Would the real she-wolf please stand up?

11-01-2019 15:01


Last night Aja and I watched the BBC’s Snow Wolf: A Winter’s Tale, which I had noticed on iPlayer and put on the watchlist in preparation for the heart-breaking day when available episodes of Brooklyn 99 ran short.

Hot on the heels of DynastiesSnow Wolf seems to be doing a very similar thing: bringing us right into the midst of individual animals’ lives and showing us that their struggles and stories are not so different from some of the great, epic tales of human endurance, survival, betrayal and vengeance.  I hadn’t read anything about Snow Wolf, but had noted the word ‘dramatisation’ in the title (and pointedly repeated several times by the narrator), so wasn’t expecting it to be pure documentary, and wasn’t particularly surprised or disappointed by the obviously animatronic end to the bear encounter, in which the fateful swipe of the paw and bloody injury reminded me strongly of Luke Skywalker’s encounter with, and dismemberment of, the wampa in A New Hope.  The vast majority of the film though was clearly live action filming of real animals.

Further instances of shots that didn’t seem possible by documentary filmmaking techniques didn’t quite sit right, however, particularly with Aja.  “Oh come on!  How could they possible be running right next to the wolf like that?”, she shouted indignantly, and “Surely these are just dogs!”.  Oh, and the bearded vulture at the end – was it really the exact same one that had been following our heroine hundreds of miles away on the other side of the Alps?  Really? Nevertheless, I felt the Snow Wolf was a beautiful film telling a compelling, probably true-ish story, with probably naturalistic-ish filmmaking.

After it had finished I did some snooping online.  The full scale of the BBC’s betrayal of my naïve assumption of boundless realism became apparent in the phrase ‘habituated animals’.


Tame wolves, then.


That explained a lot. And yet I thought my feeling of being a bit conned – and I didn’t even tell Aja – was a bit unreasonable. The 2-star review in the Independent[1] had a field day with it, calling it ‘pointlessly deceptive’.  “The end result”, laments an outraged Clarisse Loughrey, “is far too overcooked to feel effective”.  Loughrey argues that if you’re going to trick your viewers to this extent, you might as well “just go the full Disney route and have your animals talk and do musical numbers”.

I could sort of see the reason for her frustration, but I think it says more about our expectations of real animals on screen in these post-truth times.  Compare the latest Jungle Book adaptation, and the upcoming Lion King remake, in which a huge amount of time, effort and money has gone into producing, through computer-generated techniques, photo-realistic animals, to widespread acclaim.  But using actual real actual animals?  That’s just cheating.

I blame David Attenborough. He and the Beeb have elevated wildlife documentary filmmaking to the point where such breathtaking projects such as Dynasties are possible, and as a result we assume that a real animal on a primetime BBC offering is a guarantee of uncompromised realism and the unmediated documentation of authentic natural phenomena. Nevermind the fact that even the most truth-conscious documentary filmmaker must stitch together bits of footage in order to satisfactorily convey to the audience the sequence of events that took place.  And viewers are hard to please in this respect. People were very cross about a sequence in an episode of Frozen Planet in 2011, in which the pregnant polar bear featured in the episode beds down for the winter and gives birth[2].  Viewers assumed that the birth footage was continuous with the previous sequence and involved the same animal – after all, they had been shown a pregnant polar bear digging a den and settling in, and here was a polar bear in a den giving birth. Must be the same one, stands to reason. Right?  In fact it was unrelated footage taken in a Dutch animal park (an animal park in the Netherlands, that is.  The animals were of many nationalities).  The BBC made no secret of this, in fact it was shown in behind-the-scenes footage available on the website, but neither did they go out of their way to have Sir McBoatface say “and now we cut to an entirely different polar bear giving birth thousands of miles away”, considering, you would assume, this to be a bit, well, clunky.

When you actually think about it, the complete impossibility of getting a camera in to a freshly-dug polar bear den without a significant amount of face-ripping-off is obvious, and so perhaps it should never have crossed out minds that we were seeing footage of the starring bear.  But of course we have no idea what is and isn’t possible in filming nature documentary filmmaking, and it is starting to seem like nothing is impossible.  20 years ago no one would have thought for a moment that the animals in Snow Wolfwere anything other than ‘habituated’, but now we assume they’re untouched, wild beasts, whose natural behaviour is magically captured by the technological wizardry of modern filmmaking techniques.  Then the truth is a little disappointing.

Which is a great shame, because Snow Wolf was a magical Winter’s Tale, beautifully made, visually stunning, and all the more fabulous for being, if not entirely ‘natural’, then faithfully representative of real stories.  Why must it be a choice between ultra realism and Hakuna Matata? The tone captured by Snow Wolf is that of classic non-talking animal stories, like The Call of the Wild and The Incredible Journey (the 1963 original, not the 1993 Homeward Bound remake in which the animals were given voices because humanity’s collective attention span had been consigned to the dustbin by then).

Watch Snow Wolf, it’s great.  Just don’t be so damn cynical.