We travel there every year, millions of us. For urbanites, thrill-seekers, regular-schmo office workers on their annual two-week break, Banff National Park represents the exhilarating possibility of an encounter with wildlife, but one we hope (most of us, anyway) we can take in from the safety of our car – or, better yet, a well-appointed hotel room. From there, we can snap a photo with our smart phone and text it to a friend, or tweet it to the world. The long-standing conflict between man and nature that has helped define the Canadian experience has evolved with the development of technology into a new co-existence: the wild and the wired.
The National Film Board's Bear 71 project relies on technology to both capture the natural inhabitants of Alberta's Banff National Park, and to allow the viewer to explore a virtual representation of the park. Billed as an interactive documentary, it follows and anthropomorphizes the life of a real grizzly bear who was captured at the age of three, equipped with a radio collar, then tracked and watched for the rest of her too-short life.
Bear 71, which has its Canadian premiere at Vancouver's DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Friday, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January as a festival-long installation. According to project co-creator Leanne Allison, when Robert Redford stopped by to take it in, he showed particular interest in the problem of bears being attracted to train tracks because of grain falling from the cars: an issue he was unaware of, which figures heavily in this work and Bear 71's life.
The up-close visuals of Bear 71 and other park wildlife come courtesy of motion-triggered Trailcam surveillance cameras, the grainy quality reminiscent of security camera shots.
"There are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of [videos]that have been taken over the years for research purposes," says Allison, who lives in nearby Canmore, Alta., and whose husband and frequent collaborator Karsten Heuer is a park ranger at Banff. "I'd always been really fascinated by them because there's ... no one framing the image and it seemed like it was really capturing nature uninterrupted."
Even from a cursory look, Allison knew she had a treasure trove. But what to do with thousands of grainy images that would not be appropriate for a traditional documentary film?
Enter Jeremy Mendes, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in interactive design. On contract at the National Film Board, he was brought on board to work with Allison to try to find the right format for those images.
"I drove out to Alberta ... and I started looking through these incredible photos. I'd already seen them but it wasn't until I was there in Canmore, in the area where they were taken, that the gears really started to turn," says Mendes, 42.
"I saw all these photos and the video and I just thought immediately 'This is so crazy that we watch wildlife this way' ... and I felt there was a real strong connection with us, who would turn the cameras on this animal. I thought 'This is a story about us, this is a story about technology, this is a story about surveillance and privacy. This is CCTV cameras in 7-Elevens, in New York City Times Square. This is really interesting, when it starts to become not about animals and about people.' "
In a linear viewing, there are only a few sections of visuals totalling about six minutes. Throughout the rest of the piece, as you listen to the voiceover and soundtrack, you can use your mouse to access images of other inhabitants of the park, from moose to a deer mouse. You can check out the topography, and landmarks. And, using your own computer's video camera, you figure into the whole picture too, as do other online participants.
"I totally was not convinced that you could have all this stuff going on at once and not lose the gist of the story," says Allison, 43. "That was my fear all the time was that we would lose the story. So Jeremy and I kind of battled over that a lot – in a good way. I was totally proven wrong in the end."
One objective was to make the experience more appealing to a young urbanite than your average nature film. Indeed, the interactivity gives the viewer a vested interest in this in-some-ways familiar story. To bring an oft-quoted Canadian thinker into this very Canadian story, the medium is the message.
At its most basic level, though, this is the story of a bear. In creating the central character, Allison, Mendes and scriptwriter J.B. MacKinnon ( The 100-Mile Diet), drew on Bear 71's actual documented experiences, but went a giant step further and made her an omniscient character who thoughtfully, from the grave, looks back on her life.
"It was a tough sell," says Mendes. "A talking dead bear that knows about the internet, that knows about platypuses."
Make that a sultry-sounding talking dead bear. Another strategic decision regarding target audience, the sexy bear thing works with Canadian actress Mia Kirshner ( The Vampire Diaries) agreeing to voice the character at the 11th hour, during a day off from shooting another project in Edmonton last winter.
It's high concept, sure, but it is highly effective (and was nominated for three Webby Awards). When that plain-talking, all-knowing bear complains of the smell of deodorant and marshmallows getting in the way of her ability to assess her environment, you not only feel for her, you take on the guilt for all of campfire-loving humanity.
For wildlife, things don't always end as well as they did in that video that went viral this week of ducks crossing Highway 407 outside Toronto. In Banff, Bear 71 loses the war with humankind and technology. Desperate for food, she is hunting for grain along the train tracks along with her two young cubs, and meets her match in the form of a train. It's all captured on film.
"For me, the train symbolizes modernity in a way," says Allison. "There's always this unstoppable force that we are having to deal with. In a way, Bear 71 is all of us."
After Bear 71, your next visit to Banff – the next one you make in person – may feel very different, with a whole new set of emotional baggage strapped to your roof rack.
A presentation of Bear 71 with live music opens DOXA at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver on Friday at 7 p.m., with an interactive installation at the Roundhouse Community Centre May 10-12. DOXA runs May 4-13 ( doxafestival.ca ). To view Bear 71 online, go to bear71.nfb.ca .
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