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Documentary review: 'Our Planet'

  • October 2019
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article

Copenhagen, June 2019. A cosy and bohemian restaurant was feeling like the perfect choice for our annual dinner at the Ecsite Conference. Almost every Spokes Editorial Committee member was there and the atmosphere, drinks and food were perfectly fueling a warm exchange of ideas, future plans and relaxed discussions. It’s hard to remember why, but at some point, someone mentions the then still hot documentary on Netflix - Our Planet, a series narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Raquel: Oh, I loved this series so much! Such a fresh take on how documentaries are done.

Andrea: I liked it too. My husband and I watched in awe, once a week after dinner. I wouldn’t even call it a “documentary” - it’s so different from what we used to see, it puts you as a viewer in a totally different perspective. From deep sea locations to flying high above deserts and forests, it’s a journey built on emotions - awe, surprise, sadness, happiness…

Raquel: All this while the intriguing, deep voice of David Attenborough explains with unparalleled clarity what you see… The technology used to shoot this series was amazing. It’s shot in 4K, and if you have a chance to see it in the highest resolution, it’s truly jaw-dropping. The camera captures scenes that were impossible to get until now, and you see a world that few of us knew existed. One of my favourite parts was only possible because of drone technology. We are taken on a unique flight with albatrosses, such mighty seabirds. The quality of the photography is so good and the scene so special that I could almost smell the salt of the seas! Sadly at the moment, albatrosses are one of the world’s most endangered birds...

Andrea: It’s truly amazing to see swarms of thousands of birds and fish, and their highly choreographed feeding techniques. Similarly, seeing how so many living creatures struggle because of the changes in the ecosystem due to the climate crisis is indeed disheartening. And yet, there was something that left me a bittersweet feeling…

Raquel: Really?!

Andrea: It was almost a paradox, but at times I felt as if the documentary shows another planet… After 4 or 5 episodes, I noticed that the initial enthusiasm we had for the series started to drop a bit. Not because of any change in the quality of the series, but because I started to feel almost a “cognitive dissonance” between the wonderful scenes and the constant reminder that “we are destroying the planet”. It was almost as the two narratives were going out of synch - on the one hand a great story of power and resilience of nature, and on the other hand one of this “invisible dark force” destroying the planet.

I started to find the constant reference to “we” a bit annoying, I must admit. Who is “we”? The oil companies and the big corporations? Governments? Citizens? You and me? At times I felt a bit powerless looking at the amazing story of nature while being constantly reminded that I should feel guilty. I’m exaggerating a bit, because there are also several moments where the story points out to great conservation initiatives and positive actions. But it’s the lack of human presence that provoked my reaction. There’s only one scene where you see a few little houses on the coastline - that’s the only hint that there are also humans on this planet. Otherwise there’s no visual clue at all that the planet is also home to humans. I found it somehow contradictory that there’s a great story built on the tension between humans and nature, but while nature is shown in extraordinary detail, humans are only referred as a generic “we”. (In fairness I have to say that there is another reference to humans at the very end of the series. It is really a powerful one, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t seen the series yet!)

Raquel: You make a great point. And yet I feel that this is exactly what makes the series so fantastic. For two reasons: it makes it vintage (a throwback to the old-fashionable documentaries that we all loved so very much) and it makes the whole narrative less patronising. We don't need to be constantly reminded of who we are and where we are. We don’t need to see our own jungles. Simply by watching our immense and spectacular surroundings, with sharp notes on how humans are changing it, feels powerful enough. The “we” is vague, true, but it made the show humble in a way, leaving it up to us to decide what can we do as individuals, as organisations, as nations.

Andrea: The documentary has been praised - and rightly so - for being very explicit in this sense, almost a “call for action”, which can be taken on board as one sees fit. But don’t you feel like some scenes push the documentary-style almost too far? There’s been some criticism that the scene where the walruses fall off a cliff was in fact edited to seem more dramatic than it was, and accompanied by an explanation that was somehow contentious.

Raquel: Oh, I didn't know that. When talking about climate change, it’s dangerous territory to present anything else but facts... But in a way, it would be very unnatural to tell a story without some drama, and exaggerated emotions. After all, this is a human-tale, even if it tries very hard not to be such.

Andrea: You are absolutely right and in any case, the last episode did make up for any criticism I expressed above. It is a masterpiece, full of beauty and humor. The last scene, while reminding us of the horrific consequences of environmental disasters, is at the same time both hopeful and somber – when nature has it right, humans might really remain out of the picture.

Julie: This is seriously starting to sound like the next documentary review in Spokes!

Andrea & Raquel: yeeees, let’s do that!

And 4 months later…We hope you enjoyed our conversation!


  • documentary
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  • nature