiting behavior that is embarrassing, questionable, and, at times, morally wrong, such as tampering with a stream in order to prompt a salmon run for the bears, he is not an unlikable guy. Herzog, however, seems to find little to enjoy in Treadwell aside from the occasional, and perhaps accidental, flares of genuis manifest in his video compositions. For the most part, Herzog brands Treadwell misguided and delusional, especially in one particularly comical scene in which Treadwell voices his anger towards Kamtai Park services. While Herzog does not chime in for several minutes, perhaps in order to allow viewers a chance to blush at Treadwell’s brash behavior, he does eventually override the entire audio portion of the scene, engaging in a psychological analysis of Treadwell, describing his rage as sublimated and artistic, and concluding that he was frustrated with humanity and civilization.

Albeit it is true that Treadwell frequently references the perfection and solace he finds in the natural world, and voices his general disliking for the way in which humans operate, it requires an almost quantum leap to buy into Herzog’s claim that he detests humanity entirely. Regardless of the unflattering light in which they are shown, Treadwell did have friends and fans. Even if it were the case that Treadwell was truly venting his utter contempt for humanity, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would not react in a similar fashion when his or her most deeply rooted beliefs and passions are confronted with vehement resistance, especially in the comfort of privacy and solitude. Sincerely believing that the bears faced a real danger, Treadwell felt that the park services were not doing their job well enough. In much the same vein, he thought most of humanity was not recognizing the inherent beauty of the world within a world which he had happened upon, and felt privileged to be able to embrace. Most of us dream of Nirvana, Treadwell was just one of the precious few who stumbled upon it, even if only for a fleeting moment.

The issue of the public versus the private domain becomes exceptionally important in the case of Timothy Treadwell. With well over one hundred hours of video footage, much of which is comprised of outtakes or exists merely in the form of Treadwell soliloquies, it is patently evident that Treadwell did not foresee the likelihood that all of his video footage would potentially be made public. Jokingly talking to the camera about how much simpler his life might have been if he had been gay, and talking to no one in particular about touching the recently defecated feces of a bear, Treadwell seems to ease his own lonely moments in the wilderness by documenting himself (Orgeron 58). One must wonder then why Herzog deemed these moments as worthy of his documentary, and what other interesting footage he may have selectively left out?

Throughout the entirety of Grizzly Man, Herzog inordinately seems to surreptitiously allude to the untimely end of Treadwell’s life, which serves as the symbolic stamp of Timothy’s failure to truly accomplish his task of living harmoniously with the bears. The most important piece of documentary evidence in this film, arguably, is what Herzog refuses to allow viewers direct access to: the audio recording of the bear attack that killed Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huegenard. Herzog himself listens to the recording while on camera, but he never inserts the audio into the film itself, and instead offers descriptions of varying detail from the coroner who examined the bodies. Baiting his viewers, Herzog reestablishes his authorial position, and reminds the audience of his privileged access to intimate and gruesome details of Treadwell’s life (Orgeron 60).

While it is claimed by Marsha and Devin Orgeron in their essay, Familial Pursuits, that Herzog felt an obligation to represent Treadwell and his vision of himself fairly, and that this may explain his selection of film as the proper medium to do so, this notion is questionable (Orgeron 58). Unintentionally or not, Herzog overrides the authenticity of Treadwell’s private moments with his incessant interpretations and narrations, a good deal of which, it could easily be argued, is pure  speculation and conjecture, leading viewers to travel down a path for which Herzog has set the signposts.  At the film’s close, Herzog even goes so far as to contest Treadwell’s relationship with the bears, stating “What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”

Finding living among the bears to be the most efficient way to protect them from threats that he perceived to be very real, Treadwell found a fatherly sense of purpose in his Alaskan trips, and by means of learning and responding to their behavioral patterns, Treadwell lived among them for thirteen years. Whether or not there was any actual need for the bears to be protected is another matter, entirely. The reality for Treadwell was that the bears were his friends, even if they could not truly conceptualize what that meant. Casting aside any legitimacy that could be associated with Treadwell’s cohabitation with the bears through selective editing, and nearly hypnotic narration, Herzog habituates viewers to his presence, and likely, leads them to thoughtlessly swallow his opinion on the matter of Treadwell due to his position of documentary authority. With virtually no aspect of fairness to or consideration of differing views on the life of Timothy Treadwell and the meaning behind his work, Herzog alleges that he has the corner-stone on wisdom and that he knows Treadwell, even better perhaps, than Treadwell knew himself.

One thought on “Reality is Indifferent as to Whether or Not We Believe: The Ethics of Found Footage

  1. Thank the author of this article for me. It’s an interesting take on a documentary that I had no considered. Though it did not change my view of Treadwell as a self-loathing, closeted homosexual trying to escape from the world, it did make me reevaluate the work that he did.

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