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GRIZZLY MAN (article first published : 2006-12-18)

Widely acclaimed and a winner of awards at numerous film festivals, director Werner Hertzog's engrossing documentary revolves around the life, increasing troubles and idiosyncrasies and, ultimately, untimely but inevitable death of a minor celebrity in US wildlife circles.

That person was Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor, former alcoholic and a somewhat child-like eccentric. He spent the last 13 summers of his life observing and filming Alaskan grizzly bears, with which he became wholly obsessed and whose wild realm turned him paranoid about his own.

Treadwell became more and more resentful of “the people world”, and increasingly bold and ever more dangerous in his approach to what he labelled his "protection" of the giant grizzlies. These were wild animals he named, with whom he spoke and with whom he go so close he could touch them. He had firmly believed he had established a strong, almost spiritual link with them.

Yet, as Hertzog so rightly and poignantly observes, showing an extreme close up of a grizzly's eyes to accentuate his point, to nature Treadwell, his wild natterings to the contrary notwithstanding, was just a curiosity, an interference, eventually even an irritation.

"In all the faces of all the bears," says Hertzog, who narrates throughout and sometimes even appears on screen, "I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature".

Having trawled through and edited some hundred hours of Treadwell's own video footage, Hertzog has created a startling and compelling film where one begins by sympathising with and respecting Treadwell, as he spreads the word about the need to protect nature, visits schools and goes on talk shows to hammer home his grizzly bear crusade. But by the end of the film this slightly effete man has us doing an about turn, recognising him for the wildly unhinged and twisted, tortured, suicidal soul he had become.

One even has reason to resent him for having dragged into his warped, idealistic dream a girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who admitted to being fearful of bears, but whom Treadwell insisted on filming with the very creature that would gruesomely claw to death, then partially eat, both of them in 2003.

"I will die for these animals," Treadwell says time and again to the camera, often breaking into tears as he expresses love for the bears and/or a family of foxes that warm to him more readily. He stares in disbelief at the remains of a bear cub killed and eaten by its own mother, disbelieving of the fact that nature, in his eyes a Utopian existence, could be so cruel.

His passion and actions becomes increasingly loony tunes, no more so than when he rhapsodises about a clump of steaming excrement from a bear, holds it lovingly in his hand and blabbers on to the camera about how invaluable and precious it is "because it was actually inside of her not that long ago".

The film features some superb, candid wildlife footage and has the embellishment of an effective acoustic score by British folk-rock musician Richard Thompson.

Also featuring interviews with people who knew, loved or crossed paths with Treadwell, including his parents and a former girlfriend who returns to Alaska to spread his ashes there, Grizzly Man is a dark and daring doccie that offers a fascinating psychological portrait. See it! – 8/10. Billy Suter




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