Interactive documentary and the wild, wired world

Bear 71 isn’t your grandfather’s grizzly. She knows the name of the drug that tranquilized her, knows too about Zoloft and Viagra, knows that her radio collar broadcasts in the VHF range. She can tell you that a rubber bullet is traveling 650km/hr at 100 feet. She reports that Canmore, near Banff in Alberta, gets five million tourists a year. She knows about the fate of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, and the prospect of bringing the species back through genetic engineering. And she knows that the creatures capable of making this happen are also capable of forgetting to close the lid on a garbage can. Finally, she knows that she’s the eponymous narrator of Bear 71 by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendez, The latest work from National Film Board of Canada Interactive.

Bear 71 lived in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies; radio-collared at the age of three, her maturation was captured by a series of remote cameras and rub traps scattered throughout the park’s rugged landscape. Unlike the subjects of classic natural-history films, then, Bear 71’s life is documented by a network of ubiquitous probes, nodes, and sensors. Sound familiar?

In her worldly way, Bear 71 (voiced by actress Mia Kirshner) notes the similarity between the ancient, evolved sensory world of animals and the emergent connected networks of humankind. “It’s hard to know where the wild world ends and the wired world begins,” she avers. But the animals are struggling to sort out the old signals from the anthropogenic noise. “if you can’t pull your dog away from a tree in the forest, it’s probably a rub tree…. the forest has its own language. Maybe you can learn it with hidden cameras and test tubes, but I doubt it.”

Bear 71 tells her tale as you, the user of her story, roam the valley in an interactive, topographical interface. It’s geometric and highly abstract: the forest takes the form of rippling grids of green circumflexes; the watercourses, bubbles of blue that shoulder out of the way as your cursor ploughs through; the highway and the railway, black streams of flashing pixels. Throughout the space are interspersed links to various media—camera-trap footage and stills, images of native plants and fauna. You run into the avatars of wandering deer and wolverines—and those of your fellow visitors from the networked world as well, caught by the camera traps that are secreted in their laptops.

Despite its novel interface, Bear 71 evokes the classic nature documentary, the sort of filmed entertainment made by Marlin Perkins and Richard Attenborough: its subject is a charismatic creature, highly anthropomorphized; her story has a tragic arc. Her habitat is hardly the “desert of the real” (sometimes I want a nature documentary to drop me in the middle of a savannah and just leave me there); in the best tradition of public-broadcasting natural history, Bear 71 takes place in a charged, epic landscape of carnal acts. And yet through its format and the materials it uses to tell its tale, Bear 71 begins to imagine a new kind of nature story. Particularly exciting is its use of scientific evidence gathered from a network: its viewpoint is not that of the auteur’s eye trained through long-lens cameras, but the kind of connected-candid perspective of surveillance (it’s charming how much bears passing trailcams appear like humans stalking along the sidewalk: blithe, inscrutable, tuned to the scrolling of their own needs and senses).

Scientists have been using networks to gather data for a long time. And these networks, like consumer-grade communications, are growing in their reach and scope, from the vast, far-flung orbital tracery of telescopes and sensors to the coming submarine swarm of oceanographic bots. The question for storytellers is, how to use these data? Bear 71 offers a suggestive start. —Hat tip Julia Scott-Stevenson.