DOXA Documentary Film Festival, May 4-13. Opening Night Gala featuring a live presentation of the NFB Digital Studio's Bear 71. For complete schedule visit www. doxafestival.ca.3
THEY watched her for eight years. An electronic tracking device was placed around her neck and her movements were controlled, sometimes with force.
Bear 71 is a short nature story that feels like a plea from an oppressed political dissident.
The interactive website documentary, which chronicles the real life of a mother bear in Banff, is scheduled to hit the big screen Friday at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church as part of DOXA, the international documentary film festival.
Not strictly a documentary, the intimate and interactive website grew from a broad assortment of video and photos.
"My husband's a park warden and he'd show me one the odd time," says documentarian Leanne Allison of the thousands of photos of Bear 71 snapped by trail cameras. "I always found them really fascinating because there is no one framing the image and it feels to me like nature uninterrupted."
Despite the abundance of material about the bear, Allison says she wasn't sure what to do with the photos until Jeremy Mendes joined the National Film Board project.
"I saw these images and I was immediately struck by the odd nature of them and how they really challenged the notion of what wild is. But more importantly I saw surveillance," Mendes says. "I started thinking about our own privacy."
While Mendes considered the parallels between the cameras that observed Bear 71 and the security cameras that record every customer at 7/11, Allison delved into the bear's history.
"There was tons known about her because she was collared at the age of three and essentially watched every day of her life," Allison says.
"There were piles and piles of notes about her behaviour, every single mate she had, all her cubs, where she tended to travel."
Allison's previous film work includes trailing a migrating herd of caribou from the Yukon to Alaska and back for the documentary Being Caribou.
Asked why that project appealed to her, she replies: "We wanted to tell their side of the story."
The desire to give a voice to the voiceless also emerges in Bear 71.
"There was a time-lapse sequence where a train comes into frame, stays for about three hours, and then leaves, and there's a big pile of grain left. And sure enough, about three hours later a grizzly bear comes down the tracks. Just at that moment I imagined what was going through her head. . . . 'We were going to give Bear 71 a voice and she's going to tell her story,'" she recalls deciding.
Mendes agreed, and as the project progressed, the bear came to know more and more.
"What if this bear is omniscient, knows everything about the Internet, has a really compelling, sexy voice, and just keeps you glued the whole time you're listening to the story?" Mendes asks.
The bear takes us through her life from the moment she was incapacitated by a park ranger's dart.
"The dart was full of something called Telazol," the bear informs us. "Brought to you by Pfizer."
The bear's narration was written by J.B. MacKinnon, one of the authors of The 100-Mile Diet, who gives the bear a voice that is both innocent and world-weary.
Bear 71 refers to Banff National Park and the Bow River Valley as "The Grid" as she passes similarly tagged and numbered deer, bobcats, and elk.
Lumbering beneath the overpass that splits her habitat, Bear 71 details the methods park rangers use to control her movements.
"They call it aversive conditioning. I call it rubber bullets." As a wise animal locked in a world ruled by technology, Bear 71 is occasionally reminiscent of the hero in a dystopian science fiction film, like Neo in The Matrix.
The feeling is augmented by an unsettling score by Radio head. Still, Allison and Mendes never let the audience forget they're watching a story about a real bear.
"She represented to people that maybe grizzly bears still could eke out a living right close to Banff, even though the odds are definitely against them," Allison says.
Mendes, who has been providing web content since the 1990s, saw the project as a chance to reach out to "techno babies" who would ordinarily avoid a conventional documentary.
"There may be an opportunity to hit an audience that isn't normally used to consuming a story that's about nature," he says. "The idea that technology affects nature isn't a new idea. I think the way that we've approached it offers a new way of looking at the role that humans have in that relationship."
Despite the level of technology that went into the making of Bear 71, Friday night's screening will hearken to the early days of film, according to Mendes.
"We have musicians that are playing and I think they make a connection to the audience that isn't unlike the way that piano players in the silent film era would have the role of playing the emotional arc."
The musicians will accompany Mendes, who is planning to take the stage with his laptop, driving the viewer experience as it's projected onscreen.
Asked what they want the audience to get from Bear 71, the two artists diverged.
"I don't think it's making a Michael Moore bold statement at all," Mendes says. "In some ways, maybe the story is a critique of the role that technology plays."
Allison is more blunt. "I honestly hope people want to shut down their computers and sit under a tree," she says.
Tickets for the opening night screening are $20.