Does the Bare Necessities Reveal a Grizzly Truth? – An Interview with Tom Reissmann

30 Mar

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By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

Available to view on demand on Vimeo
starting March 30th. 2017

Whether created by animation or live-action, the great bear has come to symbolize one of several things. As a symbol of strength and courage — or perhaps a constellation you see on the night sky — this animal’s importance to nature and in a grander a cosmic scheme must never go unnoticed. In the cartoon world, we have beloved characters like Yogi the Bear (created by Hanna-Barbera in 1958) and Baloo from Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) / Tail Spin (1990). Jump ahead a little more than a decade, this studio made Brother Bear (2003) which looked at how man should respect nature and understand tolerance. The main character, Kenai, was transformed into a bear, and had to learn for himself why this animal is so revered within his tribe. In Haida culture, this gentle creature is known as the “Elder Kinsman” and is treated as a noble guest instead of a thief because it stole from the river, which also provided sustenance to the locals.

If only the people who hunt them can treat and think of these gentle creatures the same way. In this documentary, the hunters sort of say they do, but that’s for the viewer to decide. I was offered the opportunity to get a sneak preview of a very thought-provoking and insightful program. It looks the role this animal and where it stands within different organizations. From the hunter’s perspective to governmental and First Nations, everybody has an opinion on a hot political topic in this year’s British Columbia election: to finally ban grizzly bear hunting. They are sought after more often as trophys these days, which is sad. For those just wanting to take a snapshot, it it even helpful to the local economy? A lot is said to view the pros and cons of both, and this film nicely walks the fine line than lean towards a specific stance.

In Africa, the lion is said to be on top of the food chain. In North America, it is the bear. Destroy the alpha, and there will be problems. This fact and many other details are revealed in this documentary that’s now available online to view. And writer/director Tom Reissmann had other facts to reveal about the making of this film:

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Tom Reissmann pilots a drone for some fantastic sweeping shots in this documentary.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I am a filmmaker from Germany and I have worked on several travel documentaries set in Africa, Australia and Europe. I have also participated in various anthropological studies regarding the effects of tourism in places like Bolivia and Costa Rica.

When did the idea to make The Grizzly Truth first come about?

I first saw an article on Al Jazeera News that introduced this controversy to a more international audience and given my background in tourism I was immediately fascinated by the topics since it involved the rights of First Nations, environmentalist, scientists, animal rights, tourism and hunting organizations as well as the iconic grizzly bear of course.

With all the many myths out there about the bear, especially in its portrayal in media like in The Revenant, to numerous light-hearted portrayals in cartoons (Paddington, Berenstain and the like) and how it’s been demonized in early works from Louis and Clarke’s journey to the Pacific Northwest, were there other stories you considered that did not make it into the final cut of the documentary?

In fact in my original cut I had included all of those popular bear characters and the way culture portrays the bear as the lovable clown that needs to be fed, with Kevin Van Tighem’s great voice narrating it all. Unfortunately all of those characters are copyrighted and I could not get the rights from any of the rights holders and since the fair use clause is such a murky issue I stayed away from it and cut it. So now I only allude to those characters, much to my dismay because it would have certainly added to the discussion of how we perceive bears.

I came across an article on the National Post about portrayals of animals (as a whole, than just the bear) for how children are taught to perceive the animal kingdom. Some of it is pertinent to the discussion in your doc. What’s your thought on this?

I think anthropomorphizing animals is a huge part of what popular culture does and all of us are prone to doing that, even Charlie Russell, whom I admire greatly, does this to some extent. As Kevin points out in the documentary none of those symbols relate to what a bear is since a bear is just a bear. They are trying to make a living out in nature and meanwhile they have all have those symbols stuck to their head and that’s why we cannot agree on what to do with bears because we see them so differently.

With regard to social norms and racism I’m sure that occurs and especially in the older Disney films, which are really quite racist but again it is just a projection of our own prejudices onto these animals. But things have changed, the recent film “Zootopia” used the predator-prey relationship in a very clever way to warn children about letting our fears govern how we see and perceive others and in that way it was very relevant to our current populist political climate and the ascent of people like Trump and Erdogan.

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Tom spends time enjoying the views in British Columbia’s The Great Bear Rainforest

Was it difficult to create a balanced film which looks at all the pros and cons of grizzly hunting and conservation of a species?

Not really. I was aware of my own emotional bias towards not shooting and instead photographing grizzlies. But I really put that aside by reminding myself that I am from Germany and I have no idea what all of the reasons for hunting grizzlies are and I am certainly in no position to prejudge. So I actually really challenged environmentalists and anti-hunting groups on their views and wanted to be convinced by hunting organizations that perhaps there is a good argument to be made for hunting grizzlies, just to be truly objective on this issue.

Also I had seen many short documentaries on this topic before and they were quite dull because I was just being preached to and there was no real back and forth or interesting arguments that challenged my own preconceived notions. Having participated in anthropological studies I really favored this idea of not having a hypothesis and instead using emerging theory, so as to let the data speak for itself. And that is what I did much to the consternation of people like Charlie Russell who always thought I was on the fence. In the end all of the arguments made in favor of grizzly hunting simply did not hold up and many of them were even contradictory.

Was there a reason in why you did not deeply explore the black market sales of bear parts to Asian markets?

The black market sale of bear parts is not really a major issue in British Columbia anymore and certainly not with regard to grizzlies. Also poaching is another issue that would have distracted from the main narrative of scrutinizing the arguments for grizzly hunting, which is a legal activity.

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Sometimes a camera drone is safer to film wild bears than using a huge 300mm telephoto camera lens.

Were there any difficulties during filming? I’m curious in how receptive Travis the Hunter was to having a team follow them during their hunt.

Travis supplied me with his footage. I did not shoot that footage. So yes access to hunters and an actual hunt was an issue. The Guide Outfitters Association of BC (GOABC) was very apprehensive about allowing me to film it, so even though a hunter in BC had agreed to let me film a resident hunt, he changed his mind after being pressured by the board. Which was not very surprising, they assume that unless I am an avid pro-grizzly hunter, as a filmmaker I am not going to portray the hunt in a very positive light, plus the skinning and beheading of a bear is quite gory, so they sure as hell do not want the general public to see this, given that over 90% are already opposed to the trophy hunt of grizzlies.

How important would you say including the graphic scenes are to get people to realize this type of action is terrible?

The killing and skinning of any animal is always graphic and violent and while that is a part of the reality of hunting, I also did not want to manipulate the viewer with too many graphic images.

I am not opposed to hunting and I have participated in a hunt and witnessed the skinning and gutting of a deer and that sure is gory and bloody, but as a way to fill your freezer with deer meat I don’t have any issues with it at all. It is a bit more eerie with a bear because a skinned bear does look like a naked human, which is where First Nation legends about bears being their ancestors come from. But again I did not include those very graphic and shocking images because I feel like I am aiming for an emotional reaction. I included some images to hint at the reality of it but nothing too shocking. I wanted it to be a rational conversation not an emotional appeal.

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Also, a camera drone allows the filmmakers to film fantastic shots of this park located along most of British Columbia’s North and Central coast. It was officially recognized February 2016.

I’m curious in how long the documentary looked when you first started assembling/editing it? Was it difficult to pare down the discourse?

I had hours and hours of interviews and I had to transcribe and time-code them all. My wall is covered in post-it notes that summarize certain points so I could organize them. But once I cut everything down I really tried to stick to about 100 minutes and after showing a rough cut to various small audiences I made improvements and cut it down to 89 minutes.

Are there any plans to make this documentary better accessible? That is, aside from Vimeo will this program be available on Knowledge Network or PBS later on, with perhaps title cards to let people know that all proceeds are going to end “the hunt? in The Great Bear Rainforest?

Yes, a shorter 52-minute version will be available via broadcasters worldwide but that is in the hands of my agent in the UK. They hold the distribution rights and I am still in the process of editing the broadcast version so it will be a few months before that happens.

I independently produced and financed this and I merely came to the conclusion that their approach is the fairest and most balanced approach as it respects the rights of business owners and communities by buying out territories rather than just campaigning and demonizing grizzly hunting which is long-held tradition that goes back to First Nations.

Also I do want hunters to watch the documentary and will also donate to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, which does lots of work to maintain healthy salmon stocks because without salmon the grizzlies will disappear and that is something even hunters can agree on and feel more comfortable with than Raincoast.

In closing, is there anything else you like to say?

The main aim of this documentary is to entertain and educate in order to clarify a lot of misinformation but above all it is to encourage conversation and present the need for compromise as well as finding solutions without demonizing those that disagree with us. I think in our hyper-partisan, polarized, post-truth era it is important to look at each issue from different angles and see the different points of view without losing perspective of the facts and the truth. The GOABC told me that they thought this was the fairest film they have seen on this subject without it necessarily being balanced from their point of view.

So I guess I cannot claim the Fox News slogan of ‘fair and balance’ but then again I did not want to be Fox News but rather Grizzly News.

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