The Nature Documentary and the Failed Hunt

Like many middle-class children, here or elsewhere, I watched wildlife documentaries while ‘growing up.’ There was a long-running Sunday feature whose name I forget that subjected one species to its lens each week; there were the full-length movies–sometimes on the big cats (my personal favorite), sometimes on elephants, sometimes on the primates–my parents took me to see in movie-houses; and then later, in my teen years, all too inevitably, there was David Attenborough, clad in parka, his hair askew, striding purposefully along a beach, wading through mud, tramping through a rainforest, showing us the undersides of damp, mossy rocks, and pointing out, in a throwback to Aristotle, that the lower creatures were as worthy of study, as evocative of awe and admiration, as ingenious in their adaptations to their environment, as the higher ones.

A wildlife documentary was, I think, considered an essential component of a child’s education by a certain kind of parent. (As was a trip to the zoo, I suppose.) Even if you weren’t taken to the wild–to say, a national park or an animal sanctuary–viewing a documentary was de rigeur. No middle-class parent would ever be caught saying–in the right company–‘Nature documentaries? What a waste of time!’ The documentary was educational, and that was it. Even if you wanted to shield your child from the gratuitous violence on television and cinema, there was no censorship of predator-on-prey slaughter, no shielding of the child’s eyes when a leopard or a lion clamped their jaws around a gazelle’s neck and slowly strangled it. (An exception to this might have been the anguished response to a recent documentary on life in the oceans in which a which a pair of adult killer whales casually and endlessly toss around, like a broken rag-doll, a baby seal that is clearly alive and remains so till they finally tire of their sport and kill it; the Netflix page for this movie features many comments from parents wishing they had been warned that such frightening acts were included on a documentary that they had unsuspectingly viewed with their children.)

I suspect I’m not alone in noting that as a child, my favorite moment in a nature documentary was invariably the big cat hunt: the stalking, the chase, the kill. But I was disappointed too, to find out that such hunts were not always successful, that those incredibly sleek and svelte felines could be outpaced by those wimpy, skittish antelopes, that on occasion, their claws didn’t find traction and simply slid off the backs of their putative meals; yet another disillusionment, yet another demonstration that in this world, never did the path of the bold run smooth.

So, interestingly enough, while the nature documentary was supposed to be a source of wonder and inspiration, of awe at the beauty of nature, and was intended, at least in part, to function as part of our societies’ syllabi in environmental and conservationist education, for at least one viewer, it also served as introduction to the notion that all was not what it seemed, that many ignoble failures could be experienced before spectacular success could be savored.

An introduction mind, not necessarily a lesson learned and internalized.

3 comments on “The Nature Documentary and the Failed Hunt

  1. Noor Alam says:

    You make an interesting point in this piece regarding how middle class parents tend to embrace the nature documentary as a noncontroversial form of education for their children. The example you give of lack of parental caution (namely, one set of parents inadvertantly exposing their child to the torture of a baby seal) lays bare the fact that even in this genre, parents may want to exercise some caution.

    How the nature documentary is made, what types of animal behavior are depicted, and how they are then interpreted, provide early and formative impressions about the world around us. Does the documentary empasize nature as a world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short” or does it choose to focus on instances of social behavior in nature, such as the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins? Does it emphasize the similarities between humans and other animals, or does it marvel at the alien nature of those animals. With such questions in mind, the “uncontroversial” nature documentary becomes inherently political, and we as parents should have an awareness of this so that we can not only expose our children to the wonders of the world that they portray, but so that we can discuss with them the different issues which any one nature documentary may raise.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Noor:

      Wonderfully perceptive points; you’ve made so much explicit that was left between the lines in my post, or indeed not even articulated or brought out properly. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up post in response.

      Thanks again for a great comment.

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