Being Caribou (review)

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Tread Lightly, Speak Loudly

Acronyms and euphemisms are good for hiding ugly truths. Ask the average American if he or she supports “energy exploration in ANWR,” and you’ll probably get a shrug and a “what the hell? why not?” But ask about “oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” and support drops. Confront those ordinary Americans with Being Caribou, a stunning documentary about precisely what drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would destroy, and, hopefully, it will close the debate forever.
George W. Bush suggested that anyone who wants to see what’s up there in ANWR should go take a look — and he “suggested” it in an offhand, scornful way that implies he doesn’t think there’s much there of interest. (The clip of him making this suggestion is included in the film, so you can judge for yourself.) Environmentalist filmmaker Leanna Allison and her husband, wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer, took Bush up on his dare: They trekked for five months across 1,500 kilometers of pristine Arctic tundra, in the United States and Canada, following the annual migration of caribou from their inland winter grounds to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, where the year’s new calves are born. Amongst the supplies in their 80-pound packs were the videocameras and solar-rechargable batteries with which they documented their incredible trip.

What they found and what they experienced was extraordinary and profoundly moving. (And I’m not the only one who thinks so: the film won Audience Awards at the Vancouver and Calgary International Film Festivals.) Yes, the caribou’s environment must be preserved — that’s a given, and of course the clear evidence for this is a vital aspect of Being Caribou. But what’s so unexpected — on our part, as the audience, and on the part of the filmmakers — is that on their long, lonely journey, during which they encountered only few other people (mostly the bush pilots who resupplied them), they came to a delicate realization about our, humanity’s, place within the natural world, a place from which it is easy to be at odds with our fellow creatures. After one very close encounter with a bear, they’re stunned into a kind of submission, humbled by the wildness of the wilderness — even this serene couple, who approach the challenges of long months of living rough, of hunger and hardship, with equanimity, who seem perfectly at home in the wild, are rattled. It’s easy to see how people less poised might react rather more violently to a reminder that, at least sometimes, we’re not at the top of the food chain.

But even more potent is another notion that permeates the film, even though it goes unspoken. Allison and Heuer set themselves the task of taking the same journey that the caribou do: on foot, over mountains and across rivers, facing the same obstacles and the same hazards that the caribou face. The comparisons and the contradictions inherent in the dichotomy we witness lead us to the conclusion that it is undeniably our responsibility to maintain the caribou’s world as it is. It’s more than just the simple fact that the very section of ANWR in which oil drilling is proposed is smack in the middle of the calving grounds the caribou rely on, that this small arc of their circle of life is so fragile that the presence of one couple and their cameras threatened to unbalance it (imagine how disruptive industrial activity would be!). It’s more than just pointing out that the argument that the proposed drilling site is but a tiny part of ANWR is like saying that your liver is but a tiny part of your body — you wouldn’t miss it, right?

See, this is the thing: The caribou live off the land, eating lichen and moss and such, while the two humans cannot, and have to have food dropped in by airplane. On the other hand, the humans can don bug spray and netting to keep the unholy swarms of mosquitoes from bothering them, while the caribou are so tormented by them during the brief Arctic summer that some of them actually die from it. The point is this: We’re adaptable. The caribou are not. We can go into a harsh landscape and get along fine with our technology and our cleverness. But if we destroy the only home the caribou have, they’ve got nowhere to go and no way to adapt. We’re smart enough to figure out other ways to meet our energy needs. We’re wise enough to know that no reason beyond their very existence is required to justify protecting the caribou.

Allison and Heuer brought George W. Bush along with them on their trip… in the form of an action figure. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have opened his eyes. The Alaska Wilderness League is spearheading an effort to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in its current pristine state. Check out the What to Do page on the org’s Web site for ideas for activism. One of their initiatives is sponsored free screening parties for Being Caribou — you can find a screening here. Or host your own by requesting an activist kit, which includes a free DVD of the film, here.

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