Natural Historians Preserving Polar Bears for Posterity

The world may be ending tomorrow, but we're shooting a film about it now. This could be the motto of the many spectacular nature documentaries currently underway, especially in the Arctic.

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How long does it take a polar bear to bite its way through six layers of thermal clothing? Five seconds? Ten?

"I have no idea. It probably depends on how hungry the bear is. But certainly long enough for me to hear you crying for help," says polar bear expert Jason Roberts, grinning as he adjusts his glacier glasses and jumps back onto his snowmobile. He steps on the gas, and the snowmobile cuts a trail through the snow -- the only (fleeting) sign of civilization for miles.

There isn't much else, other than ice and snow and a biting wind, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. But there are polar bears. They can appear out of nowhere and, if necessary, outrun a snowmobile.

Roberts is leading a small expedition of wildlife filmmakers headed by BBC director Alastair Fothergill, who are exploring Spitsbergen's bitter wasteland. Scientists believe that up to five thousand polar bears -- a fifth of the total population of the earth's biggest predators -- live on the remote Spitsbergen archipelago.

For now.

In any event, Roberts has his hands full. The Australian-born researcher, who has lived on Spitsbergen since 1990, has probably seen more polar bears than most polar scientists. Armed with pepper spray and a large-caliber revolver, he accompanies film teams from around the world in the Arctic, making sure no one freezes, starves, or becomes a polar bear's next meal.

He recently helped a Hollywood crew that was shooting a feature film, but Roberts usually plays the bear guide for the BBC's "Natural History" unit. Fothergill has directed this unit for many years; he's a 47-year-old Briton who first made his name with the ocean documentary "Blue Planet." He's just completed the most comprehensive and expensive nature documentary of all time. "Earth" is an epic 90-minute journey from the North to the South Pole, featuring stops on every continent and stars as telegenic as they are fickle: hump-backed whales, sharks, elephants, lions, birds of paradise and, of course, polar bears.

To gather all these images Fothergill directed 40 camera crews in 206 locations, from Botswana's Okavango Delta to the Himalaya, shooting for a total of 4,000 days. He spent countless hours in helicopters. The Berlin Philharmonic recorded the music for his documentary. Production costs have totalled €40 million for the film and a TV series to accompany it.

But "Earth" is only the most spectacular documentary shot at least partly in the Arctic. Other current films will remind us, in either subtle or jarring ways, of the dangers facing the North Pole and its denizens -- especially polar bears, the animals The Economist dubbed the "iconographic victims of climate change."

If the world is to end tomorrow -- so goes the unspoken motto of these filmmakers -- the best thing we can do is make a film about it today.

Heirs of Gore, and Hollywood

The whole thing started with Al Gore, the former US Vice President and this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In a cartoon sequence in his climate documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006), the ice keeps collapsing at the feet of a cartoon polar bear, while the bear threatens to drown.

I hear hordes of camera crews.
AP

I hear hordes of camera crews.

Gore's 30-year-old daughter Kristin was one of the writers on a new US film, "Arctic Tale," in which a similar fate befalls a real bear. The documentary is set to come out in October and uses old and new footage to concoct a drama -- for children, and not without its share of kitsch -- about the fight for survival among polar bears and walruses. In the film, narrated by Queen Latifah (or, in German, by three kids), the animals have names like Nanu and Seela. Some of the animal soundtrack takes getting used to, especially the extensive treatment of walrus flatulence. The New York Times calls the film a "fictional, family-friendly coming-of-age tale."

Other filmmakers are less theatrical. A Scandinavian documentary, "Planet," by Michael Stenberg and Johan Söderberg, deals with the effects of overpopulation on ecological equilibrium (release date November 1). Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, whose experience with icebergs has mainly been limited to the blockbuster film "Titanic" -- and a Vanity Fair publicity shoot -- has produced a documentary called "The 11th Hour," showing scientists and politicians from Stephen Hawking to Mikhail Gorbachev warning of global environmental destruction and its consequences.

Not surprisingly, DiCaprio's film features a polar bear, looking for food in a garbage dump. To tout the film, DiCaprio posed for Vanity Fair in Iceland, apparently standing next to Knut, the Berlin Zoo's celebrity polar bear cub. But the two audience pleasers have never met in real life: The image is a photomontage.

Although tricks like this were out of the question for the BBC production "Earth," director Fothergill did turn to Hollywood for technical support. Many of the aerial shots were filmed with a so-called "Heligimbal," a special camera affixed to the bottom of a helicopter like the eye of a Cyclops. Using remote control technology and an image stabilizer, the camera can rotate 360 degrees and produce sharp, detailed images, even from great distances.

"They use the device in Hollywood to film car chases," says Fothergill while taking a break on Spitsbergen, as a dozen reindeer stomp through the snow nearby. "It allowed us to film wolves hunting, from a high altitude, without disturbing the animals."

A Rare Sight on Kongsøya

The natural drama unfolding in "Earth" is in fact reminiscent of scenes from Hollywood action films. The aerial images allow the viewer to see how wolves work strategically, as a team, to create panic in a herd of reindeer. They separate a young animal from the group and hunt it down. To appeal to older and younger viewers alike, Fothergill rarely shows images of slaughter.

Not all images could be shot from a safe distance, though. For the most spectacular polar bear scenes, Roberts tried to bring the crew as close to the animals as possible.

The challenge was finding a place to hide a camera team. Spitsbergen is barren, the weather changes every 10 minutes -- and during snowstorms the earth, sky and horizon merge into a single gray wall of driving snow. Filming becomes impossible, and the whiteout conditions are so complete that a polar bear could easily follow at the crew's heels unnoticed.

Roberts and cameraman Doug Allan obtained special permission from the Spitsbergen governor to fly to Kongsøya, an island about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the main island. The isolated island offers ideal conditions for pregnant female polar bears, which seek shelter in caves along cliffs during the winter. The Norwegian government declared Kongsøya off-limits 25 years ago, and no human beings have set foot on this no-man's land since.

Roberts and Allan, surrounded by heavy equipment, moved into a small trapper hut dating from 1936. The pair had hardly patched up and heated the hut before their first neighbor turned up: a male polar bear, weighing about 800 kilograms (1,765 pounds), apparently hungry.

First, the bear chewed up a generator cable lying outside. Then he sniffed around the door. He wasn't deterred by firecrackers tossed by Roberts. "Where's our gun?" cameraman Allan asked when the bear pressed its nose against the window. But the bear left, and soon the two men set out in search of a polar bear cave -- on foot. Snowmobiles are banned on Kongsøya.

It took them six weeks and a lot of patience to shoot the spectacular scenes, which take up only a few minutes in the film. After months of hibernation, a female polar bear pokes her head out of the cave and then slides down a steep hill on her back. "She was either cleaning her fur or just having fun," says Roberts.

Then two white balls of fur lumber out -- two cubs, only a few weeks old, in a first encounter with the great outdoors. They awkwardly push through the snow, encouraged by a mother who seems eager to reach the ocean, where edible young seals should be available on the ice. The earlier the ice melts in a given year, the shorter the polar bears' hunting season.

Director Fothergill captured the result of shrinking ice from a helicopter off the eastern coast of Spitsbergen: a polar bear swimming. The powerful animal glides between sheets of ice and dives easily under the larger floes.

But then Fothergill zooms out to reveal the larger scene, and the viewer realizes that there is no land in sight. The bear -- like the now-famous cartoon bear in Al Gore's film -- still has a long way to swim.

"I don't believe that people go to the movies to be indoctrinated," says Fothergill, who sees his role in collecting, not admonishing. Fothergill says his film shows "Natural History" in the truest sense of the word. "When my children are grown," the director fears, "they will probably no longer be able to experience any polar bears in the wild."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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