Over his long and illustrious career naturalist broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has in many ways come to define what audiences expect from a nature documentary. His landmark series, from 1979’s Life on Earth to last year’s Blue Planet II, have combined state-of-the-art technology and cutting-edge research to provide unprecedented and arguably unparalleled insights into the natural world. His work is so popular and prolific, in fact, that it is difficult to imagine what other direction the genre might take.
When Emma Davie and Peter Mettler’s Becoming Animal opens unceremoniously on a grainy elk urinating in the woods the contrast is as stark as it is disconcerting. Shot on a shaky handheld camera at considerable distance and presented in its raw and seemingly unedited form, the often incoherent footage couldn’t be further removed from the steady-cam, high-definition close-ups that wider audiences have become accustomed to. When “cultural ecologist” David Abram’s narration finally begins, it is ponderous, plaintive and philosophical where Attenborough’s is famously composed, friendly and characterful; remarkable given that the film takes its name from Abram’s book of the same name.
But these differences in presentation are nothing when compared to the fundamental divergence in premise. Although undoubtedly educational most contemporary documentaries, particularly those backed by Hollywood studios and produced at great expense, are also seeking to entertain — to relay facts but also to tell stories. Anthropomorphism is rife, as the animal and plant subjects are often personified and patronised as mere participants in some exotic melodrama. Controversially, subversively, Becoming Animal takes an entirely different approach, by reviving and revitalising the begotten concept of animism.
Whereas animism is traditionally associated with the belief in animal sprites and tree spirits, in this instance it is pitched as an alternative to religious and psychological readings of the natural order, in which either divine will or evolutionary advancement has somehow promoted human beings to the position of custodian or coloniser. Referring to nature as “more than the human world”, where perceived wisdom has it that humans in fact stand apart from nature, both in perception and practice, Abram sees the human and animal realms at indistinguishable — their relationship interactive and their status equal. You can’t touch a tree, he observes, without it touching you back.
Far from seeming pretentious or preposterous as it might at first sound the film’s thesis actually comes across as perceptive and rather profound. Whether it’s the result of suggestively intuitive film-making or a genuine primal connection being restored between evolutionary ancestors the sight of a bird flying or even of a snail emerging from its shell appears to evoke a physiological response, as though — much as one might empathise with another person — the viewer is able to share another species’ experience. You might lose sight of the creatures in question, interference and distortion painting expressionist, entrancing images with white noise, but you can always sense their presence — while even footage of water rushing or leaves rustling captures not only the imagination but stimulates the senses too.
What might at first seem amateurish and alienating (camera equipment in shot, poor quality video, rambling narration) is soon revealed to be not only intentional but essential to the film’s success. Mesmerising and immersive, Becoming Animal is an exercise in hypnotic induction, in which Davie, Mettler and Abram attempt to deconstruct psychological, linguistics and technological barriers in order to facilitate a meeting not of minds or souls but of kin. It’s one thing to record the natural world; it’s quite another to reconcile it.