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The Ethics of the “Shooting In The Wild” Documentary

shooting in the wild documentary by Chris PalmerLast night I went to a screening of “Shooting In The Wild,” a documentary short on Chris Palmer’s book by the same name.  The premise of the book and the 27-minute film, hosted by Alexandra Cousteau, is to expose the outright deception and unethical methods used by film producers in making so-called “wildlife” films, methods Palmer himself admits to using.  While the conversation is an important one to have Palmer comes off with very little remorse for his deception and in fact, continues to deceive the audience in this documentary to promote his agenda and sell his book.

Chris Palmer American UniversityCurrently a professor of Film and Media Arts and Director of American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, Palmer spent decades directing and producing wildlife features for organizations like the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Foundation, as well as the IMAX industry.  As host of the screening, part of the DC Environmental Film Festival, Palmer was a gracious, witty and engaging personality that I found myself immediately drawn to.  The Palmer the audience met on-screen, however, was not as easy to like.

In answering questions from Alexandra Cousteau, Palmer’s responses seemed very disingenuous and lacked remorse.  It might be his jovial British accent but the screening audience was laughing as he admitted to Alexandra his deceptive filmmaking techniques.  Palmer seemed almost glib about his deception, that included lying to audiences about following a mother whale and her calf from Hawaii to Alaska (they simply shot two different sets of whales), placing the skull of a killer whale on the ocean floor to make it appear that they “found it” there, and using rented wolves and a man-made wolf den to shoot a mother and her cubs “in the wild.”

Walt Disney White WildernessPalmer gave several more examples of other films that used outright deception and/or unethical treatment of animals including the 1958 Walt Disney film “White Wilderness,” which included scenes of a polar bear cub falling down a “snowy mountain.”  Palmer revealed that the scene was actually shot in a film studio on fake snow.  Another example from the Disney film was the apparent lemming suicide cliff jump into arctic waters.  In actuality the lemmings were pushed off the cliff by a rotating platform made by the crew and they were not in the arctic.

Aside from Palmer’s admittance to using these type of deceptive techniques as well, I appreciated the ethical awareness brought by the film until I saw Palmer continue his deceptive filmmaking practices to show examples of animal abuse.  He pointed to “Man vs. Wild,” a popular show on the Discovery Channel from 2006 – 2011 and showed two admittedly gruesome shots of Bear Grylls killing a snake and monitor lizard in the wild.  When Cousteau asks Palmer why Grylls would do such a thing, Palmer simply said “ratings.”

Man Vs Wild AusThere is no doubt that Grylls will stop at nothing to present extreme situations for the ratings (in more than one episode he squeezes liquid out of animal dung to avoid dehydration).  But Palmer fails to tell his audience that the premise of Man vs. Wild is a survival show and Grylls does not kill the animals purely for sport or fun but to give him energy he needs to complete his journey.  Man vs. Wild did come under scrutiny for the types of deception Palmer himself is guilty of and, in response to that criticism, began including disclaimers on the show.  However, Palmer gives the illusion that Grylls is a cold-hearted murder rather than a teacher of survival techniques.  He also fails to mention that many times Grylls gives the unused portions of an animal to local inhabitants who, much like the Native Americans, will use every part of the animal in their subsistence living.

In the Q&A Palmer further revealed his bias, saying he hopes everyone will “see the light” about following a plan-based diet.  He went as far as to compare the killing animals for food to the atrocities of slavery and inequalities that led to the fight for women’s rights, saying “right now progress is slow” but he believes there will be a time when movement toward the plant-based diet will quick.  It should be noted that as he said this he was walking around in what appeared to be nice leather shoes.

There is no doubt in my mind that the conversation about deceptive and unethical filmmaking in the nature documentary genre is an important conversation to have.  But Chris Palmer is not the one to be having it.  Just as he was willing to deceive audiences in the past to promote his agenda as a producer for nonprofit conservation organizations, he is willing to deceive audiences today to promote his current agenda — selling his book.  While I think Palmer does believe in and promote conservation, and should be applauded for that, his cry for ethics in filmmaking sounds hollow and self-serving.

And while I am a fan of shows like Man vs. Wild, I would certainly welcome a conversation about whether TV audiences need to be entertained by so-called survival shows that necessitate the killing of animals.  But as with any discussion all  the facts should be on the table and they should be presented fairly and honestly, something Chris Palmer has not been able to do for decades.

I did appreciate the majority of the “Shooting in the Wild” documentary but found Palmer to be less-than apologetic for his years of deceptive practices and certainly willing to stoop to deception again.  I would have appreciated the film a lot more if it had been a true investigative piece, shedding light on unethical filmmaking practices, rather than a convenient promotion piece for Palmer’s book.