Feature Documentary Reviews

Alaska Long Hunters (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Mark Rose

Running time: 59mins

As the immortal TV artist Bob Ross so often said during The Joy of Painting, “God was having a good day when he made Alaska.”

When you look at a natural landscape of The Last Frontier, it’s not difficult to see what he meant. Flanked by unspoiled mountain ranges, the seemingly endless treeline of its forests, the vast green spread of its plain, and its clear blue glacial lakes stretch on as far as the eye can see – supporting huge numbers of wild animals. Unfortunately, beyond this more immediate façade (which admittedly makes for more pleasant viewing in nature documentaries) lurks a very real problem. As with everywhere else on the planet, the Alaskan wilderness is shrinking, as one of mankind’s great vanity projects continues, with the insistence that nature is brought to heel.

Unwittingly, Mark Rose’s documentary Alaska Long Hunters provides a snap-shot of this huge, ongoing conquest. The bulk of the film sees Rose gradually unravel three personal stories of survival against all the odds during hunting expeditions in the Alaskan bush – each of which build toward a great singular lesson in the film’s concluding segment. Each time, having needlessly put himself at risk while pursuing the slaughter of game in some remote part of the world, he determines not that he needs to somehow modify his behaviour, but that some unseen “deity” he previously rejected was ordaining his actions.

The film begins with a series of short interviews, where an assortment of Rose’s friends, neighbours and colleagues recount tales of how tough life in their neck of the woods is. The weather can turn on a sixpence, leaving you helplessly exposed to lethal elements when you were enjoying a pleasant hike moments before – while an apparent “plague of bears” means most of those interviewed have a story of how they, or someone they know, so valiantly shot an animal dead as it sought to protect its territory. “It was us or them,” is the platitude routinely trotted out to justify this.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that these people don’t need to be where the bears are. There seems to be precious little that the Alaskan wilderness actually has to offer them besides the challengeof mastering something wild. The purported “plague” of bears is not seeing thousands of the creatures ambling through busy streets of a city, or preventing residents of America’s humongous farm belt from bringing in the harvest. On the surface of it, it would be a lot simpler to set up shop somewhere where the elements and wildlife are more conducive to a comfortable life, unless you are actually spoiling for a fight.

Historically, long hunters (so called because they made expeditions into the frontier wilderness for as much as six months at a time) played a key role in the push westward through North America by European colonists. Going west into the territory of present-day Kentucky and Tennessee, for example, long hunters gathered information through the 1760s and 1770s which proved essential to the later pillaging of the homeland of the Cherokee people.

Long hunters have long played a central role in the longer-term goal of ‘manifest destiny’ – the idea that white settlers were destined to expand across North America by the will of God – as a result. The concept was an extremely effective ideological construct during the formative years of the country, designed to make colonisers feel invulnerable throughout a dangerous land-grab, and justified in every horror they perpetrated in order to fulfil their destiny. The fact it was so integral to the foundation of the United States left an indelible mark on the American psyche to this day, so the fact that the communities on the remaining frontiers of America are determined to keep the tradition of long hunting alive, even if it kills them, is not especially surprising. After all, culturally they have long since come to see their eternal battle to defeat the remaining stretches of wild land as natural, even Holy.

Sadly, this is reflected by the fact that with each apparent moment of ‘divine intervention’ that spares Mark Rose’s life, he becomes more determined to continue his life as a long hunter. Having started out as “an atheist” – losing his faith when he learned as a youngster that a baby had been killed in a nearby aircraft accident – he miraculously managed to escape falling to his death from a cliff, managed to land a light aircraft without fuel in a story he was aware 99% of the time ends in a fatal crash, and was fortunate enough not to have been riding in a helicopter when it crashed, flattening the passenger seat he would have taken up. Each time, he suggests that his faith in a ‘deity’ was stoked up by the incident, eventually prompting him to “completely change my life.”

What does Rose mean by this? Will he finally put his days of needlessly endangering himself while chasing thrills behind him? Armed with a new appreciation of life, and the world that the God he has found created, will he hang up his gun for good? In the end, his conversion turns out to consist of wondering at the beauty of the world around him, but still seeking to bring it under his control at the barrel of a gun. He remains committed wholeheartedly to the arrogant and selfish goal of putting humanity’s stamp on the wilderness that has managed itself for millennia, but he goes to church and doesn’t believe in evolution anymore.

Without wanting to get too deep into picking apart the film’s theological position – especially as many Christians do not believe that things like evolution is unconditionally contrary to the existence of a God – there are some rather grim implications which Rose’s story has for God, if taken as gospel. One of the most contradictory is that God seemingly saw fit to save him in order to prove his existence, while he let numerous other God-fearing pilots – and a baby – plunge to their deaths. Was it the case that the baby wasn’t doing enough to realise God’s intention of settling the wilderness, or does God only help people when he has a point to prove? If I fancy taking up lion-taming but don’t want to bother with the training, will I get a hall-pass from the almighty if I refute his existence beforehand?

I digress. While it is impossible to engage with this film without in some way addressing it being a disguised Jesus film, I am not interested in starting a theology blog. On the filmmaking front there is still plenty that needs saying.

Whatever I might think of Rose’s message, there is no disputing that he knows how to frame a shot. Throughout the film, audiences will undoubtedly be charmed by the majestic landscapes and peaceful wildlife images he has captured, and used to break up the film’s segments. His talking head segments are set before some of the most beautiful scenery you could conceive of.

Unfortunately, Editor Miles Hanon seems to have been asleep at the wheel for many of the moments Rose is speaking, with his interview uninterrupted by other footage, despite various chops and changes to remove pauses. Having been competently put together for 40 minutes or so, this becomes particularly grating in the film’s final third, when only Rose appears on camera. His testimony loops back on itself at least three times during this stretch of the film, and every second feels less engaging than the last, meaning the eye is even more drawn to the repugnant jump-cuts on display. The feeling of this being a documentary quickly dissipates here, as Rose takes on the appearance of an erratic vlogger, teleporting around the screen mid-sentence while waxing lyrical about life in Alaska via his YouTube diary. It might have been an idea to patch these clips over with intervening clips of the wilderness, or even more of Denio Viana’s stylish animations (which are sadly underused, only appearing twice in the film).

This barebones edit only serves to further underline the sudden and conspicuous absence of the rest of the cast too. Considering people have been very forthcoming with their opinions until now, their sudden withdrawal for the segment when Rose finds God sticks out like a sore thumb. While it would be wrong of me to state that they must have disagreed with his conclusions on the matter, it would surely have served his cause better if someone else might have commented on his conversion. Do they also think God intervened? How have they seen Rose become a better man since he became a Christian? How do they reconcile his survival with the loss of their own loved ones? Perhaps they would have outlined satisfactory answers to all these questions – but as it is, they did not get chance to do so, leaving audiences to wonder, did all these moments actually change anything about this man beside his belief in God, and has it merely served as a crutch to justify the way he was already behaving?

Full disclosure, I am an atheist. With that being said, I do not begrudge people the willingness to see God in the beauty around them. What I will say is that in a scenario where you accept God created the world – and a natural order to keep things running smoothly – marvelling at the beauty of your surroundings seems at odds with the need to become your own all-powerful deity, by conquering the beasts around you for sport. Again, returning to the wisdom of Bob Ross, the painter famously told his viewers, the only “big-time hunter” someone should conceivably be is when “I take my camera to the woods, and I shoot [animals] with the camera.”

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