The Bayer Family
Tristan Bayer, Kenneth Courtney
He looked different. He said very little. He watched the audience. He appreciated our enthusiasm and smiled when we laughed.
I had a feeling that during my world premiere screening of Wolfgang Bayer's "Earthling" that I may, in fact, be sitting next to the filmmaker himself. Everyone knew that Bayer may avail himself for a Q&A session after the film, but nobody really expected much as we were seeing his film only because the originally scheduled film had a technical problem that prevented its screening. Thus, instead of "A Bear Named Winnie," a live action film based upon the story behind "Winnie the Pooh," we were going to get a documentary based upon the work of Emmy winning documentarian Wolfgang Bayer and his final journey in filmmaking.
"Earthling" features, perhaps, the most stellar cinematography ever captured on film of our animal planet. The story began when Bayer went into cardiac arrest while filming with his son Tristan in Yellowstone National Park. "Gone" for 7 minutes, he somehow survived and yet knew that his days of such strenuous filmmaking were coming to an end. He began a journey that would take him around the world YET this journey is different. This time, he shares the journey with his family.
Tristan, his son, has often shared his father's journeys and clearly most embraces the vision. He dreams of following in his father's footsteps and is clearly at home among the wild.
Candice, his wife, serves as perhaps the truest companion in her quiet faithfulness and loyalty to this calling of her life partner. I have long believed that the truest life companions will follow you to the ends of the Earth. Candice, quite clearly, follows Wolfgang to the ends of the Earth and, seemingly, beyond.
Finally, there's Malaika (Swahili for "Angel"), his daughter. Malaika is a university student with more of a business mind, yet it is her scenes that have stayed with me the longest. She undoubtedly respects and loves her father's vision and journey, yet she is also forging her own path. During THIS journey, however, her love of family takes precedence over her own agenda. I often times find myself hesitant to drive an hour to go visit my parents, and yet as I watched Malaika surprise her family by returning to their journey from college while they were in the midst of isolated, polar bear country I couldn't help but think to myself "This is what family is all about."
Bayer and his son are both stellar cinematographers, filming both the remarkably dramatic and the simplest beauty with authenticity, innocence and a deep, deep respect for the creatures they encounter. One can't help but chuckle as they film polar bears when Tristan notes "I have to keep reminding myself that an animal that appears so cuddly wouldn't hesitate to rip my arm off given the opportunity."
These sorts of insights, done with a slight chuckle and yet with a tone indicating their truthfulness, add a humanity to the film that is often lacking in "nature films," though I hesitate to say nature film because "Earthling" is much more about the family living in the middle of nature than it is about the animals themselves. The Bayer's are clearly in touch with the privilege of being among these animals AND they stay long enough in their environment to build relationships NOT just photograph them. Indeed, Tristan notes as the family is among monkeys in the jungle that the monkeys have learned to "trust us" and so they welcome the Bayer's into their world with an innocence and playfulness that is wondrous to see.
Also captured on film are journeys among butterflies, manta rays and other unique creates. Bayer shared during his Q&A session that he wanted to share the uniqueness of nature, and while they certainly encountered many "common" animals it was his vision to share the unique, often untouched aspects of nature.
"Earthling" took six years to make and, according to Bayer, is his last film even though he has unexpectedly survived his heart condition. Perhaps it is the reverence for this final journey with their father, but "Earthling" feels often like a sacred, yet playful experience. It continues to be edited, and Bayer states it will be trimmed further for national release...a good move as it does feel a tad long and its often hypnotic tone will become monotonous for children.
Stellar cinematography aside, "Earthling" is plagued by a couple issues that keep me from rating it in the "A" range. Bayer has inexplicably used a music score (and occasional soundtrack) that often distracts from the innocence and power of the scenes being played out onscreen.
Likewise, the film is narrated by Tristan. While a stellar cinematographer and a strong screen presence Tristan is hindered by (or perhaps instructed to use) a monotonous voice tone that begins to sound like one of those meditation self-improvement tapes. Finally, there are times when the film itself feels "forced"...like the importance of the journey is being stressed, time and time again, so that the audience will realize THIS is an important scene. The photography is stunningly beautiful, but at times feels a touch too staged and loses its impact.
The journey is remarkable, the photography is utterly stellar and the lessons poignant and powerful. "Earthling", a swansong for filmmaker Wolfgang Bayer, allows the audience to companion Bayer on this, his final journey, and to watch the quiet tenderness of a father handing off his lifelong vision to his able and ready son. "Earthling" is about you, and I, living in a world where ALL creatures, great and small, are respected, embraced and celebrated.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic