Grizzly Man

500 Days Of Film Reviews Documentary, Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell loved bears. In fact, he far preferred life with the animals of the Katami National Park, to living with his own species. During thirteen summers, Treadwell filmed his experiences living with grizzly bears. Through this footage, he aimed to protect the bears and their environment.


However, as Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary finds, many people believe that Treadwell was misguided in his crusade. Many view his close interactions with the bears as disrespectful and dangerous. 


And, while saddened, few were surprised by how Treadwell’s story ended. In 2003, he and his companion, Amie Huguenard, were killed by one of the bears that he had so desperately tried to protect.

Is It Any Good?

Throughout Grizzly Man, I was acutely aware that the life of Timothy Treadwell was creating a conflict within filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog is a director who is very much present in his documentaries (see also Cave Of Forgotten Dreams). He narrates the story, he interacts with many of its key players and he often gives his own opinions on the events that unfold.


Herzog can do this because he is a master storyteller. He knows when to comment and when to let his subjects tell their own tale. However, I felt that the story of Treadwell’s life presented the director with a complex conundrum.


On the one hand, Herzog defends Treadwell the filmmaker. He admires him for his magnificent footage - shots that a film crew could never have captured due to (understandable) health and safety restrictions.


Herzog is fascinated not just by what Treadwell records, but how he films his life. The documentary shows Treadwell filming several takes of the same scene until he is happy with his ‘performance’. He is determined to create footage that fits with the way he wants to be seen by the world.


As a result, some things are not what they seem. 



On the other hand, Herzog disagrees with Treadwell’s view of the bears and of wild nature as a whole. Treadwell believed in the inherent goodness of these animals - a goodness that he did not recognise in human society. 


Herzog does not agree. He does not believe that the natural world is one of goodness and order. He believes that nature is brutal, ruled by chaos and that, in the end, wild animals will do anything to survive. 


And it is this belief that adds a significant layer to Grizzly Man.


That Timothy Treadwell loved the bears is not in question. He wanted to become a bear. This, perhaps, explains his desire to be so close to these dangerous animals. He didn’t just want to observe - he wanted to be a part of their community.


Herzog’s film questions Treadwell’s deeper motivations and ponders whether he was misguided in his view of himself as a kind warrior - a protector of bears. Did he ever truly act in the bear’s best interest? 



Interviews with several bear experts suggest that Treadwell crossed an important boundary that has been in place for over 7,000 years. These experts believe that, at best, he disrespected the bears while, at worst, he actually endangered their lives. 


Herzog is not afraid to expose Treadwell’s flaws and delusions. However, he does not criticise his subject. Throughout the film, I felt the respect that Herzog has for Treadwell and sensed his desire to understand what drove Treadwell to live his life in the way that he did. 


Timothy Treadwell is certainly the worthy subject of a fascinating documentary. However, he is not the reason why Grizzly Man works so well. That is down to the superb story telling and brilliant film making of Werner Herzog. 


Random Observations

I am aware that all documentary filmmakers are 'present' in their work. Some may prefer to remain unseen and unheard (for example, Asif Kapadia in Amy and Senna) but they are there, nonetheless, choosing what parts of a story to tell and when. I just love the way Herzog's presence feels so crucial to the story.  


I also enjoy how Herzog lets his camera linger on his interviewees for longer than perhaps feels comfortable. This often produces a telling and more natural response to events.


Have  you seen Grizzly Man?


If you have, what did  you think about this documentary? Do leave me a comment in the box below!

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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