Place and Voice in Bear 71
by Sarah O'Brien — Georgia Institute of Technology
October 01, 2014 – 00:00
The interactive documentary Bear 71 (Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison, National Film Board of Canada, 2012) invites users to toggle between a data visualization of Banff National Forest, masterfully rendered as a kinetic, color-coded map, and low-resolution CCCT footage of Bear 71, a bear tagged and tracked most of her life by Parks Canada’s extensive system of trail cams. Users scroll over the map’s sleek contours, clicking into oddly-angled vignettes that capture not only Bear 71 and other park residents and visitors, but also fellow users’ enabled webcams.
The doc thus deftly locates users in a matrix engineered to emphasize extremely dislocating relationships of voyeuristic looking. Yet it eases any potential estrangement by outfitting Bear 71 with first-person narration. Voiced by actress Mia Kirshner, Bear 71’s story charts the resolutely individual fallout of living in a habitat increasingly constrained by humans’ technologized interventions.
Loc Dao describes i-docs as founded on the tension between facts and feelings: “Even though it’s a new medium and it’s very data driven, which can make it seem cold, the biggest thing for us is emotion.” Bear 71’s data-driven interface is easily offset by its empathy-driven voiceover, which not only anthropomorphizes the bear, but also humanizes the mass of visual data that represents her entrapment.
In the echo chamber of wildlife documentaries, the human voice of Bear 71 resonates with the voices from that other grizzly film, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). A documentary traditional in terms of medium but deeply reflexive in terms of form, Grizzly Man stages a loud, existential argument between two filmmakers, Herzog and Timothy Treadwell, in the silent surrounds of wild nature; it concludes by disavowing humans’ capacity to communicate with the mute countenances of animals like Bear 141, the grizzly charged with killing Treadwell. Bear 71, in contrast, gives voice to its titular hero, yet in doing so it ensnares users in an all too familiar process of identification. Although it initially asks users to submit to the profoundly disorienting effects of watching bodies become data, the voiceover narration soon takes over, insisting that users relate to Bear 71, to recall one succinct critique of Treadwell’s method, as they would to humans in bear suits.