To say that Gabriela Osio Vanden and Jack Weisman’s 14-minute documentary, Nuisance Bear, allows its audience to escape from their seat is somewhat of an understatement. Transporting us to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada during the annual polar bear migration, it is probably one of the most immersive short films I have seen in a long time. Set in a location known as a prime destination to photograph wildlife, the directing duo cleverly turns the camera around to captures the circus we have created around nature, subtly and effectively confronting us to the hard reality of the relationship we have with our environment.
Osio Vanden and Weisman first went to Churchill in 2015 to shoot White Circus, a student film about polar bears. They shared that they were “bewildered by the carnival-like atmosphere with photographers and tourists jockeying to see polar bears up close while conservation officials walked a tightrope to create distance between humans and wildlife”. This experience made them question the authenticity of all the Planet Earth style documentaries they grew up on. Returning to Churchill year after year since that first visit allowed them to get a grasp on the impact this ecotourism has on the area, and its inhabitants, and so the pair came up with the best approach to depict this reality through the most honest lens.
Opting for a stripped down production, to genuinely recreate their own realization on screen, the duo refer to their directorial vision as a “muted aesthetic”, as the film foregoes the conventional interviews, voice-overs or expected music to allow the authenticity of the situation to speak for itself. Visually striking, through its images, the film illustrates the consequences of climate change and how unsustainable our relationship to nature is.
Nuisance Bear was shot through a very elaborate car rig, which allowed Osio Vanden and Weisman to film the bears at eye-level with a wide frame. It’s this approach that makes the moment they turn the camera around to capture the insanity of the circus intent on documenting their migration all the more poignant. As is always the case for observational documentaries, it’s the edit that shapes and structures the film, with the directorial duo explaining that the opening single-take tracking shot “became the foundation for the film” and the “airlift at the end seemed like a natural climax”.
The impact Nuisance Bear has is a testament to the directorial choices of Osio Vanden and Weisman. As cinematographers, along with Sam Holling, they have captured images that are incredibly magnetic and captivating and when paired with the, at times unsettling, sound design of David Rose, it’s highly effective filmmaking. In the edit room, Weisman along with William N. Miller and Andres Landau, create a narrative arc and a tone that never feels moralistic, yet still forces us to see this hard truth with a subtle dash of absurdity, making it an even more powerful watch.
Nuisance Bear had its world premiere at the 2021 edition of TIFF, where it earned an honorable mention, before embarking on a remarkable festival run with notable stops at IDFA, SXSW and the Palm Springs ShortFest. Nominated at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards, the film won the Best Non-Fiction Award at Short Shorts in Japan, making it eligible for Academy Award Consideration. With its online premiere on The New Yorker, Nuisance Bear is now currently being developed into a feature film, with the filmmakers referring to the short as “just the tip of the iceberg”.