Reflections on Animals

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In what were advertised as documentaries about animals, quite a bit was communicated about human beings. That was what many people took away from the screenings of Buck and Nénette at the Michigan Theater on July 11, 2011.

Buck was the story of Buck Brannaman, a horse trainer who emphasized many times that horses reflect the personalities of the people who are responsible for them. That message came through most powerfully in a scene about 2/3 into the movie, when Buck is faced with one of the biggest challenges of his career, as he tries to tame a horse who had not been raised properly after having been born oxygen-deprived to a mother who had died at birth.

Nénette was a 40-year-old orangutan who had spent most of her life in a Paris zoo. She had become almost a blank slate on which people could write their reactions. Curious children who were fascinated with Nénette, their excited faces reflected in the glass that separated them from Nénette. Animal behaviorists who saw Nénette in terms of the general history of the orangutan, especially how it lived in the wild. Zookeepers who saw Nénette as part of their menagerie family.

In both movies, you gained more of an appreciation for how animal trainers and zookeepers contain the energy—and sometimes violence—of animals who are essentially creatures of the wild.

Buck used what looked like a large flyswatter and different ropes to socialize horses enough to be useful companions to humans. In Nénette, a zookeeper explained that only the confines of the cage was the difference between the peaceful-looking orangutan on display, and an orangutan who could roam wildly and aggressively, posing serious threats to both humans and other animals.

The films were contrasts in documentary styles. Buck included a series of interviews with family, friends, and customers, along with demonstrations of Buck’s horse training techniques. Nénette was mostly observations of the main character, living a simple, quiet existence as the years passed by.

Both movies forced you to look at animals as individuals, trying to make their way in this world, along with humans. Nénette was shown mostly as a still life, with some motion. You wondered what satisfactions she got out of life, if she was suffering in her boredom, or if she had succeeded in getting full enjoyment out of the simplest of pleasures. And the horses, with their stoic, powerful personalities. Buck’s challenge was to channel the natural, instinctive energy of horses into useful tasks like riding and herding.

Nénette was the latest in a series of Monday evening documentaries that the Michigan is hosting this summer. Buck was in the middle of a multi-week run, providing a thought-provoking alternative to the blockbuster movies of the season. And the other currently running movie at the Michigan—Tree of Life—fit in well with the other two films, with its creative, artistic renderings of the world of nature.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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