How does your perception of Timothy Treadwell evolve during the film, and how is that opinion shaped by Herzog’s narration?
Grizzly Man is a feature-length documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent his life documenting wild bears and founded the organisation Grizzly People which aims to help preserve bears and their habitats.
The documentary by Werner Herzog uses found footage filmed by Treadwell himself, where he tried to share his love for the bears he considered family with the rest of the world in an effort to stop poaching and destruction of habitats.
Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were both killed by these bears he loved so much in 2003 and the documentary features various interviews with different people, from his ex-girlfriend and co-founder of Grizzly People to a bear biologist to the coroner who did the autopsy on his body. Every person that is interviewed has a different opinion on Treadwell’s actions and how he lost his life, but there seems to be one unifying feature between all of the people that knew him; they weren’t surprised. His death, however tragic, wasn’t a shock to anyone in the film, one of his close friends stating “the worst had happened. Not necessarily a surprise, but the worst.” As we get to witness the close proximity he had to the bears and how relaxed he would be when addressing them, his fate does not surprise the audience either.
Sam Egli, one of the men involved in the “clean-up” following what happened to Treadwell and Huguenard, shares his opinion in the film that “he got what he was asking for” which, at quite an early point in the documentary, can sound quite harsh and insensitive to the audience following the tragedy of his death. However this is a sentiment that is shared repeatedly through the film and one that I believe a lot of the audience would adopt once they reach the end of the documentary.
At the beginning of the film we see a slightly eccentric wildlife explorer talking with enthusiasm about the bears pictured behind him. We learn through the narration that he volunteered his time to talk about the bears with schoolchildren who were moved by what he had to say and excited by his child-like appreciation for the animals. In the beginning he is presented as an all-round good person, a humanitarian who very clearly has a deep care for wildlife. The very first shot of the film includes him stating that he usually keeps his distance, “a fly-on-the-wall” and recognising the danger he is in stating he is constantly “on the precipice of death”. Despite this he confidently explains how he handles the bears that challenge him, presenting to the audience the idea that he is a capable professional. However, a lot of the audience probably approached this film with the knowledge of his untimely death as this was a feature in all of the marketing material for the film, so when he states “I will not die at their claws and paws” a sense of dramatic irony is instilled.
The first half of the film includes a lot of calm and personable imagery from the found footage including picturesque scenery and sweet scenes where a bear uses a tree as a scratching post and where Treadwell plays with a wild fox. However as the film continues we get to see this idillic image crumble away as the audience watches Treadwell mourn over the deaths of different animals and ferociously yelling at the camera that the government isn’t doing it’s job to protect the wildlife; “how dare they challenge me […] when they do not look after these animals. F*ck you, motherf*cking park service!”. The image the audience has of Treadwell starts to change as he appears unhinged. This is accompanied by the narrator saying that Treadwell had a “sentimentalised view of nature” and that he “crosses a line with the park service that we will not cross”. The audience become more aware as the film goes on that Treadwell had an unhealthy attitude towards the wildlife he wanted to protect. Larry Van Daele states in the film that Treadwell had almost wanted to become a bear as he was completely disillusioned with reality and had lost hope in society. It isn’t until over half-way through the documentary that we get to hear from his parents and we learn more about his drug abuse, again presenting to the audience the idea that he was mentally unstable and was possibly using his life in the wilderness in a sort of escapism from the ‘real world’.
In conclusion, the perception of Timothy Treadwell is almost ever-changing throughout the film; where he started as a good-hearted, if eccentric, wildlife expert and evolved into a delusional, broken man who was just trying to find an escape while being unable to see the very real danger that he was staring in the face every day. This is done in how the film chooses to slowly reveal more about Treadwell to the audience, only showing his more vulnerable nature towards the end as well as how the narrator, who acts as the audience’s guide through the film, turns on Treadwell and calls him out for his unjustified actions as the narrative progresses.