An Intense Documentary
By now most people have heard about the bizarre accident in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in 2003 when a grizzly bear devoured bear observer Tim Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. So it was with great trepidation that I entered the theater to watch director Werner Herzog’s documentary about how this tragic occurrence came to be.
To say that Tim Treadwell was a little odd is an understatement. As his parents explain in the film, he was fascinated with bears from a very young age. In 1992, Treadwell began spending summers among the grizzlies in Katmai and continued this work for 13 summers. Much of his actual footage is included in the film. Treadwell talks to the bears in a sing-song soft voice, almost like a Mr. Rogers, enticing them to be his friend, yet smart enough to show them who’s boss if they come too close.
After a few years, Treadwell gained celebrity status when he made the television talk-show rounds and co-authored a book (Among Grizzlies) with Jewel Palovak, who also spent five years with him. She and Treadwell formed a foundation, Grizzly People. He took his message -- free of charge -- to schools and spoke to kids about bears.
Not everyone, as the film reveals, was happy with Treadwell’s involvement with the bears. Some called him reckless, others disrespectful of the grizzly’s territory. His past may have been shadowed in lies and misconceptions, but close friends maintain that he was true to his cause.
Treadwell was steadfast in his plan right up to the end when he mistakenly thought he was in control. The gruesome deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard were recorded in audio only as the bear devoured them. The tape is not played in the film, but a shot of Herzog listening to it for the first time causes such an emotional reaction, it’s not hard to guess how horrific it is to hear. At the time of the documentary’s completion, Palovak had not heard the tape, and Herzog suggested she destroy it without listening to it.
Palovak, who appears in the film and controls the rights to the Treadwell archives as co-founder of Grizzly People, felt compelled to follow her friend’s wishes. “Timothy was very dramatic,” she said. “He told me, ‘If I die, if something happens to me, make that movie. You show ‘em.’”
Herzog handles the difficult material in his film with exceptional skill. He shows respect to sensitive areas of the material and makes good efforts -- through interviews with family and friends -- to uncover what Tim Treadwell was really like. However, little is revealed about Amie Huguenard in the documentary. She came into Treadwell’s life late in his visits with the bears, and her family did not comment in the film.
Andrea Meditch, executive producer of Discovery Docs, Discovery’s feature documentary division that parented with Lions Gates Films to bring Grizzly Man to the screen, knew that Herzog was the right director for the film. “Herzog is a visionary,” she said. “He has a unique way of looking at documentary filmmaking; he has a great passion and understanding for larger-than-life characters; and he’s able to bring them to life in ways that virtually no one else can.”
Palovak also trusted Herzog to make the film. “I saw a similarity between Werner and Tim, each as a kind of maverick who would not give up on what he believes in,” said Palovak. “I knew that I wouldn’t get a fuzzy nature film or a little conservation piece. I knew that Werner would give an unflinching honesty.”
The footage in the film is stunning. It caused the director and editor to pause and walk out of the building when first viewing it. While there’s a brief scene showing some of the remains, there are no shots of any grizzly attacking or eating anyone. Watching the complexities of Treadwell unfold is far more compelling. One moment he’s an animal lover and grizzly guard -- and the next a profanity-spewing angry man on a tirade against the park service.
Anyone thinking of seeing Grizzly Man should make sure they’re aware of the film’s intense content.
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated “R” for language.)
Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.