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.
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