Pleistocene Park, Luke Griswold-Tergis’ second documentary, is a wild ride that follows the father-son team of Sergey and Nikita Zimov, who live in the Sakha Republic, Russia in northeastern Siberia. In this plot, they are trying to recreate a steppe ecosystem by populating the area with herds of grazing herbivores. Sergey is a geophysicist with many published articles on preventing a catastrophic global warming feedback loop by filling the land with animals. The hope is that these beasts will inhabit the land, eat the grass, and stomp on the snow-covered ground to help slow permafrost from melting and releasing trapped carbon dioxide.
Nikita is the calm, consistent, patient, hard-working laborer-organizer in contrast to his dad, the eccentric, irascible brain behind the project. Enter American filmmaker-journalist Griswold-Tergis into the mix, and we have an even more intricate story. Throughout filming, Griswold-Tergis gets schooled on the science and the physical and emotional strength needed to carry out these missions of transporting oxen and bison across seemingly impossible conditions to settle the animals in Siberia so that they may prosper.
As Griswold-Tergis notes early on, Zimov senior is considered “the smartest person and batshit crazy.” In this way, Pleistocene Park is filled with questioning. It is a journey that considers the complexities of the issues involved in climate change, the science, the scientists, and even the problematic nature of documentary filmmaking as a way to change the world. Made with passion, sensitivity, and attentiveness for its human and animal subjects, Pleistocene Park meanders through lush and unforgiving landscapes accompanied by an imaginative soundtrack.
The young filmmaker traveled to Torino for the screening of his documentary at the 25th edition of CinemAmbiente Film Festival in early June, where it picked up a special mention. PopMatters spoke with Luke at length about his eight-year adventure with the Zimovs, his personal approach to documentary filmmaking, and a possible future project.
What was the process from your original idea for Pleistocene Park to the eventual documentary, and how did your vision evolve over the eight years of making this film?
I have to remember what my original idea was. I certainly thought I would work on it for a couple of years. I thought I’d do one year of exploratory filming and then go home. Thinking this is a really hot story, I figured I’d find some more money, and then I’d come back the next year with a proper crew, finish it off professionally with a crew, a producer, and that would be it.
The story is so wild, the characters are so wild, and they’re doing crazy stuff. That’s going to be all I need to do. I’ll capture the details of their life and how they’re going about it; that will be my movie. Then, of course, two things happened: 1. fundraising was far harder than I imagined, and 2. I got there, and they were a little bit stalled out in their project. So it was sort of like, “OK are you guys going to do something? What’s happening here?”
It was sort of funny. When I first arrived, Nikita picked me up at the airport. I’d never met him before though I’d met Sergey briefly at a conference. Nikita had not been enthusiastic about a journalist coming because there wasn’t much going on. He was like, “What are we going to do with a journalist?” He and his dad got into an argument about it, and his dad overruled him. Sergey said, “Nope, we will invite this journalist. He will tell the world about Pleistocene Park.”
Were there other journalists there or during your various comings and goings?
No, I think they had gotten a bunch of media attention about six years earlier, and they hadn’t gotten any media attention in a while. Zimov (Sergey) likes the attention, whereas Nikita is a little more pragmatic. He was wondering what are we going to show a journalist. The park was not looking that impressive. They got into this argument, and Nikita was saying, “We can’t bring this journalist.” Zimov insisted, “We will bring the journalist.” So Nikita picked me up at the airport, and he was like, “My dad wanted a journalist, OK here dad, here’s the journalist, you talk to him.”
He dropped me off with his dad. Sergey was in his kitchen, and he asked me, “What do you want to film?” I answered, “I kinda want to film the creation of Pleistocene Park, what you do, you doing science, the actual real-world process.” I think Zimov said, “I will tell you everything, and then you can go home, and then you will know the truth about ecology, rules of life, all things you need to know. I will share some wisdom with you. I will explain it.” But I was like, “I want to film you doing it.”
He replied, “What I do every day: I sit on the couch, I think. Then I make coffee, instant coffee because caffeine content is same. It doesn’t matter how you make coffee, the effect is same, therefore I drink instant coffee. Then I smoke a cigarette, then I sit on the couch, and I think. Then I drink additional coffee, smoke another cigarette. Each day I drink 21 cups of coffee and smoke 21 cigarettes, and I sit on the couch, and I think. You will make a movie about this, it will be a very boring movie.” That was my first day, about half an hour after I arrived.
You must have been beside yourself. But then you turned it into a film about the father and son relationship.
It was this family doing it, which I think is rare in the case of grandiose, save-the-world kinds of projects. That was very interesting and wild. I don’t think it’s very Russian, I think it’s just them. They’re unusual kinds of people.
Pleistocene Park twists a bit with your perceptions, and you turn it around, making it about yourself as well, asking questions about how making a film about this topic can even help or change the world. Was that something that came out in making it or later during the editing?
Well, I think that specific idea comes from the fact that I get a little annoyed sometimes when you go to film festivals or film funders, and people say, “Oh my God, documentaries are changing the world!” You do hope to have some impact, but I think filmmakers take themselves too seriously sometimes. You are doing it for a good reason, but you also can’t overstate your impact, or shouldn’t try to overstate it.
Some documentaries have had big impacts, but I certainly am not telling my subjects, “This is going to change everything.” A lot of people say that, specifically to the Zimovs. A lot of crews declare, “After we do our report, it’s going to change everything for you.” Nothing ever really changes for them. They have gotten a lot of media attention, and it seems to not have an impact.
Also, adding my voice to it was a way to condense the story a bit and move it forward. I was struggling a little just using pure vérité to show the drama of their reality. In part, because they’re, how to put it, culturally, they are Russian men. They don’t really publicly emote a lot. In addition, it’s kind of inappropriate to share your struggles with the world. It’s a struggle what they’re doing, and it’s difficult to tease that out of Zimov. Instead, he would say something like, “No the thermal difference between the… he’d go into some technical detail. He didn’t want to tell stories, he felt like it made them look weaker as if they weren’t effective.
There’s the element of irony that comes into your narration. Is that your personal style?
I think that’s just me. I mean, my subjects they’re pretty sarcastic as well. I think it fits. It’s hard to find a voice when you’re putting yourself in a film, I hadn’t done that before. How do you present yourself? You don’t want to be too cheesy, too Pollyanna. I didn’t want it to be advocacy, I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want it to be an hour and a half TED Talk about how this will save the world.
I also think that the combination of an intimate and large story helps draw people in; that personal side brings it more into people’s lives so they could relate to what’s going on.
I hope it makes people trust me as a communicator also, that I’m not propagandizing something, but I’m trying to figure it out too. I certainly trust people more when they exhibit a little uncertainty. When someone is overly confident about something, I don’t believe them, especially when it’s clear the thing they are overconfident about isn’t too clear-cut. Pleistocene Park is not clear cut on a moral, or scientific – on a number of levels. I would trust the person who expressed a little uncertainty if I were watching Pleistocene Park.
It’s just legitimately open-ended in what is going on with this film. It’s like change in general, we don’t have easy answers. I mean, there are some easy answers, but we’ve chosen not to pursue them as a society. We’re getting into more desperate measures these days.
What do you think about Sergey’s reluctance to answer your question, “Do you have actual deep permafrost data on the effect of grazing yet?”
Oh, he’s just being evasive. He’s a tricky person. I also think when you are making a film about someone or working as a journalist, and you start establishing trust with people or people start sharing parts of their lives while you’re having dinner and drinking, you often don’t get it on camera. You don’t want to just whip your camera out all the time, otherwise, people will never talk to you because you’re just an annoying person. You’re not a real person, you’re just trying to get something out of people.
On the other hand, you need to get something out of people to tell your story. I find it’s always a difficult balance in filmmaking, developing a human relationship. When you work with people for that long, you develop a human relationship with them. I was just texting with Nikita yesterday about how things are going. But then you do need to tell a story about them, you are kind of exploiting them, their story, their personality and their experience. You have to in order to tell a story.
Hopefully, the end result isn’t exploitive. I guess some people don’t care about that. People dig right into the exploitativeness of the end result but for me personally, I don’t. I want something that has a human end result rather than an exploitive result.