Timothy Treadwell immersed himself in the habitat and world of bears; it proved to be his undoing. 2005's Grizzly Man, narrated and directed by famed German director Werner Herzog, profiles Treadwell's adventurous life and horrifying death at the hands of the very bears he sought to protect. He was an idealistic and self-styled savior of bears who spent thirteen summers in the vast expanses of national parks in Alaska. In so doing, he surreptitiously camped in forbidden areas and disobeyed rules about interactions with animals, all the while capturing his fanciful misadventures on film. On or about October 4, 2003, Treadwell, and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a bear.
From Treadwell's many hours of self-shot footage, Herzog assembled the bulk of his documentary, which is, quite simply, fascinating. At times stern, at times understanding, Herzog, as narrator, paints a striking psychological portrait of Treadwell. He sympathizes with Treadwell the amateur filmmaker but also appears baffled by Treadwell's willingness to ignore the potential for peril. Treadwell was certainly no nature or bear "scholar" in the formal sense of the word. He had no sponsor, no grants, no Ph.D. dissertation to complete on those subjects. But he wielded a strange and disarming charisma that no doubt made those he encountered forget, at least for a moment, that he had no formal education or credentials. He seemed to need to save the bears, not just for their own purported sake, but for that of himself, as well. He craved not just the mission, but his status as missionary to the bear world. The film chronicles his quest for affirmation (of himself, of his viewpoint, of his place in the world) and how it ultimately led to his and Huguenard's deaths in late 2003.
Treadwell's bizarre behavior, and his justifications for it, prompt serious questions which can now never be answered. Why did he fixate on his self-appointed mission to save bears? What was the basis for his belief that bears were unsafe in federally protected national parks? Why did he risk his life (and that of Huguenard, his girlfriend) in his overzealous commitment to that task? Why did he portray himself as being alone in his video footage when he was with her during his last summer visit? Were these treks really about saving the bears or about finding himself? What was the source of his paranoia, which prompted him to hide from other park visitors and spy on those he thinks are there to thwart his mission? What kind of a person spends five minutes effusively thanking a small fox for being his friend? We'll never know.
Although Grizzly Man certainly provides a sense of who Timothy Treadwell was in the years preceding his death, there is little information about how he became that person. He had changed his surname, changed professions, and generally lived the life of a dilettante until taking up the cause of bears. Unfortunately, How did he become the man that he was? How was he influenced? Herzog offers brief interviews with Treadwell's parents (Val and Carol Dexter) but we never learn what made him become the self-styled ambassador to the bear world, perhaps because there was no meaningful way to establish such facts.
As fate would have it, Treadwell's video camera was running at the time of his death and captured the audio of his and Huguenard's last moments. The lens cap had not been removed meaning that, thankfully, there is no video footage of the two terrible deaths. At the time of its release, many reviewers remarked upon Herzog's decision not to air the audio of the last moments of Treadwell and his girlfriend (who was also killed). In the film, Herzog shows himself on screen listening to the audio himself on headphones, and viewers gauge his troubled and then horrified reaction. (He instructs Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's former girlfriend who now possesses Treadwell's many video cassettes, to cut off the tape before it finishes.).
Immediately thereafter, the following exchange takes place:
WERNER HERZOG: Jewel, you must never listen to this.
JEWEL PALOVAK: I know, Werner, I'm never going to.
WH: And you must never look at the photos that I've seen at the coroner's office.
JP: I will never look at them.
JP: They said it was bad. Now you know why no one is going to hear it.
WH: I think you - you should not keep it. You should destroy it.
WH: I think that's what you should do.
WH: Because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life.
Herzog's advice is sage. It should be followed. If not, Palovak might someday compel herself to listen to it, which would be extraordinarily regrettable. But it apparently wasn't followed. In June of 2005, at a panel discussion on the film held during the Silverdocs Film Festival in Washington D.C., Herzog and Pavolak were asked what became of the audiotape. They replied:
Jewel Palovak: I didn't take Werner’s advice in the film [to destroy the tape] so I still have it. I think it may have historical value. It’s also possible that a forensics expert can hear other things on the tape that we didn't.
Werner Herzog: Jewel has physically separated herself from the tape—it’s now in a safe deposit box. I remember when we filmed that scene Jewel was worried that the screams would leak out of the earphones I was wearing and be picked up by the boom mike. But I promised her that if I detected even the slightest sound I would erase it from the film’s soundtrack. She trusted me. No one will ever hear that tape.
(Excerpts courtesy of this transcript by John Suozzo of the DC Film Society).
Certainly, from a narrative standpoint, the airing of the ghastly audio would have overshadowed the story of Treadwell's life and transformed the documentary into a Faces of Death for the Sundance set. What is interesting is how Herzog uses the horrifying audio track as an opportunity to define his view of the role of the documentarian. Certainly, it is a dramatic moment; the viewer watches Herzog as he listens but also Palovak, Treadwell's friend and former lover, as she watches him listen to something she (rightly) can't bring herself to hear. But if the audio tape has the potential to overshadow the narrative, then why do more than mention that it exists? Does Herzog do his own documentary a disservice by featuring himself listening to something which by all accounts should not continue to exist? Does it become an unnecessary distraction, indicated by all of the reviews which fixated upon that decision?
Necessarily, a documentary film-maker must serve as a filter; he or she must take an entire universe of information (in Herzog's case, all of Treadwell's many, many hours of video footage and the accompanying original interviews) and distill it down into a completed project of generally less than two hours. Complicating the matter further is that Palovak is the co-executive of the documentary (perhaps because she is the owner or possessor of all of Treadwell's footage.). But is it the role of the documentarian to offer wisdom to the subjects of his documentary, especially when it deals with the destruction of part of the record of the subject of the documentary? In so doing, has Herzog stepped into the film as a participant in its narrative, rather than just a chronicler of events and interviewer? At what point does the documentary filmmaker cross a line and begin to influence his subjects more than he should? Should the documentarian befriend his subjects and offer them helpful advice or should he monitor them and prompt them for insight? Perhaps there are risks in allowing one of the subjects of your documentary become its co-executive producer (although likely, without Palovak's participation, there might be no documentary). Or, perhaps, when a director decides that something is not worth including in a documentary, it should truly be omitted.
UPDATE (12/6/07): Several weeks ago, I had contacted Dr. Franc Fallico, Alaska's chief medical examiner and the coroner who performed the autopsy on Treadwell. In the film, he provided a particularly dramatic interview to Herzog for the documentary. I very recently received Dr. Fallico's response to my missive, and I have included the unedited Q&A below.
1. Looking back two years, after all of the press and publicity that the film received, what do you think of it and your role therein? Is there anything that you feel was cut, or that you would like to add, that was not included in your portions of the film?
I like the role and I think the Director did a great job getting the dramatic effect from me, although at the time I didn't realize that. I thought I would act in a more formal manner, like a conventional medical examiner, but Herzog's direction was essential in making me more of a dramatic and expressive actor.
2. Did Mr. Herzog give you any special instructions on how to tell the tale of Mr. Treadwell's last moments? Your delivery was vivid and dramatic, and I was curious about the context of that scene.
Yes, his direction emphasized the depth of Treadwell's personality and confusion between his being the man of nature and almost "becoming"the bear. Treadwells' choosing of his fate by transgressing from thes afety of the observing human to (almost) becoming the bear was suggested.
3. What lessons can be learned from the film and Mr. Treadwell's experiences depicted therein?
Lessons include the fact that Nature, especially in the Alaskan wilderness, can become very unforgiving, and the hunter can quickly become the hunted. Another lesion is the fate of going for a ride with the forces of a strong seductive personality like Treadwell's, and being dragged into an impossible situation that can't be controlled (Ms. [Huguenard].)
4. Finally, do you believe that Ms. Pavolak, Mr. Treadwell's former girlfriend and the current owner of the audio tape which captured Mr. Treadwell's death, should heed Mr. Herzog's advice and destroy it?
No, I don't think she should destroy the tape. The tape is awful but its mere possession is not sinful or wrong in any way. It is my understanding that the tape was somehow put on the Internet, so it's out there anyway. I have no information about that, and I certainly did not do it. Don't know who did.
It appears that Herzog coached Dr. Fallico to tell the tale of Treadwell's death in the fashion that he did. While this may be a mechanism of reaching some semblance of truth, it seems apparent that Dr. Fallico would not have shared his knowledge in that fashion without prompting by the documentarian.