‘Greening’ the wildlife film


I first stumbled across Green in the context of 2010 Bristol Wildscreen Festival, with no knowledge that it had already won several coveted prizes. Wildscreenis a big, ‘noisy’, rather corporate film festival, where low budget film makers, those who want to become film makers, and others, mingle, with high level TV Wildlife documentary film makers and commissioners. These power brokers often promote and exhibit what they call ‘blue-chip’ big budget films, and often, but not always, aim for ‘shock and awe’ spectacle and 3-D marvels. Another metaphor that was used came from pornography: the ‘money shot’ involving the sex and violence for which such films have often been watched (1). Although technically documentaries, these films usually include sound and music, an element which I’d argue can itself be ‘spectacular’ and can help ‘anchor’ the spectacularised enjoyment of such films. Film (and to a lesser extent TV) is, after all, not just a visual but an audio-visual medium.

Some of the lower budget films presented themselves as in opposition to various corporations, or even to the big commissioning bodies. There was a swagger to their use of ‘tough’ phrases such as ‘fang TV’ and ‘animal snuff’ (another image related to porn) to describe certain sub-genres of wildlife documentary. ‘Filming with attitude’ summarised one film maker’s approach, who began his info leaflet  ‘ The camera  is a gun. It shoots pictures not bullets that can damage a large un-green corporation’.

Being an outsider to this festival-ised part of the world of wildlife film making, I therefore found the quiet opening of Green amazing. No narrating voice-over, no music, no swagger– simply the puzzling sight of an orange-utan being trundled across some bleak landscape, and soon the sounds of a rainforest . To see Green as double prize winner at end of week was more than encouraging.


This contribution to the website comes at Green from within Cinema Studies. Broadly, this is interested in more than film textual analysis, though it includes that. It is interested in the ‘around–text’ of a film – how it is announced; circulates; does it have a website, if so how does that invite interpretation of the film; is there an ‘author’s’ presence around the film, inviting certain kinds of interpretation and side-lining others? This film can be partly characterised as ‘arthouse’: made, circulated, and honoured outside the mainstream, with the ‘author’ or director a key figure. Patrick Rouxel largely shot and edited the film on his own. He has achieved some distribution on TV, though not by major networks, but is mostly getting the film circulated by free downloads (funded partly by donations) on the internet. He learnt his craft in mainstream films, and seems to have a small but dedicated group of helpers during post-production. See his latest 8min charity production here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEkDMCAswPc

I suggest it’s valuable to understand ‘the text’ (i.e. any film, like Green, being studied) as a weave of internal and external strands (the word ‘text’ comes from the Latin word for ‘tissue’).  As the French theorist Roland Barthes emphasised, narrative texts are not one thing, but a weaving together of different strands. Some of these are ‘internal’ to the story (here e.g. a narrative chain: will Green survive?) Others make connections to its ‘outside’ or the rest of the real (e.g. how adequate is the account of the palm oil industry?)  Some strands may relate it to other texts, within different genres, in a process called ‘intertextuality’. Here for example, the lone orang-utan at the end is ‘stuck in the last tree like the iconic polar bear on the melting ice-cap’ i.e. in agitational ‘green’ propaganda (see Lorimer).

This ‘weave’ approach is very unlike original meanings of text, often referring to religious writings, as something with single, sacred meaning, to be carefully discovered and  reverently listened to/obeyed. There’s much more space for audiences. Indeed part of the ‘weave’ is often how audiences are invited to recognise and engage with the various structures of feeling, expectation etc associated with different film genres. In fact I can’t think of any film which belongs purely to one genre–can you?

Two issues for discussion

Within our research group two issues are especially striking, and pursued on this website.

1)    The question of documentary truthfulness (see Goodman’s article). This involves the death of the character ‘Green’ as opposed to the survival of the creature actually filmed.  According to the director’s testimony, here and in various interviews, ‘Green’ did not die at end of the film-making but the orang utan in the other room of the sanctuary did, and about 5 thousand orangutans continue to die every year.

In saying this he is implying a classic defence: that his documentary is constructed with some adjustments to the ‘actual’  in order to show some important truths, or to be truly representative of their subject. Most creatures in that plight, there, do in fact die, and for the reasons and webs of connection which the film points to. There is good evidence for this position, and a good argument to shape a film in a partly fictionalised way to draw attention to it.

Documentaries have higher status than many other film genres, and are often understood as being ‘realistic’ or even ‘true’ in some absolute sense. Green operates partly as a documentary—kinds of evidence are given, including the state of the bereft creatures struggling for life after the palm plantations have taken over. Of course this could be faked, though the scale of the budget, and the importance to Rouxel of his directorial reputation, make this unlikely. But documentaries are always constructed, always invent ways to show, to perform their truths.

2) Another issue for discussion: the highly politicised end credits. These have raised questions of their accuracy/ adequacy to the politics of palm oil production outside the film (see Brockington).

A hyrid textual weave?

So the film is partly documentary, but rejects some key elements of conventional  wildlife documentaries, especially at a moment when so many of them aspire to the condition of spectacle. There’s no voice-over, only one word spoken ‘inside’ the film, no authoritative captions, no majestic, spectacularising orchestral music to anchor meanings, or emphasise the feeling that a lot has been spent on getting this or that shot to you. Rouxel has spoken of how he himself does not like to be told what to do, and this maybe accounts for the credit which the viewer is given for intelligence, for putting images and conclusions together, in film with no narration.

One example: what do you make of the kite flown in the film’s final shot?

The early, immersive sequences are slow and quiet, though unsettling. Viewers have described feeling disturbed at seeing this creature roughly transported to some kind of hospital, apparently drugged and studied or even experimented on, before they realised staff were trying to heal her (see Sullivan). Via point of view editing and the cutting pace, the character ‘Green’ seems to be recalling her early days in the rainforest, a time which is also now partly vanished for the forest itself. It is exquisitely filmed, with some humorous touches, and the presence of the camera acknowledged in the ‘look back’ at it of a deer.

Unusually one of Green’s aim seems to be a bodily one: to make us weep, to perhaps feel the ‘oh no’ of a ‘weepie’ in response to the fate of Green, as well as compassion as she gazes into the camera with all the power of almost-human facial expression, and touches her nurse with almost-human hands—such basic forms of communication which we share with some animals. It is here merged with arthouse style slow, deliberative editing, an invitation to viewers to do more than view, to witness. But the final hybrid element is the invitation to feel anger at her fate, and the fate of the forest. This is made through accelerating montage (cutting together shots which seem to offer comment rather than just ‘tell the story’), songs and above all the shock of the activist, politicised end credits, a list of those who have ‘made possible the deforestation of Indonesia’.  Such credits/captions are usually part of a ‘harder’, higher status agitprop or ‘issue’ based documentary.

In this affective combination, involving grief and anger, it could be said Green gives us the symbolic means to mourn the loss of what that living rainforest signifies –for conservation and environmental politics, as well as for our sense of how the world is damaged by corporate appetite. Partly this is the way the film can open us to both the radical ‘otherness’ of the forest, and to human bonds with it, even in the act of observing and recording. This is perhaps one of paradoxes of the best kind of wildlife documentary. But what is so unusual in Green is that it opens, angrily, actively, the possibility of resisting those losses.

1)    See Ros Coward (1984) ‘The Sex-life of Stick Insects’ in Female Desire, Paladin.