What Makes a Good Documentary? Look to “Grizzly Man” for its Use of Neutrality and Nonjudgmental Stance in its Narration and Storytelling Methods.
At the start of the film, Grizzly Man, I was very intrigued and excited to see Werner Herzog’s name appear on screen, credited as the voiceover narrator for the film. When I first watched it fully in May of 2020 I was somewhat familiar with Werner Herzog already, as I knew he was associated with the New German Cinema era of the 20th Century, and I had recognized that he was also a producer for the documentary film The Act of Killing, one of the greatest documentaries I had ever seen. This excited me, as I was very impacted by my viewing of the film, The Act of Killing, and his name alone provides a distinctive mythos that comes with high expectations when watching one of his associated films. The documentary Grizzly Man was a significant change in pace from the recent documentaries I have watched, relating to direct cinema and cinema verité, with the obvious difference coming from Werner Herzog’s almost immediate voiceover narration, within the first few minutes of the film’s run time.
It quickly becomes apparent that, in addition to the intro credits appearing as “A film by Werner Herzog”, the film is a subjective take on another person’s life, that being the life of Timothy Treadwell. Rather than Grizzly Man focusing entirely on the main subject, Timothy Treadwell, the film instead involves many others, including interviews with former partners, colleagues, friends, family and local people to the setting. By including many other people’s perspectives and takes, you get a wide range of opinions that differ from one another, some of which you agree with and others less so, which is an essential element of a documentary that includes interviews, since the goal is to try to stay as unbiased as possible when presenting another’s story and conveying their lived “reality” to others.
There is a stark contrast between the interviews with Sam Egli, from Egli Air Haul and Marnie Gaede, ecologist, who shine light on two very different outlooks on the complicated character that is Timothy Treadwell, one with contempt and the other with admiration and respect. Meanwhile Werner Herzog’s deep, serious and accented voice throughout the film gives the documentary a National Geographic or Discovery Channel sounding narration, which to me is an appealing element, through which I have a lot of nostalgia for. Werner Herzog’s narration feels very educational, informative and sensitive to the real life tragedy surrounding Timothy Treadwell, and his earnestness and neutrality was very well delivered, allowing viewers to respond positively or negatively to the main subject and never crossed any lines by trying to tell the audience what to think or feel.
It’s clear that Werner Herzog’s many interviews and sit downs with people close to Timothy Treadwell help you to consider him a reliable source of information and details, and it feels as though he is very well researched and educated on the subject and his life story. If you were to compare documentary films to written stories, I suppose that films that use the form of cinema verité or direct cinema would be closer to autobiographies while more traditional documentaries with voiceover narration and a cinematic quality to them, such as Grizzly Man, would resemble more of that of biographies. The interesting thing with Grizzly Man, however, is that a large portion of the film consists of cinema verité or direct cinema techniques, such as Timothy Treadwell’s repetitious takes of his own dialogue and on-screen, self filmed scenes in the wild. To me, Grizzly Man finds itself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between traditional documentary and cinema verité or direct cinema films, and Werner Herzog is a very responsible filmmaker in how he produced this film, by not stating his opinions like facts, and keeping a well rounded balance of various viewpoints and perspectives involved in the documentary itself.