Documentary Films: Why Nature and Technology Cannot Overstep Boundaries

Documentary films, throughout the years, have portrayed the relationship of nature and technology. Some of the films expressed how some people managed to live in nature and get disconnected from technology and civilization, while other films expressed the destruction technology has brought to nature. Yet these separate kinds of films still have the same theme: humans and nature are separate entities that cannot overstep boundaries.

In the documentary film, Nanook of the North (1922), the film portrayed the life of a tribe of Alaskan natives who lived completely away from technology. While it did show the tribe living happily with nature, the film in a sense mocked them and portrayed them as primitive human beings who are like borderline animals. One example in the film was when they were introduced to the gramophone and the leader of the tribe bit on the disk; like a baby teething on something foreign and unfamiliar to him. Even though the depiction of the natives were inaccurate and indirectly racist, the film illustrates how living in nature has disconnected them from the reality of a technology filled world and thus made them appear naive. The fact that they were mocked for living with nature, directly reflects on the man who created the documentary: he believes that living completely in nature can make a person wild and disconnects them from reality completely.

A similar message is portrayed in the 2004 documentary, Grizzly Man, which told the story of Timothy Treadwell, who lived with bears for ten summers. Treadwell connected with bears on a deep, emotional level. He would educate people about bears and even documented his encounters with bears on a video camera. As the documentary gets deeper into Treadwell’s life it is revealed that he is mentally unstable and disconnected with reality. He claimed to be the protector of the bears. He truly believed the bears in the Alaskan wilderness he was camping in, were in danger of humans, even though the area was a protected sanctuary. He began treating the bears as people. He would talk to them, expecting them to understand him, and even considered them his friends. The narrator, Wernon Hertzog even stated in the film that Treadwell became disconnected from the harsh reality of nature hinting that he felt Treadwell truly believed the wilderness to be his true home.

Treadwell treated the sanctuary, in many ways, as a town. The animals were its citizens and he himself was their sheriff. Many times he scolded the bears if they behaved “naughty” and another time, he spied on other people who visited the sanctuary whom he perceived as intruders. Even though he said he was protecting the bears, in the end he indirectly causes the death of two of them. He and his girlfriend gets eaten by bears. Not too long after their deaths, two bears who had eaten them were shot and killed. The conclusion of the film was that living in nature is hellish and chaotic for humans and that crossing the border between man and nature will lead to destruction.

Another example of why man cannot fully depend on nature without sacrifice is The Plow That Broke the Plains (1937). In the film, the narrator told the story about the heavy reliance people had on the Great Plains for their wheat. Eventually the cultivation and harvesting on the wheat lead to a big booming business. People in the Great Plains eventually used more advanced harvesting technology on the wheat which could harvest several bales of wheat at a time. This of course sucked the life as well as the wheat from the Plains and left it dry and dusty by the time of the Great Depression. Because of the lack of resources and the deplorable living conditions, people had to relocate and left the lifeless Plains. In the end of the film, one could conclude that both man and nature lost in the end as a result in the interference of nature.

Another great example of the toll of interference with nature is the documentary film, The River (1938). This documentary was about the Mississippi River and how it contributed to both a temporary breeding ground for big business to a place of total chaos. When the Mississippi River was discovered, people relied on it to transport bales of cotton. Eventually people began tearing down the trees surrounding the river and built towns around it. People began altering the river to suit their needs, eventually leading to pollution and floods that destroyed homes, left many people diseased and in poverty.

The 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, according to author of Documentary Films: A Very Short Introduction, Patricia Aufderheide, it focuses on how humans are causing global warming and how disastrous it will be if they continue to not be environmentally friendly. The film depicted melting ice and showed simulations of rising water flooding Manhattan as well as a polar bear drowning. This, according to Al Gore who was the narrator, would be a result of human-caused global warming. Once again, this depicts a toll on the abuse of Earth and the destruction that was a result of interfering with nature.

The last documentary, Samsara (2011), was more of a glimpse of a solution to the constant battle between nature and the technology of man. It showed videos of Buddhists and Hindus leading a peaceful and enlightened life with nature. It depicted an African tribe living with their entire family in a couple of huts, closely knit, wearing nothing but items of clothing whose articles were made from what they managed to find in nature. All seemed peaceful, wise and content. As the film progresses, the focus shifts on technology. A human like android sitting next to its alive duplicate is depicted. Then comes the image of chickens and pigs being processed for meat in a factory. Suddenly the African tribal family holds guns and then an American suburban family with children are seen holding guns in comparison. This indicates that if nothing is done, everyone will conform to a technologically advanced society leading to destruction.

In a society full of technology it is often difficult to fully appreciate nature. This is what many documentaries reflect. It also reflects on how humans and nature cannot overstep boundaries. Grizzly Man and Nanook of the North shows that fully living in nature could lead to detachment from society and the loss of reason and reality. The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River shows that if man oversteps their boundaries by using nature heavily for commercial purposes and not giving back, it will lead to a destructive and chaotic battle between nature and the technologically advanced man. Yet there is a solution to this problem, as Samsara and An Inconvenient Truth points out. If people can have a perfect balance between man and nature and pursue a life of enlightenment, they will live peacefully and prosperously and destruction and chaos would be lacking.

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