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Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

"I'm in love with my animal friends. I'm in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I'm very, very troubled. It's very emotional. It's probably not cool even looking like this. I'm so in love with them, and they're so f***ed over, which so sucks." Timothy Treadwell

Sometimes great cinema just falls in your lap. Werner Herzog realised this very quickly when presented with the 100 hours of footage which forms the bedrock of Grizzly Man.

The late Timothy Treadwell was a sometime actor. An actor who apparently lost out narrowly to Woody Harrelson for what became his career-making, eponymous role in Cheers, but this was as close as Treadwell came to thespian fame. He drifted along for a few years, masking life's disappointments with alcohol and drugs before emerging in the '90s as a campaigning ecologist with the preservation of Alaska's grizzly population foremost in his thoughts. 'A Kind Warrior', as he says early in the film.

Treadwell spent thirteen Summers living in Katmai National Park, studying and documenting bears. For the last five of his visits he brought along the video camera who's recordings make up the bulk of Grizzly Man's running time. Living under canvas, Treadwell eschewed as much contact as possible (barring the occasional female companion, such as Amie Huguenard, his girlfriend and fellow wildlife enthusiast) with the human race for months at a time, all the while within sniffing distance (and without firearms) of one of the most dangerous carnivores on the planet.

We are treated to snippets of wildlife documentaries (Treadwell's longterm plan) presented with childlike enthusiasm, glee even, but all too often the wide-eyed and innocent tone gives way to an almost pathalogical declamation of the Park rangers, trappers and tourists who seek to damage the habitat of or harm his adopted 'friends'. For such a confirmed eco warrior, at times Timothy Treadwell gives the air of a rather selfish individual, guarding his ego and status as much as he searches to protect the local grizzlys.

Herzog peppers this footage with interviews with Treadwell's friends and Alaskan acquaintences, including the pilot who found his, and Amie Huguenard's, remains in October 2003. Grizzly Man's opening monologue with Timothy describing the effect of a bear attack was eerily prophetic...

The director has seen a side to Treadwell that many overlooked - that of the maverick filmmaker. In fact Werner parallels the Katmai Park footage with his own work on Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo where he worked in close proximity to his own version of Treadwell's grizzly in the forest, Klaus Kinski. Herzog provides a voiceover which is both balanced and affecting, alongside a beautiful score from Richard Thompson.

Grizzly Man works on a few levels for me: Treadwell's wildlife footage has an intensity about it which is rarely seen outside the very best David Attenborough documentaries. The fight pictured between two male grizzlys has a terrible beauty, for example. There's also, of course, the study of the man himself, a man who I read as having deep-seated emotional scars and a void in his life. This void could seemingly only be filled through a delusional belief that wild, dangerous animals could be befriended and reasoned with. Demons are exorcised here....in multiple takes. The true shame is that Timothy chose to spend his final few weeks with a woman as uneasy in this environment as she was desperate to return home.

Timothy and Amie's death, at the hands of a lone grizzly, was captured on his camera's audio, the lens being fortunately obscured. We are shown Herzog, genuinely shocked and moved, listening to their final moments on headphones and imploring the tape's tearful keeper (an ex girlfriend) to destroy it without ever listening to it's contents.

Part eco-warrior, part ego-warrior - I highly recommend Grizzly Man.

"Treadwell probably did not realise that seemingly empty moments had a strange, secret beauty. Sometimes images themselves develop their own life, their own mysterious stardom..." Werner Herzog