Polar Opposites

by deirdre Kelly

Nuisance Bear, a 14-minute documentary that took Jack Weisman (BFA ’15) and Gabriela Osio Vanden (BFA ’17) five years to make, is on a tear following its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival this past fall.

The film – which examines the strange (if not strained) relationship between polar bears and the people who live right up next to them in Churchill, Man. – has been picked up by The New Yorker Documentary, an independent short films distributor with a track record of sending documentaries to the Academy Awards. The acquisition also paved the way for subsequent screenings at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this past November, as well as Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February. The South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (both following in March 2022) are up next.

The Toronto-based filmmakers, a real-life couple who met at York as undergraduates, are now working on an expanded version of their short but hard-hitting film, which focuses a lens on the often vexing proximity of humans and endangered wildlife in a place that bills itself as the polar bear capital of the world.

Annually, more than 10,000 tourists squeeze into Churchill (population 900) to ogle the creamy white carnivores that tramp disinterestedly around them in search of food. Environmental shifts are creating food shortages in the wild, often forcing the bears to scavenge in the garbage dumps and recycling depots of the town located 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The so-called nuisance bears pose a problem, even in a place where encounters of the tourist kind are actively encouraged. Churchill isn’t just a destination for nature-lovers; people actually live there. Traps the size of army tanks are meant to keep the shaggy intruders at bay. There are also tranquilizer guns. And guards diverting the bears with the roar of their all-terrain vehicles – oh my.

These rather alarming scenes, the likes of which are not typically seen in animal docs, have become a pernicious reality in a world where eco-tourism and climate change combine to increase the volatility of the natural landscape. Nuisance Bear effectively spotlights the negative synergy without commentary or swells of dramatic music to influence an emotional response. “This is not Planet Earth,” says Weisman. “It doesn’t tell you what to think.”  

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