Is that a real shark? 

Wildlife Film Fest sorts the good and the ugly in film ethics

If you're familiar with Shark Week on the Discovery Channel—and if you have basic cable it would be nearly impossible to miss the avalanche of advertising and self-promotion for one of the channel's most popular series of shows—you are no doubt familiar with the general tone. If not, the titles alone from the lineup of 2010 shows are good enough indicators: "Ultimate Air Jaws," "Into the Shark Bite," "Shark Attack Survival Guide," Day of the Shark 3," and "Shark Bite Beach."

Also showing that week: "Saving the Sharks!"

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And therein lies one of the fundamental problems in today's world of wildlife films and nature documentaries. In an ultra-competitive industry, where ratings and awards are often king and viewers crave ever-closer looks at the world's largest, most dangerous, and most poisonous animals, ethical wildlife filmmaking has become as murky as the waters where many sharks live.

Shark Week is just one of the more glaring examples. Despite what the filmmakers may say, "it's essentially an anti-conservation message," says Chris Palmer, Director of American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. "These programs show the sharks as menacing man-eaters, and it may get 20 million viewers, but we're trying to protect them and this doesn't help."

Palmer, who is also an International Wildlife Film Festival board member, is in town this week as the festival winds down. But the greater purpose of this veteran filmmaker's visit is to finally hash out the IWFF's first official, written ethical guidelines. With a rough draft in hand that's been written in concert with IWFF staffers, Palmer and others will solicit public input on the guidelines at a seminar this Thursday (May 12).

Palmer is aware of the challenges in both writing and enforcing ethical guidelines for wildlife filmmakers. "Things go on out in the field that you may never know about, so you can't police them 24-7," he says. Take nighttime lighting, for instance, a constant source of disagreement in this ever-growing community. How muted should night lights be? Make them too bright and animal behavior changes. As Palmer notes, "lights can change the predator/prey could go out and use powerful lights and get tremendous footage, but it wouldn't be realistic."

It's a form of animal harassment that falls under one of the three main ethical lapses Palmer says they hope to address in the guidelines. The late Steve Irwin of "Crocodile Hunter" fame; Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin; and Jeremy Wade, host of "River Monsters," are three names that come up most often as violators in this category. "Steve Irwin seemed to do things to show how great he was, not how great the animals were," says IWFF executive director Janet Rose. But violations can be subtle as well. Rose remembers a submitted film from last year in which birds were collared for tracking, and followed closely by a plane for filming. "The birds are obviously stressed, and the judges had concerns," she says, noting that the new guidelines must attempt to answer the question, "at what price science?"

The second pillar of ethical wildlife filmmaking is all about stemming audience deception, a broad category that includes holding back information regarding captive animals, editing tricks, and deceptive use of CGI to enhance the film. "It's important for viewers to be made aware of what they're seeing, whether it's a captive animal or a contrived scene," says Missoula-based filmmaker Colin Rugierro. "It's really easy to distort the truth on screen. There has to be full transparency."

Shark Week is particularly irksome to Rugierro, who has spent time filming sharks in the wild, but in environments far different than what audiences see on Discovery Channel. "Every tiger shark you see in any of these shows is filmed in one of two locations in contrived situations where they are baited," he says. "You can go and film for years in shark habitat and never see a shark. You might catch one out of the corner of your eye, but they try to avoid humans. You don't get that impression from watching Shark Week."

Filmmakers who disclose ethical lapses aren't necessarily absolved of wrongdoing. Rose recounted a film submitted by Montana-based naturalist Casey Anderson for the 2010 IWFF in which an otherwise solid-filmmaker crossed the line. In a National Geographic episode of Expedition Wild with Casey Anderson, the host is filmed petting wolves and walking with mountain lions. "He says very quickly that these are captive animals," Rose says, "but the overall impression given to viewers is that these are wild creatures." Rose, who praised Anderson's other films, noted the danger in conveying to audiences that it was okay to get so close to predators. "Ethically, this message is not constructive."

Self-described conservation films that ignore basic conservation practices violate the third main tenet of the proposed ethical guidelines. It becomes more relevant by the day as new programs emerge from the Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic wildlife show factories. Palmer says sometimes the omission is deliberate, spurred by a fear that audiences will become bored if the shows delve into behavioral science and climate change issues. Yet filmmakers have a responsibility to promote conservation, says Palmer, because it is the morally right thing for them to do, especially since they exploit natural resources to earn a living.

Attempts like these to create ethical guidelines are not without critics, as Palmer discovered after his book was published last year. One man in particular, who runs a game farm and rents out wolverines and other animals to film crews, called Palmer a parasitic bottom feeder guilty of biting the hand that feeds him. Palmer doesn't downplay the difficulty and challenges of both writing and enforcing the guidelines. "If we were to cover everything we would have a 150-page document," he says. "So we need to focus on the main principles. We're very aware of the pitfalls."

The IWFF seminar and panel discussion "Ethics and Ethical Issues: At What Price Science? At What Cost Entertainment? Is Wildlife the Unwitting Victim?" will take place Thursday, May 12, at 4 PM at the Roxy Theater.

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