SIFF Journal: Being Caribou

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I’m at a complete loss to explain why the Seattle PI’s Bill White hated Being Caribou so much. In today’s SIFF round-up, he gave the film an “F” and complained that it consisted of little more than “two people mouthing platitudes about natural beauty while hiking in the snow”. (There’s a more positive review of the film, and several of the other nature films being shown at SIFF, in a back-issue of the Seattle Weekly.)

I certainly wouldn’t argue that this was the greatest documentary ever made, but I found it quite charming and informative. It chronicles the experiences of Canadian husband-and-wife team Karsten Heuer, a forest ranger, and Leanne Allison, a documentary film-maker, as they follow a migrating caribou herd from the Canadian Yukon Territory to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back again, a 900-mile trek that lasted for five months. Carrying a plastic George Bush doll with them, the couple set off with the intention of making a movie that would show audiences both how beautiful and how fragile this ecosystem is, with the obvious hope that this might encourage viewers to protest the opening of ANWR to oil drilling.

While the film does an admirable job of documenting the caribou migration, it is also very much about Heuer and Allison’s journey itself. Bill White seems to have been put off by this, but I found it fascinating — perhaps in large part because I’m a hiking and camping weekend warrior who fantasizes about going on long treks in the wilderness. If Allison and Heuer sometimes sound a bit loopy as they talk about their relationship with the caribou — one wonders whether physical exhaustion and food deprivation have somewhat addled their brains — they remain amazingly cheerful as they trudge through the snow carrying 60-80 pound packs, are stalked by bears, are trapped in their tent by a blizzard, are forced to eat berries and arctic rodents after they run out of food (“tastes like chicken!”), and are assaulted by clouds of ferocious mosquitoes. As you watch them experiencing this ordeal, the film’s many scenes of natural beauty — a caribou calf taking its first steps, hundreds of caribou grazing in the summer range lands, the splendor of the ANWR landscape, etc. — seem all that much more miraculous for having been so hard to capture on film.

It doesn’t look like Being Caribou has a US distributor, but it is available for sale at the National Film Board of Canada website.

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