The genre of the wildlife documentary is hugely popular in today’s society.
David Attenborough’s BBC1 documentary, Planet Earth II is the most watched natural history show for 15 years with 9.2 million viewers which has placed it as one of the most popular shows of 2017.
According to the article Planet Earth II most watched natural history show for 15 years, the Planet Earth II crew made 117 filming trips to 40 different countries that amounted to 2,089 days of filming.
Interestingly in this article, Julian Hector, the head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit said of the documentaries popularity that:
“Audiences love Sir David’s authenticity and the craft of the programme-makers that give us a window on the motivations of the animals. When so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.”
I found this to be a surprising statement to make as by looking at the traditional narrative structure of a natural history documentary, they are like Disney films. With the constant repetitions of the quest narrative or the beloved tales of coming of age, the animals represented are more like humans than animals.
This disneyfying of animals and nature removes them from real the world problems that are facing our natural habitat in the 21st century. Whilst there is enormous formative value in the romanticising of nature through the highly edited visuals and storyline it is arguably defeating the purpose of its genre, namely, the documentary.
It is a common theme in natural history documentaries to use anthropomorphism to engage audiences. By utilising the afore mentioned narratives, documentaries assign roles and personally traits that cannot possibly be known or proven. Scenes are heavily edited and as seen in the creation of Planet Earth Part II, are a part of hours upon hours of filming that are cut to create a coherent and interesting storyline. This is misleading as it does not represent the actual situation of the animals nor does it present an accurate portrayal of their wellbeing in their environment
By nature, a documentary deals with real events to provide a factual report on a certain subject. So, when Hector refers to the “human world” which has “so much going on” this is problematic for the documentary that he is referring to as unfortunately, animals live in the same world as humans do and are subject to the same problems, if not more. By portraying the lives and habitats of the animals in a way that is relatable to humans we ignore, even more than we already do, the real life situation of their existence.
Due to its supposed factual nature, wildlife documentaries are often the main source of scientific information for members of the general public. Christina Russo, a conservation advocate, wrote an article called Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science which delves into this issue of documentaries which use the conventions of drama and what this does for the public that are watching it.
Despite their highly edited and scripted nature, documentaries carry connotations of “scientific authority’ and this is unsettling due to the fact that the world’s ecosystems are in decline due to global warming. Therefore, Russo suggests that wildlife documentaries have a responsibility to differentiate between wildlife dramas and wildlife documentaries.
Therefore, whilst the romantic Disney narrative and the engagement of anthropomorphism are integral to the success of the wildlife documentary, we need to remember the existence of animals and the animal kingdom as something entirely separate, but not so separate from the human world.
Jackson, J 2016, ‘Planet Earth II most watched natural history show for 15 years’, The Guardian, 8 November, date accessed 31 March <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/nov/07/planet-earth-ii-bbc1-most-watched-natural-history-show-for-15-years>
The Writer’s Workshop 2010, accessed 31 March, <http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/quest-narratives/>
Russo, C 2013, ‘Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science’, PLOS Blogs, 4 February, date accessed 31 March, <http://blogs.plos.org/scied/2013/02/04/wildlife-documentaries-or-dramatic-science/>