In their short nature documentary Nuisance Bear directing duo Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden chronicle the plight of the polar bears’ migration through Churchill, Manitoba in Canada. Churchill is historically a very popular destination for documentarians to capture polar bears due to the intimacy afforded, which, in turn, makes it an obstacle course of photographers and filmmakers for the polar bears to navigate during their annual movement. Weisman and Vanden differentiate their film, however, from traditional observational docs by shifting the perspective away from the onlooker and onto the bears themselves as they become forced to journey through the crowds. DN caught up with Weisman and Vanden as Nuisance Bear arrives online to talk over their decision to reject documentary norms to attain truth, the power imbalance between a filmmaker and their subject, and the future of their filmmaking partnership.
What brought you both to documentary filmmaking as a practice?
Jack Weisman: I started making ski videos with a mini DV camera with my friends in ~2005, which was 9th grade for us. We were lucky to grow up in Ithaca, NY, with its natural and dangerous beauty. Ithaca has an excellent public school system, and our high school, in particular, encouraged basic filmmaking and media literacy. When I was accepted to the York University film program, where I met Gabriela, I didn’t know what a set was. It was here in Toronto studying I came to understand my love of filmmaking and specifically cinematic theatrical documentaries.
Gabriela Osio Vanden: My main entry point to filmmaking has been cinematography and camera operating. I was lucky enough to land camera operating jobs right out of university in the documentary world. At that time it felt a little less intimidating and intimate to work in camera in a documentary sphere. I work in narrative a lot now but love that working in both really helps to inform the other. Shooting documentary feels immediate and instinctual in a way that really develops your skills as a camera person, it has been the greatest teacher for me.
How did you discover the story of the migration of these polar bears and what led you to frame the film from their perspective?
GOV: A fellow student at York University named Connor Johnstone directed his thesis documentary on the topic. I had actually never heard of Churchill but was familiar with the idea of trading post communities around Hudson’s Bay and really wanted to learn more. Canada is such a large country, and growing up I never had opportunities to travel to other provinces so going to Churchill was intriguing. I think for both Jack and I, wildlife and the political tensions around them have been topics we wanted to explore as filmmakers. Growing up I loved watching traditional nature documentary shows and movies.
A big reason we didn’t want to have words was that it felt too nuanced and complicated to communicate so directly
When we were up there we realized that although the bears are wild it felt more like an in between. The relationship between humans and animals was more complicated than simply observing them. Communities that live with large predators have a really complicated task of coexistence while maintaining safety. A big reason we didn’t want to have words was that it felt too nuanced and complicated to communicate so directly and so we thought if we just follow a bear and imagine what it’s like for them, then perhaps we could communicate more with less. It always felt essential that we should make the film about them and not about the people because then there would be too many perspectives. Humans tend to put too much importance on their own.
JW: Gabriela was the one who introduced me to the subject. I had graduated a year before her, and she was asked to record sound on another student’s thesis film. A few days before they were supposed to leave, they still didn’t have a camera. I had just spent all my savings on an FX7 which I used to barter my way into a free trip. I didn’t know where we were going, just that there were polar bears.
It was an ambitious student project and ultimately didn’t materialize in the way we had hoped as a film. I think we were all struck by the circus around the bears, and to me, it felt obvious to tell the story that the media and journalists seemed to be missing, which was us. We didn’t know what that film would feel like until many years later when affordable car rigs became an option.
How long were you out there shooting for?
GOV: We had gone back to Churchill after that initial trip in film school a few years back. But all of the footage for Nuisance Bear was shot on our last trip in 2020 and we were there for about two months.
JW: We spent 50 days sitting in an old 4runner without a shot list. The 3000km drive from Toronto with Sam Holling, Gabby and the equipment packed in the car was the most challenging part of the shoot.
It felt obvious to tell the story that the media and journalists seemed to be missing, which was us.
Did either the climate or environment of tourists and photographers affect production at all?
JW: Surprisingly the actual shoot wasn’t that tricky or dangerous. Eventually, you reach the end of the road, and everyone and everything goes on separate trains with different schedules, which often get delayed for days because of blizzards. But when we did arrive, it was still autumn, so more like a mild winter. With climate change, the wind direction changes more often, and on days with a South wind, we didn’t even need to bag the camera.
GOV: Regarding the tourists getting in the way or vice versa, we’ve been up about three times now and work with an incredible field producer named Dennis Compayre who helped us to understand the cultural landscape as well as the physical. He introduced us to this story and taught us about bear behavior, proper driving etiquette, etc. This particular year was very different however, because of Covid there were significantly fewer tourists than normal, so in a way, it was easier to get around and get shots of bears, but unfortunately for the film, it doesn’t show just how crazy it can get with crowds watching bears.
You purposefully negated the use of conventional documentary techniques; the use of voice-over, music, and talking head interviews. Why was it important for you to not use these elements for this film?
JW: Nature documentaries usually use wall-to-wall music and voice over which explain the action and how to feel. Bears don’t talk or listen to music, presumably, so this became an exciting creative limitation and essential in making this film. Our sound designer David Rose was a key collaborator. Dave is one of the best, and as newbies, we were lucky to work with him for basically whatever we could afford, which wasn’t much. I think he found this project fun because he had a lot of creative input and responsibility.
Bears don’t talk or listen to music, presumably, so this became an exciting creative limitation and essential in making this film.
GOV: I think because we made this film during the first year of Covid, we were so tired of listening to people talk and we knew we really wanted to center the film on the bear’s experience. We also wanted to challenge ourselves and see if we could make something compelling without having to rely on someone explaining things to the audience.
What has telling this story taught you about what it means to point a camera at a subject?
JW: Roger Deakins talked about why he moved away from shooting documentaries on a recent podcast with documentary filmmaker Alex Pritz. I found this super interesting. Roger was uncomfortable about the power dynamic between the filmmaker and the subject in docs. This imbalance is something I think about often, and it profoundly influenced the approach we took with Nuisance Bear. Of course, we don’t only want to make films in this passive way, but Nuisance Bear was borne of reconciling with this dilemma.
GOV: I think what struck me the most about encountering Churchill and the dynamic between the wildlife and media was how limited what was being shown was. Most of the photographs and videos we see of polar bears are shot in Churchill and it’s always of a bear in an undisturbed landscape, when the reality isn’t so picture perfect. There are often people around or ugly telephone poles, etc. They’re not living in a world untouched by human activity. I think we have to be very careful about how we present subjects when we film them. There is a power imbalance when you are behind the camera dictating how a subject can be presented. It’s a great responsibility and honestly, sometimes I find it too challenging and so I retreat to the narrative world to get an emotional rest.
Do you see yourself expanding on the story of these polar bears in the future?
JW: We’re developing a handful of short films and considering an expanded polar bear film in the same region.
What else is next for the two of you?
JW: I think there’s a misconception that the phone is ringing off the hook. Not true! Hire us, please!