The TH Interivew: Adam Ravetch & Sarah Robertson, Makers of Arctic Tale

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Adam and Sarah are the husband and wife team behind the visually stunning new film, Artic Tale. Adam (an underwater cinematographer and naturalist), and Sarah (a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Arctic Bear Productions) created Arctic Tale after 15 years of patiently courting the frozen North. They were kind enough to speak to us about their walrus and polar bear adventures, the anthropomorphism issue, and "mother ice."

TreeHugger: Adam and Sarah, you made this remarkably visual, remarkably narrative film about animals, about climate change, about the North, about our world. This took you an incredibly long time to do, from what I understand, and probably took immense patience. How long did you spend making Arctic Tale?Adam: Arctic Tale began really 15 years ago. But at that time, I would say we didn't really know that we are going to make Arctic Tale. We were young, ambitious cinematographers, filmmakers really, looking for a niche. We were attracted to the Arctic mainly because there was a lot of mystery and animals, and we really didn't know very much about their lives. I was trained as an underwater cinematographer and Sarah as a writer, and we combined our efforts and went north. We really tried to find subject matter and make a contribution to the national history archives. And shortly thereafter, we ran into the walrus. The Inuit people of Canada, the indigenous people, told us not to swim with the animals because it was this monster that could hold us against our will, knock our heads off with a smack of its tusk, and suck our brains out. Just this unbelievable story, which probably should have deterred us, but really drew us to it, because we were surprised to find that there was this large animal living on this planet that we didn't know anything about.

TH: And so you started to get close to these animals, and even against the advice of the locals. What was it like getting up close with walruses and polar bears?

Sarah: Well, after we heard this monster story, we thought, "well, we should go build a cage." Like a shark cage. Adam really is an underwater specialist. So we built this cage, and took it up north and put it in the water and the first time we ever went to find walruses, they immediately rammed our boat, and looked us meanly in the eye, and I said to Adam, "well, you've got to go in the cage." [laughs] That he did, even though we were very tentative at first. Some of the first-ever pictures of walrus were taken from this walrus cage that we made. And then when we were underwater, we saw the walruses hugging each other. Very tactile, social animals. Soon after that, we saw the walrus mothers holding and cradling their babies, and we saw the level of devotion in these animals which was so contrary to the monster story. We were intrigued and we kept on pursuing these animals.


TH: So that emotional theme is a big part of the film, and you tell a story that is based around the relationships between these animals. Is this a narrative that you wrote together, or is it something that emerged naturally from the animals that you were observing?

Adam: Really, it emerged naturally. It was all about the 15-year journey that we took. As we went along, we discovered things. We discovered that the walrus is very special in the seal world, and stayed with its baby and nurtured its young calf for three years, which is unusual for seals. And we discovered the auntie walrus—that's another individual that actually helped in taking care of the calf. Then as we went along it wasn't really until three or four years into our experience of the Arctic that we ran into a polar bear. Naturally we were curious about it, and found out more about its life and realized that it also is taking care of its cubs for three years, and did it like a single mom. It was a solitary animal. So this is how that parallel structure sort of set up for us. It was what we discovered as we went along and the real behaviors that we were documenting.

TH: You focus on individual characters. Are these the same animals that you were following, or are they composite that you have assembled over time?

Sarah: No, these are composite characters. They represent the best of bears and walruses that we have seen and encountered in the North. But it would have been impossible to follow the same animals up in the Arctic. That's impossible. But each scene represents what we have encountered and seen and experienced about these animals. So really, all the narration is written from nature. It is all science-based. It is all absolutely real. So it really is a celebration of these animals' qualities and our fascination with them.

Adam: And this is made for young people. It's a great way for them to identify with these two animals' journey, versus the more traditional documentary approach. We really wanted families to keep tuning on to animals' lives, discover what they were discovering as they went along in their lives, and to understand that.

TH: I think a lot of the audience who is going to have their interest piqued by this film are the same people who liked An Inconvenient Truth and March of the Penguins. But you are definitely focusing on the children. Who are you really trying to reach out to with this film?


Sarah: Really, it is a family film. It is for parents and their children, and it is for grandparents and their grandkids. There is really something in it for everybody. I think young people will become attached to the animal characters and will build an awareness, potentially, to the issues and the qualities in these animals' lives. But I think older people, parents, grandparents will love the photography and some of the larger messages. Really the film exists on several different levels. Really it is a parable. It is celebrating the wonderful qualities of these animals, and using them as a metaphor for ourselves. It is a tale of inspiration. So I think there is something in it for everybody.

TH: So, what's the message? If it is a parable, there is a lesson. What is the lesson here?

Adam: In the movie, we see that as the climate begins to change, that both of these characters now have to face a warming world, and this is something that their parents had not faced in their lives. So they have to go beyond what their parents have taught them. They have to become bold and courageous, to find different ways to live in this warming world. And we are really using that boldness as a bigger message, as a metaphor for us humans: that if walruses and bears can figure out a way to adapt and survive and carry on in this warming world, then why can't we do the same in our lives? And find different ways to live, and become more sustainable with our environment, so that we can combat the warming world that is upon us.

TH: Al Gore calls the Arctic North one of our canaries in the coal mine, an early warning indicator for signs of climate change. Did you two observe what to you seemed like evidence of climate change when you were there shooting the film?

Sarah: Oh, sure we did. I mean, we lived there for 15 years. We definitely could see where the deliberate changes in the pattern of the ice were, for instance. We saw enormous change. We worked closely with the Inuit and they were constantly reporting that to all of us. We thought the animal behavior changed as well, which is of course what is depicted in the movie.

TH: Outside of the movie, are there animal changes that you observe that are worth mentioning, that didn't necessarily have an opportunity to be portrayed in the film?


Adam: Well, the big thing is with the ice receding earlier than ever before, killer whales were now coming in to the Arctic earlier, which could put stress on the three main Arctic whales which live in the north: the narwhal, which is the unicorn whale; the white one, which is the beluga whale; and the bullheaded. That's one thing. The other thing that we touched on in the film, but that is getting a lot of reports even from Inuit, is that the ringed seals are giving birth to their babies more and more on top of the ice: there is no snow for protection. Even the Inuit are telling us that they are seeing more of the fur on these animals patchier than ever before. They are not as healthy. When I was in Greenland in April I saw that it was raining in the wintertime, and the ice had not frozen in an inlet that for years had been solid in the wintertime. There are changes that we are seeing and that are occurring here in real time.

TH: Now, as you said, Arctic Tale isn't a traditional nature documentary in the sense that Wild Kingdom is. There is more of a narrative going on. Has there been criticism for this approach to nature film making?

Sarah: Well, I mean, I think there is some confusion about that. I think that there have been some people using the word anthropomorphism a lot. It seems to me that people don't believe what we are saying. There is no anthropomorphism in this movie, really. Because all the behaviors, all the sequences, are inspired by science, by observations, by how these animals really are. These animals do hug and kiss. These animals do have families, and they help each other, and they share with one another. The female walruses get to choose their mates based on how well the male sings his song. All this is based in scientific fact. And we are just having fun with the language. And maybe people don't realize that there is no anthropomorphism in this movie.

TH: And Queen Latifah narrates the film. How did you link up with Queen Latifah?

Adam: Well, we always knew we wanted a female storyteller. We are also calling her a storyteller rather than a narrator. A narrator is what documentaries have. Queen Latifah is really telling a story. She is sort of Mother Ice. She is all-knowing and very intimate with these characters, in the way she tells the story. The reason we wanted a woman is because walruses are a matriarchal society. It is also about two animals, of course, that are brought up by their mothers. In the case of the walrus it was the auntie in the family. Queen Latifah was always on our list. She has this wonderful, strong alto voice. We needed someone that could handle the epicness of the Arctic, the vastness of this place, but at the same time have a quiet strength when the moments were somber. And at the same time, because of the message, we wanted to brighten up the film a bit. We wanted someone who could handle the humor. So we feel she was really right for this movie.

TH: Did you say, Mother Ice?

Adam: Mother Ice, meaning how people refer to Mother Earth. In the past this was a sort of land that we refer to: Mother Ice. The idea that she knows this place and that when she is speaking to the audience. We got a lot of feedback from people who feel like they think that Queen Latifah is speaking right to them, to each individual. So it is a very intimate story. You feel what these animals are feeling.

TH: So Adam and Sarah, what's next? Is it too early to ask?

Sarah: There is nothing formally announced, but we would love to do more work in the Arctic. We would love to do more with having live action wildlife footage, and using it in a dramatic film. Really it's called a movie. [laughs] But we would love to do more of that in the future. And we love bringing some of these ideas about lost knowledge and disconnection from the natural world. Those are big themes for us, so we would love to work on those themes more.