Animal Personhood in Wildlife Documentary Films: A Case Study of Four Films
Throughout history, the way animals have been represented has been largely governed by the popular cultural attitude of the time. From imposed classification schemes to more modern stereotyping and speciesism, the public is informed which animals to like or dislike and ultimately deemed worthy of life. Since its inception, film and television have had an immense influence on the representation of animals and in turn on the public’s conception of different species. Most notable in this regard are the Disney animated films and True-Life Adventures series which popularized the use of anthropomorphism in wildlife film – a characteristic of wildlife film still in evidence today. However, anthropomorphism maintains a privileged status for humans placing them over other animals and promotes some negative and often inaccurate views of those other animals. Personhood, on the other hand, is not anthropomorphic because it is not exclusive to humans. When appropriate, the attribution of personhood may be very useful to a filmmaker as it has the capacity to evoke empathy for the animal protagonist and support an audience’s involvement in the life of that animal character. To date there has been almost no research conducted on the use of personhood in wildlife documentary film. This thesis will conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if cues of personhood are used in such documentary, if so, how are they used, and how their use may contribute to the positive or negative representation of animal characters. The use of cues of personhood was explored in three documentaries, Blackfish (Cowperthwaite, 2013), Green: Death of Forests (Rouxel, 2009), and Sirocco (Kapur, 2014), using a content analysis tool and Porter’s (2006) definition of personhood cues. The results were then used to inform filmmaking decisions made during the creation of the creative component of this thesis, a 25-minute documentary film Saving Ngaio. The analysis of the three documentaries revealed that cues of personhood are indeed utilized and appear to encourage the audience to view animal characters as persons and to empathize with them. It seems that depicting animal characters as persons, may have a profound effect on an audience’s positive or negative image of an animal. Furthermore, the application of those cues in the creative component of the thesis, Saving Ngaio revealed that careful compromises must be made during the filmmaking process if the filmmaker’s intention is to gain the empathy of an audience through the presentation of an animal character as a person.
Advisor: Johnston, A. Ross
Degree Name: Master of Science Communication
Degree Discipline: Centre for Science Communication
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: personhood; animal; characters; empathy; film; documentary; stereotyping; representation; speciesism
Research Type: Thesis