"There aren't a lot of ways for a grizzly bear to die. At least, thats the way it was in the wild."
Bear 71 is an interactive found-footage documentary following the life of one grizzly, Bear 71, through her life in Banff National Park, which along with being named website of the year in January, recently received the 2013 Webby Award for Best NetArt, a hard-fought category. It was also nominated for the best public service online, best use of video for activism, best use of interactive video and best green website. It's an example of a new genre appearing online more and more: Documentaries not framed by a cameraman, but constructed from a collection of found footage. In this case, the footage was culled from hundreds of cameras scattered throughout Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The web documentary follows Bear 71 as she navigates a wild now criss-crossed with roads and railways, and dotted with growing settlements. It's an interesting look at both how human technology, our roads, railways, homes and now computers have encroached on bear territory, but also how that same technology gives us a means to track, observe and understand the animals, or at least the megafauna our urbanization threatens.
The project's creators, Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes, sifted through thousands of hours of grainy footage taken by trail cameras in remote areas of the park to reveal some eye-catching moments: unknowing hikers following in the trail of a pair of mountain lions, grizzly cubs learning to tackle barbed wire fences, tourists, with their inflatable pool toys headed to the river using the same underpass as our grizzly had taken earlier that day. Originally pitched to the National Film Board of Canada as a traditional long-form documentary, Rob McLaughlin, the head NFB's Vancouver studio, suggested the pair make an interactive project instead.
The documentary eases you in with footage of a frantic bear caught in a snare: breaking strength 2 tons. She fights wildly to get away, yanking on her trapped foot, her leg cocking out at cringe inducing angles until researchers shoot her with a dart full of Telazol, "brought to you by Pfizer, the same people who make Zoloft and Viagra." The next thing you know, the bear is collared, with a number tagged in her ear and bolting for the tree line. To see an apex predator, a huge mass of muscle and fur, running in fear from humans, anyone of which she could have killed easily if the situation were different, is gut wrenching.
Making the bears more relatable, majestic and even better-protected, the documentary is award-winning not just for its nature preservation angle. It also takes a self-conscious look at its own contribution to the changes taking place in the park. Human settlement and infrastructure are destroying territory that previously belonged to the bears, but trail cams and bear collars are intrusions into the wild of the park too. The filmmakers assert, "It's hard to know where the wired world stops and the wild one begins."
Bear 71 is a documentary about the plight of one bear, and by extension all the animals living in Banff National Park, but is also an interesting example of the powerful reach of technology. Even nature is now wired. The documentary's narrator describes the extent of the intrusion, "The valley has thirty-five cell phone towers, transmitting 3G data, voice over IP and text messages around the clock. You can drive the entire Lake Minnewanka Scenic Loop in Street View on your laptop. It's just like real life, you spend half the drive stuck behind an RV." It brings up the issues of privacy and surveillance we all face with advances in facial recognition, eye tracking, and ubiquitous cameras. Voicing the bear's perspective, the narrator says, "There are fifteen remote sensing cameras in my home range, plus infrared counters, and barbed wire snags to collect my hair. I suppose it's like most of the surveillance that goes on today, it's partly there to protect you and partly there to protect everyone else from you."
Bear 71 is well-written, and though the interactive skin can be buggy at times, a fantastic use of internet technology for documentary storytelling. Check it out for yourself at bear71.nfb.ca.