Polar Bears, Hudson Bay & Informed Opinion

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Polar bears haunt the landscape around the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba.Published On Credit Image by Ian Kerr

Thanks to Ian Kerr, a filmmaker who has spent years documenting polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba and shared this op-ed in the New York Times:

Polar Bears of Hudson Bay

Polar bears sleep a lot. That sight can leave an observer feeling disappointed, even insulted — it’s like watching a superhero clean his nails while you’re wishing he’d fly or pick up a car.

Keep watching, though, and you begin to notice interesting things about the sleeping bear’s world: the hard, cold snow blown across ice or the sun turning into a vertical streak through sheets of sleet; the odd, sticky sensation of frost slowly growing over your beard.

As a cinematographer, I’ve spent a lot of time observing the behaviors of the polar bears and humans who inhabit Churchill, Manitoba, a small town on the remote coast of Hudson’s Bay. I first arrived in Churchill as a teenager on my first gig and returned 25 years later, in 2015, to shoot a TV series on the bears of Churchill.

When filming any wildlife, my first instinct is to create pristine images devoid of humanity. This is the ideal for nature films — a wild, charismatic animal free of the tethers and trappings of modernity. But these days, that ideal rarely matches reality — and it was nearly impossible to find in Churchill. Scattered among the polar bears on the outskirts of town are the ruins of Cold War projects, shipwrecks, plane wrecks and the abandoned material dreams of residents.

Though I was initially frustrated, I began to shoot two versions of each shot — one a realistic portrayal of the bears’ habitat incorporating humanity and the other a cropped, pristine image suitable for prime time. Increasingly, I was drawn to the former: the juxtaposition of the bears, majestic symbols of the north, and the human artifacts and environments they haunted.

As we shot over several months, contradictory emotions and ideas would present themselves. I loved being so close to the bears but worried that this contact might damage them. I hoped that the old, starving bear would survive, until I realized he had begun hunting a mother’s cub. I worried about the future of the bears but was struck that they might instead become the sole occupants of this depressed town I’d come to love. I wondered how accurate natural history films could really be and whether they were even capable of conveying the conflicts I was experiencing…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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