THE BACK PAGES

ON THIN ICE

A new film about a polar bear and a walrus facing global warming treads a slippery line between fact and fantasy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 6 2007
THE BACK PAGES

ON THIN ICE

A new film about a polar bear and a walrus facing global warming treads a slippery line between fact and fantasy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 6 2007

ON THIN ICE

THE BACK PAGES

film

A new film about a polar bear and a walrus facing global warming treads a slippery line between fact and fantasy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Adam Ravetch hadn’t given much thought to walruses. Not until an Inuit warned him one of these blubbery mammals could “grab hold of you and suck your brains out.” It was 1992. Ravetch, an underwater photographer from Los Angeles, and his new bride, Toronto writer Sarah Robertson, had come to the Arctic to film whales. He was diving in the frigid waters of Admiralty Inlet, northeast of Baffin Island, when the Inuit urged him to get out of the water if he didn’t want to become walrus prey. Walruses usually dine on clams, sucking thousands from their shells in a single feeding. But Ravetch was in deep water, with no clam beds, and the walruses in that neighbourhood preyed on seals, he says. “They hold them, knock their heads off, and suck the flesh right out of their bodies. The Inuit told me, ‘This could happen to you.’ That was the first monster story we heard when we went north. And that’s what switched our attention from whales.”

This couple, now based in Victoria, has since spent much of the past 15 years filming walruses and polar bears in the Far North. And they’ve whittled 800 hours of footage into a movie called Arctic Tale. But don’t expect to see any seal-sucking gore or polar bear brutality. Ravetch, 45, and Robertson, 41, who co-directed the film, were aiming for an Arctic answer to March of the Penguins. With backing from National Geographic, which produced Penguins, and Hollywood’s Paramount Classics, which distributed An Inconvenient Truth, they have concocted a $ 10-million piece of family entertainment. Arctic Tale is a cozy coming-of-age story that follows a polar bear cub, Nanu, and a walrus pup, Seela, from birth to adulthood in a “kingdom of ice” that’s melting at a perilous rate—a global (heart) warming fable.

Like March of the Penguins, the story is driven home by an African-American storyteller, in this case Queen Latifah rather than Morgan Freeman. But it nudges Penguins’ formula into fictional waters.

Every scene in Arctic Tale is composed of documentary footage. So a naive viewer, or even a jaded film critic, might be forgiven for believing that the movie’s main characters, Nanu and Seela, actually exist—that the filmmakers somehow tracked these same two animals over the years. That’s what the film suggests. But when asked how they did that, Ravetch responds with the impatient air of a magician forced to explain, once again, how the rabbit got into the hat.

“These are composite characters,” he says, during an interview with Robertson on a Toronto patio in the severely unpolar heat of a summer afternoon. “We’re being very open

about that.” The characters, his wife elaborated, “are narrative constructs inspired by everything we’ve seen and learned.”

So is the movie documentary or fiction? “It’s a hybrid,” she says. “We’re calling it a wildlife adventure.”

“We’re blurring the lines,” adds Ravetch. “We’re obviously trying to reach a large audience and be emotional. We’re not afraid of having the animals feel.”

By taking a poetic licence that would make Michael Moore blush, the filmmakers realize

they are breaking a documentary taboo. “In a documentary construct,” Ravetch acknowledges, “you do not anthropomorphize. But we’re not worried about that, because the feelings and images—we didn’t make them up like in an animated film. That’s exactly what we documented. These are the very best qualities of polar bears and walruses that we’ve seen.” Picking up where March of the Penguins left off, he adds, “We wanted to push that genre further with a two-character story backed by real observations and backed by science when we could.”

Between Latifah’s narration, which invests a polar bear family with the fuzzy sentiments of Leave It to Beaver, and a soundtrack that choreographs walrus camaraderie to hits like We Are Family, the film certainly appears to ascribe cute human traits to animal behaviour. “But there’s not as much anthropomorphism in this movie as people think,” says Ravetch. Pointing to the tight-knit family bonds in walrus herds, Ravetch cites a scene in which a walrus dubbed Auntie risks her life to save a young calf from a polar bear. “People are surprised that walruses have families and nannies, and have this incredible devotion. The fabulous qualities of these animals remind us of ourselves. But we’re so disconnected from the natural world, that idea seems preposterous to us.”

To find a precedent for Arctic Tale, the filmmakers point to the Disney wildlife adventure movies of the 1950s. The key difference is that Disney would use a documentary team to shoot the footage, which would be cobbled

WALRUS CAMARADERIE GETS CHOREOGRAPHED TO HITS LIKE ‘WE ARE FAMILY'

©into back case, a at the story the filmmakers by studio. another In built team this the story from their own experience in the field. But the studio exerted some influence. “The idea of having songs came from Hollywood,” says Robertson. “Some were written for the piece, but Paramount said, ‘What about bringing in some familiar songs that people can attach to?’ It’s not really dumbing it down, but let-

ting the audience breathe from what could potentially be a very heavy movie.”

No matter what you think of Arctic Tale’s narrative style, the footage is extraordinary and unprecedented—the filmmakers even slip a camera into the snow cave of a polar bear den. And the story is based on facts, insists Ravetch, who has watched bears and walruses cope with a diminishing polar ice cap over the years. “They start on the ice, the ice breaks up, then they’re forced onto the rocks, then they’re back on the ice. As we spent more and more time, the ice would break earlier and come back later.”

As the animals spend more time off ice, and on land, their behaviour is changing. Bears hunt seals by plunging their noses through the ice, a ritual that the film captures with astonishing intimacy. But starved and landlocked bears are now hunting walruses. “I remember the day we saw this white thing go into a walrus herd,” Ravetch recalls. “We saw it from a boat through our binoculars. We thought, ‘Wow, we’re onto something. The walruses are now starting to fight back.” Hollywood executives would ask Ravetch and Robinson if they were making a walrus movie or a polar bear movie. “We’d say it was a walrus film,” says Ravetch, “although the

polar bear is coming out as a more natural icon.” No kidding. It’s as if the walrus is the character actor, and the polar bear is the star, and it’s the one that ended up on the poster. But the filmmakers have always found the walrus more interesting.

“Nothing was known about it,” says Robertson, “and very few people had ever documented it underwater.” When she and Ravetch first started filming walruses 15 years ago, they worked with nomadic Inuit hunters, and

watched in horror as they harpooned young calves and wrenched them from their mothers. “It was hard to take,” she says, “the mothers holding their calves up out of the water with their flippers. The level of devotion we saw with these walrus mums was astounding.” The filmmakers later sought out the mothers in peaceful circumstances and captured unique images of them nursing, cradling and kissing their young.

It required patience. “We’d get on ice floes and hope their ice floes would come closer,” says Ravetch. “Then a polar bear would show up and we’d panic. We realized that we had to enter into the dynamic with the animals— and that we are part of the food chain.”

So which species is more dangerous?

“In the water, the walrus,” says Ravetch. “I’m terrified of it to this day. They will come up and tusk you and grab onto you. I got hit broadside once, not with the tusks, just the

head. They have these thick, hard skulls. Another diver was shaken like a rag doll, but we got the boat over and picked him up.” There was a close encounter with a polar bear. The crew came across the animal lying down, 10 m in front of their snowmobile. “We turned off the engine,” Ravetch recalls. “The gun was strapped underneath. My guide was lighting his cigarette. The bear was twitching his ears, and it just didn’t feel right. Then the bear stood up and came at him. In three pounces, he was on top of him. I was busy trying to get the gun. He was a big man, 250 lb. The bear grabbed his leg and he started screaming. I finally got the gun out. Then the bear looked at me and just ran for no apparent reason. We took the man’s pants off to see if he was injured and there were just scratches. We pride ourselves that we’ve never had anybody injured from an attack and we’ve never had to hurt a bear.”

Ravetch and Robertson are environmentalists, and their film, like An Incovenient Truth, ends with household tips for combating global warming. But their positions are not extreme. They do not oppose subsistence hunting, as long as the species is not endangered, and they’ve learned a lot from the Inuit. “But they go out to hunt the animals then go away,” says Ravetch. “Unlike us, they don’t spend hours and hours with them. So it was a learning process for them, too. They were drawing on stories from the elders, who knew the animals better.”

Ironically, the filmmakers learned one trick from an Inuit elder by watching Nanook of the North on a local CBC station in the Arctic. Filmed by Robert J. Flaherty in 1920, Nanook is regarded as the first feature length anthropological documentary. It includes a scene of a hunter lying on the ice, creeping up on a seal by imitating the animal. When Ravetch described the technique to a contemporary Inuit, the man laughed and said it would never work. So Ravetch decided to give it a whirl. “I crawled all the way up to a seal,” he says. “It took me an hour. I grabbed it and pulled it away from the water’s edge. The Inuit wanted to eat it, and I said, ‘No, this is my seal. I caught it.’ ” Ravetch released the seal through a hole in the ice where he could film it underwater. “And I learned that from TV, the ultimate college of the north.”

A pioneering documentary, Nanook of the North took some poetic licence of its own. The shots were set up. The action was scripted. And its intrepid hero was cast for the role, acting with wives and children who were not his own. Like Nanu, the polar bear cub in Arctic Tale, Nanook was a fictional construct. Almost nine decades later, as the ice cap thaws, filmmakers are still trying to project a mythic story onto its white expanse. M