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Dr. Jane Goodall and Disneynature's 'Bears' Directors Teach Us About Saving the Planet

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Apr 18, 2014 | 2:12pm EDT

BearsDisney

Generally speaking, a nature documentary can go one of two routes: it can celebrate the dynamism of an animal, educating viewers on the lifestyle, paramount importance, and ecological strifes of the species at hand... or it can go for the cute factor. Disneynature's latest film Bears does not disappoint in either area. The beautiful, clever, and warm film from returning directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey has a mission to engage America with an animal that often gets a bad rap in the media, and which has faced the brunt of human cruelty for too long. Having renowned ethologist Dr. Jane Goodall on board with production bodes pretty well for the movie, too.

Now in theaters, Bears is not only aiming to help the cause of its titular creatures by spreading the good word, but it is also donating a portion of its box office intake to the National Park Foundation. If you attend a showing of the Disneynature movie during its first week in theaters (Friday, April 18 through Friday, April 25) part of your ticket proceeds will go toward the all-important cause of making this world a safer place for animals.

We got a chance to talk with directors Fothergill and Scholey, as well as Dr. Goodall, on the importance of the Disneynature films, the state of the natural world, and the majestic creatures of bears themselves.

Ever since watching the film, I've been thinking about the way that the media has depicted bears. I'm kind of unsure on this — do you think the media has been unfair or irresponsible in the portrayal of bears?

Alastair Fothergill: I think it depends which. There is a scattering and certainly some, I’d say almost notorious films, have been very anti-bear, and you can probably name a few. So I think this portrayal of bears as these big sort of dangerous animals... there’s no doubt bears can be dangerous. The issue with bears is that if you find bears in the wild, where they’ve had no bad experiences with people, and the relationship between people and bears has been managed well, which is exactly the place we filmed, in Katmai National Park, you don’t have a problem with bears.

And I think the film, well, we’re not interested in depicting in our story the relationship of people. In the end credits section, in the end, we do tacitly to deal with that issue, because we wanted to make sure that people knew our film was genuinely filmed in the wild, and when you actually see images of cameramen really close to bears and having a subtle relationship, I hope it sends a message out that absolutely, that’s all right. We have to be clear though, that bears, in some places, you know, have had bad experiences with people and the wrong relationships are dangerous. There’s no two ways about it. But it’s not the bear’s fault. It’s nearly always the circumstances.

Offering this more positive viewpoint of bears — in a light we don't often see, that they can be peaceful if they have been unharmed by people — I'm wondering what the larger benefits of that are? In an ecological or just psychological way.

Dr. Jane Goodall: Well, hopefully, these films, movies, they create for people a sort of intimate connection with animals that they’re unlikely, most of them, ever to find for themselves. Because most people don’t have the luxury of going for weeks and weeks out into wild places. Hopefully young people might then be persuaded to go and spend more time outside, because there really is such a terrifying disconnect between young people and nature today, with all of the electronical gadgets. Living in virtual reality is so different, and the big screen gives you the feeling of being out in a big, wide space. Hopefully it will stir some young people to want to do that themselves.

What do you guys think are the actual benefits that come with spending so much time with nature, or interacting with animals? I'm sure there are countless.

AS: Oh, golly, that’s a very big question. Obviously for us, who have grown up with a passion for nature, it’s sort of our life blood. But actually, I think it extends towards humanity. I think that even the most urban people need proximity to the natural world. You see, here in New York, people plant grass on rooftops, you know, the High Line is a place to go and see some plants. And I think it’s absolutely rooted in our psyche. One of the things I’ve found working in the wildlife business, whether they’re scientists or filmmakers or conservationists, I think they’re better people for it. They’re nicer people. It’s one of the things I love about my job. I genuinely think people who are fortunate enough to have a lot of exposure to nature... it’s part of our soul. It’s oxygen, I think, and a lot of people are cut off from that natural oxygen. And if we can give them an artificial shot of natural oxygen right in the cinema, then I think it’s very, very precious. And as Jane says, “How can people care if they know?” Keith and I don’t make environmentally – overtly environmental films, but I’m absolutely certain that films that we have made are important in raising people’s awareness.

Certainly. Especially children, I think.

JG: They’ve actually studies to show that children benefit psychologically from experience with nature. I think it was Chicago, they took two areas of high crime in the inner city, and one of them they greened — in other words, they put plants in vacant lots, window boxes and so forth — and the crime rate just dropped.

BearsDisney

That kind of leads into something I was thinking about while watching the movie: what can these animals teach us about ourselves? We see the hierarchy of the bears' social structure — the dominant male, the pariah. 

KS: I don’t think what we’re trying to do so much is try to tell people what to think about ourselves. I hope that the film is trying to say, “Look, this is how bears live, so understand the life of the bear and respect the life of the bear.” I think we’ve been very true to what it’s like being a bear, you know, some bears do things that we would consider bad, even on biological terms and there is no bad —

JG: I’m not so sure about that. [Laughs]

KS: [Laughs] It’s a tricky area. But anyway, there’s a sense of being true to what that story is and how they live. But I think fundamentally, what we’re always trying to do is to show – now, you look at this mother bear, you look at what she has to go through to raise those cubs. Look at what those cubs have to go through to become adult bears. So, whenever you see adult bears, you’re looking at a superhero. You’re looking at an animal with a huge history, who’s been through all sorts of amazing things. And wow, isn’t it important, then, to protect that superhero? I can’t believe personally, that someone could get a high-velocity rifle and shoot a superhero. If they knew that story, and what that animal had been through, I don’t think anyone would contemplate doing it.

And part and parcel of the film is to try and say all these animals are really special because of what their lives — understand their natural lives. I don’t think it necessarily tells us about ourselves, but it does say, “Wow, those are special.” I have to say, it’s like a piece of art. Would anyone rip up the Mona Lisa? Well, if you didn’t know what it was, you might. 

JG: Somebody did.

KS: Somebody would, if they didn’t understand it. But if you do understand it, you go, “No, I won’t do that.”

JG: Somebody stabbed the Mona Lisa. I think they did. To destroy it —

AF: That’s why it’s got glass in front...

KS: Oh, okay.

AF: There are idiots in the world. [Laughs]

JG: Sports hunting.

That only furthers your point, I think.

KS: But I think if you understand bears, I think you’d have a different view. Hopefully the film will do that. 

For me, having not studied bears in any significant way, the movie definitely gives them an empathy. I know that in a lot of your work, Dr. Goodall, a lot of people have found reasons to question whether or not we should empathize with animals. But I think that, clearly, you are all on the side that it is beneficial to.

JG: Yeah. There’s been a big danger with science saying that we should be wholly objective and not have any empathy. That’s lead to some very, very nasty happening. And I think we need to work with left and right brain in harmony. And that’s what we have to learn to do. Nature helps you to do that.

Jane GoodallAnimal Planet via Everett Collection

I know you said earlier that it wasn't a purpose of the film to teach us about ourselves, but I noticed that there was a little bit of a feminist message at the end. Scout realizes that the "tough bear role model" that he was looking for was actually his mother...

AF: I think, it’s quite interesting none of our Disney nature films have made — one called African Cats, I believe — females do tend to turn out to be the good guys...

KS: Girls. The good girls. 

AF: The good girls, yes. [Laughs] Yes. I think the biological facts are raising cubs, it is females who have complete responsibility for this, and ultimately, if you look at their struggle or the struggle of any female animal raising a youngster to adulthood, it’s the greatest struggle on Earth. You’re always going to end up feeling, empathizing with her. And often males have their own biological agendas that do not fit with the cubs and youngsters’ agenda, in terms of raising them. [Laughs] So I think there’s a natural. We had no...

KS: We weren’t trying to make a feminist... It’s just reality of the situation.

JG: That's America for you.

AF: It’s just organic. And I think the other thing is, so far all the movies we’ve made — African CatsChimpanzee — have centered around a young animal growing up. Actually, we regularly discuss “Is there another story we can tell?” The problem is that the babies tend to be very, very cute, and the first few years in the life of the babies tend to be one of the greatest danger and drama. That means, though, they tend to be centered around female heroes, because in lots of animals, in nature, the male tends to do very little other than contribute his genes. One of these days, we need to make a pro-male movie, because in all honesty...

KS:  Chimpanzee!

AF: Actually, males in chimpanzee certainly have a fantastic role in protecting the other females. Male bears, you know, once they’ve done the deed, they’re gone.

KS: Nothing on the horizon about the seahorse, then.

AF: My next movie’s about penguins, actually...

KS: That’s a 50/50.

AF: Yeah, that’s a 50/50, actually.

JG: Birds are 50/50.

AF: So we’re trying to – we don’t want the men to come out too badly. But a lot of women really love that line, the line you mention. That’s really rung bells with them. And you, know, that's good.

And I'd just like to know what you think is the responsibility of the average person to make this a better world for animals and for people.

JG: If we think each day about the consequences of our actions we make more ethical choices. And I know that’s true because so many people have told me. What do you buy? Where did it come from? Where do you eat? How did it affect the environment and animals? What do you wear? Was it child slave labor? When it comes to bringing it home to bears, it’s a little bit more difficult. It comes to the general thing of bears, they’re part of a beautiful ecosystem, they’re part of the planet, and we should respect them as such and try to work to ensure that the places where they live are saved. And through our youth program — we already have programs teaching people how to behave. If they have pushed into bear habitats, mainly black bears — and so the bear is trying to get, they raid trash cans. So if people have absolutely bear-proof places for their trash, the bears are much less likely to get into it.

AF: I think the thing that’s changed in our lifetime is that when we started in this business, conservation was very about saving pandas, saving chimps — and it still is and so it should be — but actually, it’s reached another level of recognition that even if you don’t care about animals, the planet is in such a state... this is our only planet. And that’s the good news. David Attenborough said to us, when he started the word green meant naïve. The word green means something totally different now. And I think there’s an awareness of the need to protect chimps, bears, the wilderness, forests for us to breathe. It’s no longer down the bottom of political agenda. It’s almost at the top of the political agenda, really.

JG: In some countries.

AF: Yeah, in some countries. I agree with you, Jane. There’s a lot where finance and money still rules, but we have to be optimistic. And I think you have to get out of bed and say, "We’re saving a planet." You’re not saving the Serengeti, you’re saving a planet. And of course, the Serengeti is a very important part of that planet, but I think it’s reached a completely high level. It’s not fluffy bunnies anymore. Not that there’s anything wrong with fluffy bunnies. [Laughs]

JG: When I started back in 1960, there was no need to conserve chimps. Their forests stretched right across. There were a million chimps.

KS: I know. I think this is what’s so shocking is how fast the situation’s changed. For a biologist it’s ridiculously fast. One understands evolution, biology, it’s almost like a meteorite hit the planet, it’s so rapid, and it’s just kind of trying to contain the situation, for want of anything else to try. I think for all of us now, time hasn’t quite run out, but it’s getting very, very close.

JG: And the thing which nobody will talk about, because it’s politically insensitive, and that’s human population, which underlies everything. We’re not supposed to talk about it. Tanzania’s been congratulated by the government for taking the lead on family planning in that part of Tanzania. Because governments are starting to get it. Because there ain’t 'nuff space.

Get your tickets to Disneynature's Bears now (while you can still contribute to the cause!)

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