That mother nature is a ruthless cunt should be evident to anyone with a working knowledge of evolutionary theory or an aficionado of wildlife viewing. Watching an army of ants dismantle a forest full of animals or a polar bear devouring a baby seal is enough to press home the point that the flora and fauna of this lone inhabited planet pursue their survival without a shred of sentimentality and waste not a single fragment of time or effort for impractical reasons. Strange then, how few nature documentaries get this right, going for the heart strings with delightful images and romantic notions that are wide of the mark enough to actually damage conservation efforts. The world is relentlessly brutal, and being rather rough beasts ourselves, we are capable of appreciating how this works and that we have a place in this elegant system of slaughter and endurance.
Luc Jacquet seems to understand this ideal, and it shows in his accomplished documentaries. Though the award-winning March of the Penguins was scarred by an awful commentary track by Morgan Freeman that eschewed words like ‘dead’ in favor of ‘disappeared’, it remains a visually rich work punctuated by images that inspire admiration and unease for how these animals survive. The egg freezing instantly upon contact with the ice and killing the chick within, as well as the weaker birds on the edge of the mob freezing solid in a storm spring to mind.
He evidently has a passion for Antarctica, and it shows in a DVD collection of his earlier documentaries, each of which show a keen eye for detail, and it is this detail where he happily parts from most directors of nature films, failing to edit out the stomach-churning moments or shun the uncomfortable themes. This comes from having enough respect for nature not to gloss over that murder is an essential part of any species in which there is competition – and there is always that competition – as genetic strength is necessary to weather the millennia.
In “Penguin Baywatch”, elephant seals hold court on a beach teeming with life during the brief Antarctic summer. The males of this species fight constantly, with the 16-foot beachmasters shedding torrents of each blood over their harems. The camera captures one of these older males, having fallen from grace after losing a battle, his upper mouth shredded and a slab his snout bobbing in the surf. Shortly thereafter, the exhausted male dies, while aptly-named skewers bury their heads in his flesh, collecting food for their nestlings. Within three days a four-ton elephant seal will be reduced to a clean ribcage, glistening in the fading sun. Later, a killer whale pod stalks a king penguin colony, and pursues a group of males to the beach in an extraordinary overhead sequence. Though they fail to kill, they blockade the beach while desperate parents are still out at sea. Amazingly, a part of this throng fights its way through the blockade to feed their young. Several of these penguins, however, become trapped on an offshore reef, and are surrounded by the killer whales. The ensuing siege is the stuff of high drama, and I won’t reveal the outcome except that a rare moment is captured by a seemingly suicidal cameraman. Memorable images are densely packed, including one jarring moment after a king penguin is stunned by a wave, and is ripped apart in seconds by skewers.
With the falling snows of winter, the animals depart en masse to warmer climates for continued hunting with the surviving offspring. The cycle continues, and the species move closer to either continued abundance or eventual extinction. These animals have been going though this lethal dance for generations, and the balance between them is in constant, violent motion.
“The Tick and the Bird” is perhaps his finest work, not as a strict documentary, but as a masterpiece of storytelling that comes from years of compiled observation. The Laysan albatross requires a mate, food, and the promise of offspring, as does the tick that feeds upon it. While the albatross migrates hundreds of miles, the tick never strays far from the bird for a second. The Laysan albatross has a wingspan of 2m, and nests on Midway atoll while ranging across the entire Pacific Ocean; the tick is 2mm across and can cross beach sand by the centimeter. They catch the birds as they land either on the sand or snagging them from grass. The relationship is intricate, and while the albatross fights amongst other seabirds and predators for survival, the ticks are inescapable.
The camerawork of the birds is handsome, as expected. The ticks, however, are lovingly photographed as they struggle across the sand, wave invitingly from the tops of grass blades, swarm from an egg cluster by the thousands, or negotiate their way through the birds’ plumage. Tick anatomy is revealed with electron microscopy that is a stunning achievement in itself. When the tick unsheathes a beak that looks for all the world like a chainsaw, you will develop a grudging respect for this tenacious bastard. The story follows various ticks as they travel vast distances on the albatross, survive immersion in ocean water, and swarm over newborn chicks. If the infestation is too severe, the parent may be driven away, and the ticks die in their success (or they will kill the chick quickly and then follow suit). Like all insect parasites, ticks can carry viruses and bacterial diseases that can decimate a nesting area.
One fascinating sequence follows a tick that clings to a fallen feather and is washed ashore on an island populated by eagles. Even if it could seize the bird, it would be unlikely to find a mate of the same species. If it could find another bird parasitized by the same tick, it could develop a new colony on this new island. Instead, a raven preys upon it, and that prospective evolutionary branch is pruned from the hedge.
Parasitism doesn’t get a great deal of respect, but one must behold the sheer genius in their design and the elegance of their complicated life cycles. Apex predators may only be limited in population size by their parasites, which may in fact save them from a famine-induced collapse. As such, a parasite is devoted utterly to its host. The albatross nest will raise not only the chick, but the next generation of tick hatchlings. While ticks will mate, lay eggs, and die, the albatross mates for life, and devotes a year to raising its offspring. Different tactics with the same overall strategy for survival.
The documentary shorts are uniformly excellent, packed with juicy visuals like chinstrap penguins being flung through the air by leopard seals, sharks swallowing seabirds whole, and clouds of krill so vast and dense that they blot out the sun above. The narration occasionally leaves something to be desired, but it is for the most part unobtrusive, and is a minor complaint. This DVD is not easy to find, so grab it if you can find it – this footage is refreshingly raw like a newly torn wound.
It is fortunate that Jacquet’s work does not depend upon cute moments in which one can see a faint reflection of one of humankind’s remote ancestors. Nature documentaries tend to look for humanlike behavior, so we can identify with them and perhaps understand them or gain an interest in protecting their habitats. Fair enough, but it is not only the endearing traits that animals have in common with us – humans partake in rape, murder, cannibalism, and individuals work tirelessly to deprive others of resources so as to improve their own chances at breeding. By the same token, animals are not inherently innocent, requiring the protection that we would give to children. We are not the lords of all creation, but another cog in a machine of which we have little understanding. Conservation is not about maintaining a gigantic and expensive playpen for fluffy animals with which we can identify, but preserving our own place within a hostile world that can turn upon us if we fuck it up too badly. Perhaps in some of these documentaries, these captured moments yield a clear reflection of who humans are after all.