Sex and violence in wildlife films
Below are some excerpts on sex and violence in wildlife films from my book “Shooting in the Wild.” I hope you enjoy them.
While one critic, who rents out wild animals to filmmakers, called me a “parasitic bottom feeder,” most of the coverage of my book has been highly positive, with journalist Todd Wilkinson calling it, “The most important book ever written about nature documentaries.”
I’m using the book to launch a campaign to reform the wildlife filmmaking industry. I’ve given well over 100 interviews and speeches since the book was published in late May.
I hope you enjoy the excerpts below.
“Predators at War” tells the story of what happens when extreme drought in the South African bush forces increased competition among predators.
This ninety-minute program, produced by National Geographic Television in 2005, showed a variety of animals battling one another for survival. Directed in a style broadcasters call “high-octane television,” with fast-paced cutting and multiple layers of sound and music, Predators at War features Africa’s top carnivores—lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, and wild dogs—in unusual, sometimes horrifying circumstances.
Kim Wolhuter, a freelance cinematographer and filmmaker working in South Africa, shot the footage at Mala Mala Wildlife Reserve near
Kruger National Park in South Africa. El Niño weather patterns had brought on a widespread drought, causing the predators’ territories to expand and overlap, thus increasing friction between individuals and species. In one segment, a lioness climbs a tree to steal a leopard kill, slips, is caught between limbs, and dies of strangulation. The lioness’s sisters eventually climb into the tree, release her body, and then eat her.
The program was deemed a massive success by the network, and National Geographic has rebroadcast it numerous times since its premiere. In fact it has become one of the channel’s “tent pole” programs, meaning that it’s so big a draw that it can enlarge the audience for the rest of an evening’s offerings.
The film claimed documentary authenticity, but it was promoted like a work of fiction. The official summary ran, “Fearsome predators battle the environment and one another during a brutal drought. Here’s the twist: we cover this deadly competition as a military operation, putting you virtually on the super-predator battlefield.” Lions are described as “tanks,” leopards as “aerial fighters,” hyenas as “special forces,” and wild dogs as “roving infantry.” The predator’s skeleton, muscles, teeth, and claws are machine-like “weaponry.” The war metaphors, the frenetic pacing of images, and the dark and intense music further amp up the drama. Wolhuter was included in the story as a “war correspondent,” making ominous pronouncements about the “worsening situation” and noting that “Africa’s predators were at war with each other.”
The program has its strong points: It was well shot and well produced. The photography is spectacular. The animals’ “weaponry” is depicted by high-quality computer graphics. But these strengths, when combined with the bellicose language, only serve to make the wildlife situation in South Africa seem much more violent than it actually was.
At the 2006 Wildscreen film festival, trouble brewed over “Predators at War.” Many natural history filmmakers were outraged by the film, saying that they never expected the venerable and respected National Geographic Society to produce such a violent and manipulative program. Walter Koehler, head of the Natural History Unit at the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, found the film a sickening departure from the goals of wildlife filmmaking. “The mission of the National Geographic Society is to ‘inspire people to care about the planet.’ How anybody would care more about the planet after watching Predators at War is a total mystery to me,” he said. “With 3D imaging, the animals were turned into raging tanks and other machines of war, and behaved more like cartoon supervillains than real natural creatures. It almost became a propaganda instrument to legitimize the war on terror.”
Keenan Smart, head of National Geographic’s Natural History Unit, defended the film as “a product of its time in America,” when the United States was at war in Iraq. He felt that, in 2004, Americans were particularly interested in war themes and that the film reflected the prevailing political climate. Smart also argued that Predators at War brought a whole new audience to natural history films. He claimed that some of the new audience would “convert” and become regular viewers of other wildlife television shows, including those with a conservation message. Smart also pointed out that critics need to recognize the demands of the marketplace.
Kathryn Pasternak, a fifteen-year veteran of National Geographic Television and senior producer of Predators at War, told me that, when surrounded by their peers, she and Wolhuter felt a little embarrassed by the film. But she also sees “some amount of unnecessary angst created
around films like this, as though natural history always has to be about conservation and education.” When asked if the film harmed the animals
of Mala Mala reserve, she says, “I doubt it very much. Is it possible we opened some new eyes to the natural world? I think so.”
The hard fact is that, despite National Geographic’s traditional education and conservation mission, films produced for broadcast on cable are primarily for entertainment. Their educational value is secondary. Cable channels go off the air if their programs don’t achieve the high ratings that pull in advertising revenue. Money is the final arbiter of what National Geographic shows on its network, just as it is for almost all other cable programming. When news of the high ratings for Predators at War arrived at National Geographic, the executives involved in the film’s production were congratulated for their brilliance.
The stumbling block for those of us who would fight sensationalism is that it seems to work—at least in a commercial sense. As television programs go to increasingly dangerous extremes to grasp viewers’ attention and win higher ratings, audiences seem to enjoy the supercharged excitement of wild animals mating and violence involving gnashing fangs, spilling blood, and ripping flesh. From the safety of armchairs, they get an adrenaline rush. Filmmaker Tom Veltre asks, “What does it say about us as a society that there continues to be a market for such carnage? We haven’t come far since the days of the Roman amphitheater.”
Regardless of what these films may reveal about us, though, they produce high ratings, network profits, and executive bonuses. Everyone loves the showmanship and everyone appears to win—except, perhaps, people who are genuinely curious about animals and the animals themselves.
Chris Palmer is author of: