Adjusting the lens: Green the Film and its documentary potential
– Jana Jacobs, University of Stellenbosch
Horak’s delineation of the development of wildlife documentaries over the past century raises concerns regarding trends towards commercial, consumer-oriented films and programs that culminate in the deeply problematic genre of what he classifies as “Animal TV”. Wildlife and nature documentaries have proliferated at a rapid rate and have become an integral part of television channels such as Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet. David Attenborough’s narration of series such as Planet Earth (2006) has proven to be highly popular and bankable for the BBC. Not only are these television channels saturated with such programing, but documentaries also clamour for attention in the media market via IMAX theatres. These films offer viewers a sensory experience with spectacular cinematography and stories of animals that are often given names, followed on their journeys through nature and pitted against each other in dramatic encounters. Animals are essentially anthropomorphised in order to encourage identification with them and provide a pleasant viewing experience.
For Horak, the outlook on wildlife documentaries is particularly bleak. Documentaries – as made famous by David Attenborough – with their ‘omniscient’ voice-overs, outstanding cinematography and symphonic soundtracks seem to be more of an archiving of the filmed animals, “partially a desperate act ‘to save’ wildlife for a virtual world” (Horak, 460); an effort to preserve them for the visual benefit of future generations. Beautiful as they are, their relevance in environmental and animal conservation remains questionable – are they confronting, or at least addressing immediate environmental concerns? It seems apparent then that these types of wildlife documentaries have become inextricably tied to the imperatives of the global media market place, and their efficacy in portraying environmental concerns has been displaced by the need for spectacular products that will secure a wide audience. On the other end of the spectrum, there are documentaries such as The Cove (2009) that rely on graphic, disturbing images in order to shock viewers into attention and potential action, but whether or not this action is taken or sustained is uncertain.
It seems to me that the central issue that remains unresolved is whether or not these documentaries are making a difference in the conservation and preservation of the animals they document. I do not think that this is an easily solved dilemma – particularly since the market is saturated with these types of documentaries. As such, they have set a certain “industry standard” by shaping human perceptions of nature, as well as consumer expectations when choosing a documentary to watch. To dismiss nature and wildlife documentaries wholesale as ill intended and exploitative is not a solution to Horak’s concerns. However these concerns do raise the question of how we are to present environmental issues effectively, in a new way that allows for change – or at least attempts a different perspective and avoids these problematic formulations of documentaries. In this paper, I would like to consider Green the Film (2009) in relation to the types of documentaries I have described. I find the film striking within this milieu and believe it provides us with the potential of approaching the wildlife documentary in a reinvigorated way.
Green the Film tells the story of Green, an orangutan that has been displaced by the devastating deforestation of her natural habitat. The film opens with her, obviously weak, travelling in a duffle bag on the bag of a truck through the palm oil plantations that have replaced her home. The opening scene then cuts to her lying in a bed with an intravenous drip attached to her leg. We are acquainted with the room in which she finds herself through point-of-view shots as established from her position in the bed. The camera angles are askew, and the particular focus on the objects in the room is interesting. When looking at the clock on the wall, it is not the time that is privileged – instead the focus is on a gecko behind the clock. Immediately, we are alerted to a point of view that differs from our own – the orangutan sees the little creature, not the time. Although we initially look at Green, we are introduced to her way of looking as well – thus we are not gazing at her but gazing with her.
Green is in fact an orangutan named Sandra that filmmaker Patrick Rouxel came across in a refuge in Kalimantan in Indonesia. She had been captured on a palm oil plantation and brought to the refuge – completely paralysed on her left side and thus bed-bound. Upon seeing her in the refuge, Rouxel began filming her and eventually made the film. Rouxel is open about the fact that he “made up a story” with Green:
While editing Green, my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t ‘buy’ the story I had made up around Sandra. Anyone working closely with orangutans would be able to see that the orangutan in the opening shot and all those in the wild, in the degraded forests or in the oil palm plantations, are all different from one another, and from Sandra. Fortunately, the average viewer doesn’t really pick up on this and goes along with the story. And those who share my sensitivity actually do feel the pain and guilt. (Rouxel)
By using Green, Rouxel endeavours to bring awareness to the effects of the immense deforestation that is resulting in the massive decline of orangutans in the region. Green remains a film that is constructed to form a coherent narrative and convey a particular point; the structure of the film consists of cuts between Green in her refuge bed and the forest that she remembers and juxtaposes this with scenes of its degradation. Of course, Rouxel cannot know what Green is thinking but he imagines and constructs Green’s memory in an attempt to frame her point of view and in so doing present us with her world, essentially an animal subjectivity.
Horak critiques wildlife documentaries because:
[l]ike most classic documentaries, [they] rely on narrative to construct meaning from disparate shots of nature, and to allow for viewer identification. In point of fact, wildlife films conform to most of the tenets of classical documentary, as we now understand them: the creative manipulation of real images carrying with them highly charged ideological texts (Horak, 462).
Green remains the project of a filmmaker and Rouxel makes use of various film techniques and narrative devices in order to present viewers with a particular argument. He edits and stabilises shots in order to construct Green’s narrative and by his own admission:
[allows himself] the odd “cheat” like when the vet in the film says Green. Of course in [his] rushes, the vet actually says Sandra. [He allows himself] this, because having the vet say Green seemed to [him the] subtlest way of making the viewer understand that the orangutan’s name is Green. (Rouxel)
Despite this momentary incursion and renaming of the orangutan, this remains the full extent of any ‘special effects’ that Rouxel utilises. Rouxel’s minor manipulation, although aimed at authenticating his film’s narrative, still presents a divergence from current wildlife documentaries. Rouxel disregards the conventions of contemporary wildlife documentaries by rejecting exciting angles and dramatic action. By making use of close-ups of Green’s hands, feet and face Rouxel establishes an emotional identification with Green: “good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them”(Balász, 315). Green is not in a tree, captured by a telephoto lens to reveal her natural sheen and beauty, nor is she on an exciting journey in her forest. She is injured and dying, listless and wearing a diaper in a bare room, revoking any possibility of seeing her as an “object of scopic desire” (Horak, 463). As Green lies in her bed, the camera closes in on her face and her closing eyes, and the scene cuts to the forest – as if in Green’s memory. Obviously absent from the film is the ‘omniscient’ voice-over narration that is so often utilised in wildlife documentaries; this is Green’s unmediated story and the viewer is encouraged to share in it, as opposed to being “[didactically, paternalistically and authoritatively told the ‘truth’]” (Bagust citing Scott, 220).
Of course, as Kalinak points out, “[n]arrative is not constructed by visual means alone. By this [she] mean[s] that music works as part of the process that transmits narrative information to the spectator” (30). As with the opening scene in which the sound of the truck travelling over the dirt road is heard, the natural sounds of the forest habitat accompany Green’s forest memories. Rouxel makes use of diegetic sounds – as opposed to “a strong non-diegetic musical score [that] is often used to heighten emotional responses that nevertheless seem ‘natural’” (Bagust citing Scott, 220). Again, Green’s world is presented as she would have experienced it in order to convey her point of view and strengthen her narrative. By contrast, BBC’s Planet Earth not only makes use of Attenborough as the ‘omniscient’ narrator but also opens with a composed score as we view the image of planet earth revolving on its axis. Immediately, a holistic, omniscient gaze is established – almost voyeuristic in its outlook on the blue and green planet below. This symphonic music is used throughout episodes at particular moments in order to manipulate viewer response.
The scenes of Green’s home are again unusual by “industry standards” in that the animals that are filmed are simply engaging in their daily activities of grazing and wandering; there is no ‘exciting’ action or drama. Long shots of the forest do not encroach upon the animals and they are thus seen from a relative distance; one frame is actually obscured by leaves that are in front of the camera lens. These types of sequences would not survive the cutting room in the post-production of most documentaries. The composition of Rouxel’s filmed material adds to the significance of Green’s home and the establishment of her subjectivity. Although a keen eye and mindful viewer will be aware of the fact that the footage of the orangutans in the narrative are not all Green, in weaving these shots together Rouxel lends gravity to the forest and its homely quality. Amongst these sequences, the viewer sees a mother and baby interacting in the treetops – the baby is playfully comfortable and together they eat and reside in their home, and the mother is seen to be affectionately caressing the infant. When these scenes are then collocated with the systematic destruction of the forest, it renders the resultant landscape, devoid of their home and now replete with machinery, uncanny. With this enforcement of the heimlich and unheimlich, Rouxel is able to convey the literal dispossession and loss suffered by these animals.
The film engages with the cruel consequences of this displacement by demonstrating the fate of the forest’s animals once their habitat has been destroyed. We are shown scores of animals that are caged in local street shops for trade, elephants that are chained and working on the oil palm plantations as well as animals that are behind bars at zoos. What is troubling is the way in which these caged animals are integrated into the daily scenery of local life. Particularly affecting is a scene in a zoo in which tourists are seen standing in front of the glass of an orangutan’s cage, posing for a picture. The effect of this is that the animal is doubly captured and commodified: firstly as the zoo’s commodity in a cage and again in the couple’s photograph as an object.
As the film progresses and the scale of the deforestation and its consequences becomes ever more apparent, Green’s memories of her home become less prominent and are superseded by sequences of humans manufacturing products with the raw forest material. Halfway through the film, the diegetic sounds disappear and are replaced by the sound of traffic, trucks and factories. All the while this is again juxtaposed with scenes of the desolate landscape that has been entirely ravaged by deforestation. Trees have given way to factories billowing dense, polluting smoke and we are shown shelves of stores piled with products that have been manufactured with palm oil as an ingredient. Here, the non-diegetic score serves as ironic commentary on the banal excess that this ravaging feeds: “satisfaction/let me spend my money … I need more”.
Green captures the lived reality of human and animal coexistence. By framing this destruction through Green’s eyes, the film allows for a realisation that humans and animals are dependant on the same ecosystem – it’s just that one side overpowers and tips the balance. In Green, there is a juxtaposition of human and animal in the same environment – specifically the Indonesian forest. The narrative of Green’s memory pieces together partial perspectives of her home. In so doing, the ecosystem of this region in which Green and various animals reside is presented: the viewer sees the forest, the open landscape and water, all replete with life that functions in concert. Yet, while lying in her bed, the sound of a lawnmower outside her room unsettles her and the scene cuts to the deforestation activities. The sound of the bulldozers, tree felling equipment and trucks were echoed by the sound of the lawnmower and triggered this troubling memory.
Amidst the forest home that Green remembers, are humans. Inserted in her memory is the excess of this destruction. The fallen trees are loaded in vast shipments to the factories where the very trees that Green lived in are cut, sanded and laminated to produce glossed products. The viewer is assaulted with images of all these products that are accepted into the everyday lives of humans. The animal sounds give way to fast techno and the commodified objects that were once in the forest decorate the urban landscape. Again, the sequence cuts back to the habitat, where the animals not only live in these trees but also eat the bark – illustrating exactly what wooden bins, tables, chairs, are made of. Items that humans take for granted and manufacture immoderately are made from that which sustains the lives of animals such as Green. In documenting her deteriorating condition and broken body, the viewer (who is one of those consumers) is confronted with the harsh reality of the effects of their consumption. Rouxel frames Green’s death by silencing her breathing and in so doing demonstrates the very real fate of these animals and the unsustainability of the situation; Green is simply one of many that will succumb to this problem – as is demonstrated by the mud covered orangutan trapped on a plantation, captured, placed in a bag and put on the back of a truck. The cycle continues.
Green forces an interrogation of these pressing concerns that are often ignored by the accepted genre of wildlife documentaries, in a market where:
[m]ost people see many documentaries on television and have become very familiar with their dominant codes and conventions, so much so that they have ceased to interrogate and question these texts. Audiences regularly watch documentaries characterised by the use of voice-over, a roll call of experts, witnesses and opinionated members of the public. An apparently ‘real’ set of locations, footage of live events and ‘found’ archive material. (Wells, 188)
In many of these documentaries, the coexistence of humans and animals is neglected – nature is remote and removed as Horak points out: “[s]igns of human civilization are completely invisible in The Trails of Life apart from Attenborough as camera host” (470). In Planet Earth, Attenborough narrates entirely off-camera, perfecting this illusion. In a series such as the BBC’s The Human Planet (2011), the focus is on native people that live in nature as they have done for centuries – in subsistent harmony. This seems to elide the fact that humans and animals are irrevocably connected in the same ecosystem beyond such immediate proximity and ignores the fact that the majority of human “civilisation” does not live in this way. Instead:
the global television audience waits to consume the view of a ‘pristine wilderness’ a privilege not because the scene is far away but because it forms part of an ever-greater concern for the world’s remaining wild places and inhabitants of those places. This is the motivating force behind the BBC’s Planet Earth, whose massive budget produces little that is new in the way of insight into nonhuman nature, but produces spectacular imagery of wilderness under threat (Rijsdijk, 11).
Yet this particular series – which has become somewhat of a “‘defining style’ of nature documentaries” as Louw admits (150) – does not actually depict these threats at all. Attenborough tells us of the declining animal numbers and habitat destruction and his authority remains unquestioned, but the realities of the threats to this environment are invisible. The viewer simply sees the breath-taking landscape and its animal inhabitants.
What Green achieves is a portrayal of the lived effects of deforestation on its animal inhabitants in order to satisfy the excesses of human consumption. The end credits of the film list the industries and various companies that make use of, or produce palm oil as well as those that utilise the trees in their production lines. The financial institutions that support these companies and traders are also included and there is a signaling to the politicians that are complicit in this problem. The final recognition is given to the consumers – after all, without buyers for these products, there would be no market. I was shocked to see how many everyday, commonplace products are embedded in the palm oil industry in particular: Nestle chocolates, Pringles, Oreos, Whiskas, Dove and MacDonald’s to name but a few. I think that most other viewers are also ignorant in this regard and are completely unaware of the vast destruction involved in the manufacturing process of the products that sit on their kitchen and bathroom shelves. With that in mind, I think it is important to point out that I do not think that Green is a simplistic vilification of greedy consumers. The film offers insight into the way we are shaping the world we inhabit and encourages us to consider and question the industries that we have become so automatically acceptant of and dependant upon. Not only does this film allow for a different way of looking at the environment – through Green’s eyes – but it also illustrates issues of human mass consumption that have become commonplace. It petitions us to (re)look at our lives and practices.
Green is effective in its alternative way of positioning animal subjectivity and the filmmaker’s eschewing of sweeping cinematography and anthropomorphic tendencies, in order to convey the devastating problem of deforestation in Indonesia. Green has no voice-over narrative, no sweeping soundtrack or daring camera work but is profound in its ability to convey an environmental concern in a way that stands apart from all the documentaries that circulate in IMAX theatres and on cable television. Green remains a documentary film that utilises cinematic techniques in order to convey a specific narrative that draws attention to the filmmaker’s specific concerns. However, the way he deploys these techniques renders Green capable of a self-reflexivity that is amiss in current documentaries. By placing human and animals side by side, Green shows viewers what is happening, now, and the brutal intolerable reality of man-made industries – from the perspective of the animals that are suffering for it.
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Film Theory and Criticism: Intorductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Balász, Béla. “From theory of the Film: The Close-up”. 314-315.
Levinson, Jerrold. “Film music and narrative agency”. 482-524.
Green The Film. Filmed by Patrick Rouxel. <http://www.greenthefilm.com>. Online.
Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Wildlife documentaries: from classical forms to reality TV”. Film History. 18 (2006): 459-475. Print.
Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and Classical Hollywood Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Print.
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Rouxel, Patrick. “Green: Death of the Forests”. Aljazeera. 15 March 2012. 23 October 2012. <http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2012/03/201231483446653151.html>. Online.
Louw, P. “Nature Documentaries: Eco-tainment? The Case of MM & M (Mad Mike and Mark). Current Writing: Text and Reception 18.1 (2006): 146 – 162. Print.
Wells, Paul. “The documentary form: personal and social ‘realities’”. An Introduction to Film Studies. Ed. Jill Nelmes. London, New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.