In the tradition of March of the Penguins, but with a bit more edge and purpose comes Arctic Tale. The project, directed by the husband and wife team of Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, grew out of a natural curiosity about life in a region little studied, the Earth's polar regions -- coincidentally regarded as a barometer for climate change. In other words, if the proverbial tree falls in the polar forest, we'll feel the reverberations whether we're there or not.
A sour irony surrounding this situation involves the increasing reluctance of those who study nature to do so under a microscope. Unless you've noted a species' behavior, you surely can't observe any change. Given the inclement conditions and the glacial pace (no pun intended) at which the local species go about their business, research here is not the best investment for those in the academic rat race. Perhaps that's why it was photographers who made the discoveries shown in Arctic Tale.
Adam Ravetch, in Seattle to promote his film, spoke to Real Change about the film's evolution.
How did you get started on this project?
I was a young, ambitious cinematographer looking for a region and a place I could really sink my teeth into and document animals who were unknown. That took me all over the world. [In] the arctic there were all these animals, and very little documentation.
Walrus because an Inuit, a local guy up in Canada, told me that walruses can hold you against your will, knock your head off with a smack of its tusks, and suck your brains out. It was this monstrous sort of story, which was terrifying and should have deterred me, but I was so surprised to find out there was still a large animal left on this planet that we didn't know very much about. There were absolutely no details of the animal's life. And so I sort of focused on that animal because of that one trip to the Arctic and this one story about that monster.
Do we get most or a lot of our information about animals like walruses through film?
In this case, nothing was known about this animal. There were some studies done in the early 60s and 70s, but really nothing was that known, so we went out with the Inuit hunters, and this is when we came across the mother walruses. And the hunters at that time actually hunted the babies. In the old days that was a delicacy for the old guys, the elders who liked walrus. They were nomadic people that lived on the land so that was something they enjoyed. So when we went out with them, they hunted a baby walrus, we saw this mother latch onto the baby when they harpooned it, and she wouldn't let go. And she was actually holding the baby up in the air for it to breathe. It was incredibly emotional to see this intense devotion, this mother who would not leave the side of this baby, [and] tried to save him. And so what we knew then, if we could somehow film that in a more natural way, that we had a hook. We had a very human-like sort of behavior.
Who was underwriting the filming for that?
In those days, no one. Sarah and I just took a little bit of money out of our own pocket. We were sort of struggling, Sarah was doing some freelance writing and I was doing freelance cinematography for other shows. And, then, three weeks out of the year, we'd go up and start filming the Arctic hoping to come back, show people our footage, and get some interest. That went on for about three or four years. But during that time we found out where baby walruses were born. I went with an Inuit guy. We went ice breaking. We found an hours old baby with their umbilical cord still attached and that's when we saw the auntie for the very first time -- a sibling of the mother helping to take care of the baby. And it was so unusual that there were these roles in the walrus herd, sort of an individual role, you know, almost like a human would have a role in a society. And we soon came to find out that walrus herds are very much like that. They're a group. They depend on one another. And then we came back with that footage. And that's when we sort of got hooked into National Geographic.
So when did you decide to bring in the polar bears? Polar bears were sort of always on our mind. We were on a chunk of ice with all our camera gear, and there was about 30 walruses floating in towards our ice. We were excited 'cause we were going to get some images of the walruses and then all of a sudden the bear showed up out of nowhere. I'd never experienced polar bears before. In order to get to the walruses, the bear had to go through our chunk of ice. Like most people we were sort of scared, thinking, "Oh, bears will just eat you." And we all started flailing our arms to scare away the bear. We scared away the bear and then all the walruses too. We ruined a perfectly amazing situation where we would have had maybe a bear hunting a herd of walrus. And the science of that time was saying that bears and walrus don't come together unless they're an injured walrus, or unless the bear was really desperate.
So you have parallel stories going? We recognized that was a nice parallel story. With walruses, because I think because there's so much information to be passed down from the mother to the calf they keep them for three years -- in a communal way, with help, with the auntie, with the help of the herd. Then we saw that the polar bear was a single mom -- a solitary individual. But she also had a maternal investment of three years with her cubs. Sort of teach them everything they need to know in order to be on their own.
The bear we see in the film at some point is desperately hungry. So why are you comfortable? Would the bear prefer the walrus? I would think that you'd be in danger.
Definitely. I'm usually the skinniest of our crew, so (laugh) I'd probably be the last one they'd want to eat. We brought rifles with us. "I can commune with the bears," it's not like that. But we, we take a lot of different types of protection so we can scare the bear. There's a kind of thing where then the bear knows we're there and relaxes and carries on.
So, at the end, we see their environment melting away. How did you get the shot of the walruses struggling on that piece of ice?
So there's ice year-round, except in July and you usually would have about a three-week to four-week period of open water where there's no frozen sheets but there's a bunch of chunks floating around. And that's when we filmed the walruses on these dwindling pans. They would prefer to be on the ice. The ice also helps [offer] protection. They're safer because it floats around. They're less vulnerable than [on] something that's static like a rock. That's how they float around to different clam beds. The current takes them to different areas. Eventually they gotta leave cause there's too many of them, and the ice gets too small.
Is this an overly anthropomorphic representation of these animals?
I don't think so. All animals have personality. For example, when the brother bear dies (from starvation). That was sort of this remarkably emotional event of the animal dying. But then the surprise was Nanu (the sister bear) licking her mother. That was undeniably sort of a compassionate mature sort of act. And that's what we try to do: be authentic as possible with our footage. And I think we are all part of the animal kingdom, we are a lot more similar than we think.
When did that (the environment) become part of the film?
Sarah and I really always felt an obligation and responsibility to tell the truth of what was happening. We wanted to inspire people emotionally about struggles that these animals go through, celebrate the real qualities of these animals. We're saying if they [the animals] can go beyond what their parents taught them and change the way they live or adapt, why can't we? Why can't we make the subtle changes in our lives to combat this current era of climate change?
What do you think people are going to walk out with? I had a friend watch this film. His sons were with him. The next day they went with their mother, berry picking. And the one son, the one kid, said, "Let's go walk to go pick berries." The other kid said, "Ah, I am tired, let's take the car." And his brother said, "We can't take the car because if we took the car we won't be able to save the polar bears." People come away inspired by these animals and amazed by them.
Arctic Tale opens at theaters Aug 3.