Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell was a self described eco-warrior with a mad passionate love for grizzly bears. For 13 years, he lived among them every summer and at the end of his 13th summer with them, he and his girlfriend were attacked and killed by one of the bears he loved so much. Over his last 5 summers, he recorded over 100 hours of video footage of himself with the bears and wildlife.

Werner Herzog has taken those 100 hours and along with interviews with Treadwell's family and friends, edited them into the 103 minute documentary, Grizzly Man. What emerges from the film is that Timothy Treadwell was a deeply troubled and totally misguided individual, obsessed with death. A review in Empire Magazine suggested that his 100 hours of footage could be the longest suicide note ever composed.

He was a failed actor, a recovered addict and alcoholic, who started that recovery after a trip to Alaska and an encounter with a bear. He promised he would give up everything and devote his life to grizzlies. And so he did, and in that devotion he found something of the fame that had eluded him as an actor (his downward spiral apparently began when he got down to the final two for a role on Cheers but lost out to Woody Harrelson). There are clips of him on Letterman and also clips of him delivering lectures on bears to school children and their letters to him.

But by the time this small level of fame was afforded to him, it was ostensibly no longer what he wanted. He had become obsessed with the bears and his summers with them. It was reaching the point where, some attest, he wanted to BE a bear rather than simply just live with them. Some of the footage of him is disturbing (caressing bear poo while eulogising how "it's come from inside her"), some is funny and disturbing (screaming for it to rain because, among other things, "Melissa is eating her babies") and some of it he is so annoying, I was willing the bears to eat him mid speech (his extended furious rant against the park rangers).

There are some things that intrigued me that the documentary only hints at. Treadwell films himself touching a bear on the nose. The sanctuary that he is in at the time has a strict rule of not coming within 50 yards of any bear and within 100 yards of a sow and her cubs. Some reasons for this are obvious (they have claws 5 inches long and a powerful enough swing to decapitate a human in one swipe) but some are less obvious. If a human is around bears long enough, the bears will become habituated to human presence, which could prove disastrous if poachers were to come along. The head of the sanctuary, upon seeing the footage on TV of Treadwell interacting with the bear, tried to have him prosecuted, but was unsuccessful. Life was made difficult for him at the sanctuary thereafter though, which is what leads to his extended on camera rant.

Well I'm with the sanctuary on this. First of all, it's a sanctuary. Who exactly is Treadwell protecting these already protected bears from? He claims that when he moves off the Sanctuary into the Grizzly Maze, these bears don't have any human protection other than him. This may or may not be true, but in almost 40 years there has been no bear poaching there, and the only instance of other people coming to the maze is included in the documentary. In the other hours of footage not included in the film, there are no uninvited guests.

Also, two of his ecologist friends tell a big fat lie about him. They are reading out some of the hate mail they had received, one of which talks about how much money he was making. They say that this was totally unfair and untrue, that Timothy was one of the poorest men they knew. Bullshit. He may have started off poor, but he sure didn't die poor. With his ex-girlfriend Jewel (one of the more intense interviewees in the film), Treadwell started the Grizzly People Foundation which attracted donations from celebrities. Leonardo DiCaprio donated $25,000. This money was used to finance his summers with the bears. He also secured sponsorship from a clothing company and a camera company and in 1995 was able to quit his day job and devote himself full time to the bears. I'd love to be that poor.

The real tragedy of this story isn't that Treadwell died. Sterling Miller wrote to him to express some (entirely legitimate) concerns about his actions with the bears, Treadwell wrote back that he "would consider it an honor to end up as bear shit." Well fine. Honor granted. The real tragedy is his girlfriend Amie Hugenard died along with him. In the middle of September 2003, a few weeks before they were killed, Amie flew up to meet Treadwell and spend the last few days of his summer with the bears with him. By this point in the season, there were usually only around 15 bears who hadn't gone into their winter hibernation. In 2003, due to a poor berry harvest, there were 60 of them still awake and aggressively hunting for food. Hugenard and Treadwell fought as she felt very uneasy about being there and couldn't wait to leave. And leave they did. En route back to California, Treadwell got into an argument with an airline official about the validity of his ticket, and in a huff returned to the bear park. For reasons I will NEVER fathom, Hugenard went back with him. And Treadwell then breaks all the rules about where to pitch his tent, documents said rules on camera, along with the fact that he's breaking them and a few days later, they are both dead, killed and eaten by an aggressive and starving hungry bear. Hugenard is in 3 shots of the movie (apparently the only times she appears in ALL the footage) and her face is only visible in one of them. Her family declined to be interviewed for the film. She remains an enigma but no less of a tragedy.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I'm highly disturbed by this film now and dying to see it.