Despite the apparent familiarity, theoretically observed nature documentaries reveal a world of hidden perspectives. The genre includes films from global, cinematic blockbusters to very plain educational tv-documentaries, from action-packed commercial wildlife films to nearly art films. Scholar Derek Bousé has questioned if there even exists such a genre defined solely by content. So, what makes us recognize a film as a nature documentary?
The English term wildlife film gives a good start in answering. Nature documentaries, rather than representing nature, tend to represent a narrower concept – the wildlife. As Bousé and many others have observed, these are films about the actions of animals in an environment where all traces of humans have been cropped outside the screen, including the reality of making the film. However, regarding them as representations of nature reveals the concept of nature they carry inscribed, and I propose that this together with an established form of audio visual narration, is in fact precisely the sign that makes us identify the genre.
Presenting animals as average examples of species instead of individuals, understanding the environment as a hidden stage for the action and – despite all the highly technical footage – limiting the existence of nature in visually appealing animals, could all be justifiable options in a single documentary film. Displaying nature remote but controlled by knowledge would be just one way of describing a complexity if it weren’t a larger phenomenon. Together these films construct a potent idea of nature that is worthy of a closer analysis.