A documentary like no other documentary

‘Bear 71’, the latest of the NFB’s interactive films, makes its debut at Sundance

A documentary like no other documentary

NFB; Photo Illustration by Lauren Cattermole

The grizzly lumbers up to a tree in Banff National Park and runs its back over the tree, marking its territory. It rears up on hind legs to survey the park for food and threats. It moves its cubs carefully along the train tracks, offering a glimpse into its life that few humans would normally see. But when it was three, this bear was trapped and collared, numbered and tracked by park rangers. As they conditioned it to stay away from campsites, highways and golf courses, they also watched it on cameras triggered by motion sensors mounted at favourite haunts. One million black-and-white photographs later, Bear 71 is the star of the National Film Board’s documentary of the same name, but it’s unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen.

“It’s hard to say where the wired world ends and the wild one begins,” says the actor who voices the bear. “They can start a revolution on a smartphone, but can’t remember to close the lid of a bear-proof garbage bin.” The narration provides a comment about our dependence on technology to track nature, as well as the ethical dilemma around shooting rubber bullets at the animal to change its behaviour.

The only way to watch it will be on the NFB website starting Jan. 19, where a map of Banff National Park is imposed on a grid and the user follows Bear 71’s movements by scrolling over the cameras and can even look at other users by activating the computer’s webcam.

Co-creator Leanne Allison, whose husband works as a ranger in the park, thought the bear pictures would make a good story, but she knew they wouldn’t make a good film. She needed a better way to tell Bear 71’s story.

Bear 71 will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20, one of four interactive documentaries. Shari Frilot, a Sundance senior programmer, says it fit in with this year’s theme about the integration of technology and how it affects human consciousness.

The experiment with narrative and technology began at the NFB in 2004, when director Katerina Cizek moved into Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital for two years, recording behind-the-scenes audiovisual footage of emergency responses in Filmmaker-in-Residence. It was one of the first feature-length interactive docs to appear on the Web. This year, 20 per cent of the NFB’s English-language programming budget will be devoted to the interactive section, where each project costs up to $300,000 compared to a conventional documentary, which can reach $1 million. Now Canada is a leader in online storytelling, says Loc Dao, a producer of Bear 71 and head of the NFB’s English digital content.

Cizek’s latest interactive documentary, One Millionth Tower, uses Mozilla’s Web-based graphics library, which allowed her to make a three-dimensional digital world—the first that didn’t require an Adobe Flash plug-in. Part of NFB’s Highrise series—an online exhibition of vertical living designed for the Web—it chronicles life in a Toronto apartment complex.

“Theatrical documentary film tells a specific kind of story really well, which is usually a major, life-changing event, often in one character’s life, like an incredible cinematic journey,” says Cizek. “But those aren’t the only documentary stories to be told. I think what the Web offers is an opportunity to examine and understand very small, everyday details of our lives.”

What does interactivity mean for the rest of the film industry? Dao and his colleagues are mentoring filmmakers from Hollywood who produce feature films. “I think they’re really keeping an eye on what we do,” he says. “People in Hollywood are waiting to see where this new way of telling stories is going. But it’s a different industry and even we are way out on the fringes of that world.”

Critics say online projects violate documentary tradition, but the godfather of the art form never intended it to have a universal structure. John Grierson defined a documentary as “the creative interpretation of actuality,” omitting any specific mention of film. “It’s my firm belief that what we’re all doing on the Web in some form or another is documentary,” says Cizek. “We’re interpreting our own actuality for each other.”

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