Here’s something that’s worth a good look. Bear 71 is an interactive documentary about the life of a grizzly bear in Banff National Park, Canada. Participants watch short clips, listen to the bear’s omniscient narration, navigate a minimalist but detailed map of the park, and check out surveillance photographs taken by motion-sensing wildlife cameras.
It only takes 20 minutes – go have a look!
In case you don’t have 20 minutes to spare at the moment, here’s the trailer:
Immediately after my 20-minute experience with Bear 71, I found myself wanting to know more about the project, so I consulted Google. One of the first links I followed led to this review by The Huffington Post. I was surprised to discover that this reviewer doesn’t think the interactive aspect of the documentary is successful – the review argues that “the introduction of choice can dilute the impact of the main storyline” and that the “adventure-game aspect of the project doesn’t necessarily enhance the viewer’s sympathy with the animals.” The review concludes, “We’d love to see a version of the short that is made up entirely of curated surveillance footage with consistent narration, but the version currently presented is definitely worth a look.”
It’s a strange suggestion, especially because the interactivity of Bear 71 is not a small part of an otherwise linear project. It isn’t an afterthought that was tacked on to a traditional documentary about a bear. The interactivity of Bear 71 is central – it is the defining characteristic. The trailer specifically states that Bear 71 is about the “intersection between animals, humans, and technology,” and it is fitting that participants get to make choices and become a conscious part of that intersection.
The full 20-minute experience poses many provocative questions – whether there is such a thing as “the wild” any more, whether there is any way for humanity to interact with animals without fundamentally changing them, how technology is changing us, too – but in my experience with Bear 71, I only took these questions personally because moving through this digital map of the park and making my own small choices made me feel involved. I should feel involved, I should be aware of these issues all of the time, but it is all too easy for me to sit back and think of environmental problems as sad but inevitable things that have nothing to do with me. Giving me agency forces me to feel the responsibility. It forces me to remember that I am culpable.
It’s true that I missed some of the narration the first time through because the sheer amount of information in the digital park distracted me. And I wish I felt compelled to stay in that world after the narration ends, exploring the park, but I do not. I’m not saying Bear 71 is perfect – but it is clever, effective, interesting – and above all these things, a step in the right direction. It’s good stuff.
– Janet T.