TV

'Frozen Planet' Undertakes Daring Pursuit of Surprising Behaviors

Ross Langager

Frozen Planet commands attention with its astounding imagery and surprising animal behaviors, but earns greater respect with its journalistic rigor on the climate change question.

Frozen Planet

Airtime: Sundays, 8pm ET
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Discovery Channel
Air date: 2012-03-18
Website
Trailer
Amazon

In the far polar reaches of the world, glaciers crawl forward with incremental inevitability, carving out entire landscapes. Frozen waterfalls awaken after a long silence, their thaw releasing a torrent of river water. Polar bear cubs frolic on a seemingly infinite sheet of white snow. Blubbery skin ripples as male elephant seals battle for dominion over a beach harem. A pack of wolves assaults enormous bison. Penguins dart out of the Antarctic waters and waddle comically across ice packs. And you’re cozy and warm on your couch, watching it all in glorious detail.

Frozen Planet is the latest visual feast from the same BBC Natural History Unit documentary team that produced the HDTV retail display favorites Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life. As with those previous series, the version of Frozen Planet airing on Discovery Channel starting 18 March has been cut down to an American broadcast television length of 45-ish minutes. Additionally, the dulcet tones of esteemed nature documentary narrator Sir David Attenborough have been replaced by the flat grandiosity of Alec Baldwin, who for all his multiple decades of professional achievement surely cannot be the Stateside voice-over equivalent of Attenborough.

Discovery’s Frozen Planet is therefore an inherently compromised product, but if all compromises remained this spectacular, the term might not retain its negative connotations. Certainly, the thematic and narrative underpinnings of these mega-documentaries of the BBC pedigree are not particularly cutting-edge. Wild animal behavior is, after all, relatively circumscribed, limited to the mainstays of acquiring sustenance, mating, and rearing the offspring that result.

Even if the life-and-death cycle of the vignettes that constitute the program trends towards the repetitive, the seasonal breakdown of the core episodes allows for some rudimentary serial storytelling. The travails of a mother polar bear and her growing cubs are followed through spring, summer, and beyond, and time-lapse cameras demonstrate the advance of the polar year from constant sunlight through constant dark and back again.

But like the previous installments of this sort of series, Frozen Planet grasps viewer attention most tightly with its astounding imagery and daring pursuit of surprising behaviors. High-speed cameras show graceful slow-motion shots of emperor penguins bursting from the icy water and bull muskoxen ramming into each other. An extraordinary caterpillar freezes solid and then thaws for no less than 14 winters in succession before emerging from its chrysalis as a fluttering moth. Caribou slip and slide on icy ponds like beginner skaters. Most amusingly, pods of clever hunting orcas swim in formation to create waves large enough to tip luxuriating seals off of ice floes. When a wave fails to dislodge one seal from its icy perch, the carnivorous whales use the tips of their noses to turn its tiny berg turtle and dump their quarry into the drink.

The balance of microcosmic delights and macrocosmic spectacle gives Frozen Planet a superior appeal in the nature documentary genre. Still, the success of the Planet programs has as much if not more to do with advances in both camera technology and high-definition television than it does with any trailblazing vision on the part of the production’s numerous directors and cinematographers. This is particularly true of Frozen Planet, which recycles some material from previous films from under the same umbrella (I'm pretty sure those duck-hunting wolves were in Life) as well as covering territory very well-trodden by other films. Penguins are irresistible subjects, granted, but wasn’t every angle of the emperors’ remarkable ordeal covered in detail by March of the Penguins?

Frozen Planet’s less traditional later parts exhibit precisely what it has to contribute to a mostly moribund documentary form. The “Making Of” specials have become a highlight of these programs, breaking the fourth wall that is ever invisible and unacknowledged in lesser nature films. The behind-the-scenes dramas and difficulties behind these visuals are only amplified by the extreme climates in which this particular series was shot.

Most vitally, Frozen Planet’s final and most controversial episode acknowledges the elephant in the room of polar science: climate change and the alarming reduction of the ice caps and glaciers. “On Thin Ice” was initially not due to be broadcast by Discovery in the United States, despite being the obvious editorial conclusion to the series during its original British broadcast run. Political timidity was eventually overcome, and American viewers will see the episode on Discovery after all, with Attenborough’s original narration no less. Whether due to the network’s about-face concerning its broadcast or to his well-publicized progressive leanings, Baldwin will not be lending his vocal chords to gems like “Summer waits for no bear” in this episode at least.

For a series that tends to lose itself in its considerable aesthetic value and its appreciation of the natural world’s alterity, offering up a striking visual document of climate change, accompanied by elaboration from an authoritative British-accented voice, is an important journalistic service. Especially when faced with the anti-scientific fabulism of climate science skeptics in America, Frozen Planet could prove to be more than just a marvelously pretty television distraction. It can also be an influential artistic and rational voice in a continuing debate over our current society’s environmental legacy.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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