“There’s nothing natural about a grizzly bear using an overpass.” Yet the animal protagonist of Bear 71 VR, voiced by Mia Kirshner, has a life that is far from natural. The interactive documentary starts with a three-year-old grizzly bear’s snaring, tranquilizing, and collaring in Banff National Park, from which point her every step is known. Her navigation of the barbed wire that cuts through her path in Alberta’s Bow Valley is filmed by a trail cam, her winding movement around roads, railways, and humans is broadcast by the radio collar.
Initially launched in 2012 as a Flash-based site, with an installation at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Bear 71 was rereleased earlier this year as a virtual reality experience. The free online version was developed through a partnership between the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Google as one of the earliest experiments with Google’s new WebVR for Chrome desktop and Daydream View headsets. It was conceived of by filmmaker Leanne Allison, who also created the 2005 documentary feature Being Caribou, in which she and her husband Karsten Heuer followed the migration of a caribou herd in the context of Arctic drilling.
In a 2012 NFB blog post, Allison wrote that as she worked on the project with Jeremy Mendes, a digital media creator at the NFB, examining animal surveillance photos, “Bear 71 became a story not only about a grizzly bear, but about how much we rely on technology—not just to relate to each other, but also to the natural world.”
The updated Bear 71 is as timely as ever, with the recent announcement that the grizzly bears of the Yellowstone National Park area will be removed from Endangered Species Act protection in the United States. While that population of bears has rebounded from previous numbers, its future remains precarious, with the potential for hunting yet another danger to their numbers. For instance, Bear 71 VR states that collisions with trains killed 11 grizzlies in Banff between 2000 and 2012. Bear 71 was one of them.
Much of the 20 minutes of Bear 71 VR is spent hovering over an interactive map, where the numbered grizzly is joined by other tagged animals like Wolverine 09, Bobcat 41, Deer 024, and Golden Eagle 129. Clicking on their roaming markers pulls up trail camera footage, and stats on their lives. Bear 71 was tracked from 2001 to 2009, during which she learned from a mother grizzly how to avoid human-made obstacles, and later had cubs of her own. Footage of the bear’s walk under a bridge is followed by shots of a group of tourists on the same trail, visualizing the closeness of nature, while showing how the tracking keeps it at a distance. As the ursine narrator notes, “it’s hard to say where the wired world ends and the wild one begins.”
The end of Bear 71 VR is a heartbreaker. After emphasizing in the voiceover that “the first rule of survival is: don’t do what comes naturally,” on a cold spring day, Bear 71 finally has a showdown with a train, and responds only with instinct. “The train took me by surprise. I had cubs to defend, and it took me by surprise. I did what comes naturally. I roared. And then I charged.”
Bear 71 VR is available online through the National Film Board of Canada.