Two years ago I was asked to be a consulting expert on a new documentary about Denmark’s nature. The title was Wild, wonderful Denmark (Vilde, vidunderlige Danmark). When I was a child I would sometimes borrow my dad’s video camera and make small nature documentaries and I had once dreamed of being the next David Attenborough. Participating as a consultant on a big national documentary is probably the closest I will ever get. The first episode aired last Sunday, and to my delight it was the one about forests – the one where I had consulted on the amazingness of wood ants. They even included me in a small behind the scenes clip. About 4 minutes after the first epsiode had ended, the debate and critique of it started on social media. There were many critics but also many fans. The criticism:
- Too much dramatic music
- Too much slow-motion
- Boring speaker
- Not enough information about the actual status of Danish nature
- Visually appealing. Great with slow-motion and close ups
- Beautiful music
- Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) was great
- Interesting and easy introduction to nature
Basically it sounded like it boiled down to whether or not you were a nature expert/enthusiast already and whether or not you like that documentaries have a high entertainment-factor. I went through the program again, listening for specific content. In one hour, Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) mentions the change of forests through time (from primary forest, to almost no forest, to new forest), stressing that today’s forest is nowhere near as diversity rich as our old forest used to be. There is less dead wood, less water, less species. He gets around food chains, reintroduction of species, mating and competition. There are close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle, insects wriggling on thorns, speared by red-backed shrikes. There’s a dead fox next to the road. There’s a tree falling in the middle of the forest. To me it seems more real than many other nature documentaries I’ve seen.
Close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle…
One thing that came up though, which I had not myself considered, was the debate about using tame animals. I didn’t know they had. The ants we filmed were definitely not tame, and nothing was staged in those clips. But looking at the final footage it is rather obvious. How else do you get a camera on the back of a golden eagle? How else do you happen to be at the right place at the right time when a fox comes close to a roe deer fawn? It is possible to get the natural shot, but it might require ten years of filming, not too. But…
is using tame animals cheating?
This has apparently been an on-going debate. Nature documentary experts BBC also uses tame animals.
This blog by UntamedScience on Wildlife film ethics is a good introduction to the important role documentary filmmakers have. They are responsible for showing us nature in a way we will probably never be able to experience it ourselves, they add a story to it. Mostly, we believe this story to be the truth.
Filmmakers have to be honest about how the footage was acquired and ensure no harm comes to the wildlife. Catching a wild golden eagle to put a camera on its’ back would most likely be stressful to the eagle. But is it okay to use a tame eagle? This will be a bird kept by a falconeer and the debate on the ethics of falconeering is even more heated than the debate on using tame animals for wildlife documentaries. Some discussion on the topic of the ethics of falconeering can be found in this blog by Feathered Photography. I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’m generally a trusting person, and believe that the film crew have done their job, with guidance from many experts, not just me. I guess, as with everything in life, we always have to ask our selves “Does this feel wrong or questionable?” If yes, then it probably is. But what is most wrong, stalking and stressing wildlife for a few minutes of footage, or using tame animals to illustrate nature?
if it feels wrong or questionable then it probably is.
Wrapping up, I’m excited to see the next episode on Sunday, which is about the ocean and coastline. There are not (m)any documentaries on Danish nature, and I hope this one will inspire more people to experience it and appreciate it.