"Not since 'Hannibal' has a movie so warmly embraced the disembowlement and evisceration of and subsequent feast on captured prey."
—Wesley Morris, The San Francisco Chronicle
The words "wildlife documentary," conjure up images of cute lion cubs snuggling up to their mother or beavers working away at logs with adorable expressions on their faces. Okay, occasionally there's a scene where a cheetah chases an antelope and the camera cuts away at the final gory second, or lingers briefly to show the least amount of carnage, but that's generally when the channel surfing begins.
Well, guess what? Wildlife isn't always cute. The life of wild animals serves up messy death and destruction on an almost daily basis, and that's before humans, with their guns and highways, have entered the picture.
As a part of its multi-disciplinary exhibition dealing with hunting, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts presents a wildlife documentary film that goes beyond the usual National Geographic fare, way beyond.
"The Great Dance: A Hunter's Story" has received international acclaim for its presentation of the hunting and tracking skills of the !Xo San people in the central Kalahari Desert (the exclamation point in !Xo San names represents a clicking sound). And, according to Wesley Morris of the San Francisco Chronicle, "Not since 'Hannibal' has a movie so warmly embraced the disembowelment and evisceration of and subsequent feast on captured prey."
"'The Great Dance' and its three Panda Awards--the wildlife film equivalent of The Oscars--have sparked a lot of discussion among producers and commissioning editors about what natural history really is," comments the film's producer Ellen Windemuth. "Clearly, the film marks a departure from the pure behavioral animal film ..."
A collaboration between South African brothers Craig and Damon Foster and Jeremy Evans, the filmmakers developed a special mini-cam technology to capture the first ever footage of the dangerous "chase hunt," for which the desert bushman are famous.
During a chase hunt, a master hunter will chase down a healthy animal, such as an antelope, to the point of exhaustion.
It is the most difficult and possibly one of the oldest forms of hunting; a hunt from before man had developed more sophisticated projectile weapons like the bow and arrow or the spear.
The hunter must wait until the hottest time of the day, as the high temperatures help exhaust the animal. The hunter must also have the ability to track his quarry at a sustained pace, at times sprinting, over uneven ground until "the blood of the animal boils before his own."
"We are San bushmen, sons and daughters of the first people," explains !Nqate, the main subject of the film. "We know hunting. This is what we were born to do. I hunt with Karoha ... he hunts by running, by chasing the animal until it gives itself to him."
The mini-cam techniques developed involved cameras being mounted on animals, giving the viewer a unique point-of-view of both the hunter and the hunted, in an effort to understand their ancient relationship.
The chase hunt is not an everyday occurrence. A San huntsman will only attempt it when there are few other options available to feed his family. The Foster brothers and Evans spent three years making this film and a better part of that time was expended trying to capture the event itself. In an interview published on www.senseafrica.com the directors recount a failed attempt:
"It was nearly six hours since the first sighting (of antelope). We'd had no idea that the run could be so long. The temperature was still well over 40°C, and !Nqate told us on the vehicle that it wouldn't be much longer. It was still difficult to believe ... He could see that they were dragging their hooves in the sand.
"Suddenly Karoha stopped a bitter disappointment on his face. We could see he still had strength to run. He took some green leaves and stuffed them into his mouth before telling us why he had stopped. The animals had crossed over into a wildlife reserve area, and to follow them would have meant a possible jail sentence.
"He said to us: 'Our fathers used to lay down their hunting sets and run like this, and before them their fathers-now we are told we don't own our land, our animals-but these people don't hunt like we hunt-they have spoiled conservation.'"
Slowly, over the past two centuries, the various San communities have been assimilated, marginalized and dispossessed of their rights to their land and ancient hunting. The closing moments of the film reveal that the individual hunting licenses of the !Xo people have now been revoked.
The aim of the Center's exhibition is to provoke a dialogue concerning different views of hunting. This film presents a view that is literally a world apart from the experiences of most Westerners.
Through this view the film educates the uninformed. This is an intimate film about the San hunter's own experiences as expressed by them, in their words and through their eyes. This is the raw and undiluted experience of hunting and tracking.
The San are connected to the animals they hunt in a way that those of us in the "civilized" world cannot comprehend. They are linked to them by a deep religious connection, they respect them, and yet they view the animals they hunt on the same level as themselves, and therefore have no moral dilemma about regarding them as food.
The documentary film night takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9 at the Center. Admission is free. The film can be purchased online at www.senseafrica.com.