Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"De nieuwe Wildernis" - a review

One week ago, I watched the much-praised documentary “De nieuwe Wildernis” (“The new Wilderness”) by Eems Films, Nederlands. It portrays the life of all groups of animals from microfauna to megafauna all around the year in the Oostvaardersplassen – you’d expect many shots of the horses and also that the life of the almost-feral Heck cattle is covered there. There are many documentaries on free-roaming horses all around the globe, so I hoped to finally see “wild cattle” moving in quality shots on the screen. Think of their herd structure, reproductive behaviour such as impressive bull fights and how they give birth and raise their calves. It would show people that cattle are more than mooing milk machines and actually quite interesting animals, and perhaps also teach them something about the aurochs.
Nothing. Not the least bit of all that. There are actually only four shots of the cattle lasting only few seconds, and only sometimes they are seen lurking blurred somewhere in the background while deer is shown (deer are quite unique in European nature, aren’t they?).  It’s like they are trying to say “before anyone complains, yeah, there are cattle too, back to the interesting things”. And they hardly loose a word about the cattle. I was expecting that the cattle would play no major role in this documentary because cattle are far less popular than ponies, but this falls well below my low expectations. I am disappointed, even upset, but not really surprised. It’s a shame that such a large documentary barely recognizes, if not ignores, the largest free-roaming cattle population in Europe since hundreds of years.

But apart from that, this documentary shows a lot of beautiful pictures of the other animals in the reserve, aquatic and terrestrial. And of course you get a good impression and beautiful shots of the Koniks in the reserve, although, as I mentioned before, feral horses might be nothing new to big game-interested audience. I did gain information from the Konik shots though. It is pretty apparent that the slender-built Konik individuals largely disappeared, and the pretty sturdy and strong type is now established. Also their manes and tails got shorter, what matches what is described for historic wild horses. That is not to say that the Konik is such a wonderfully Tarpan-like horse but simply that natural selection seems to be working on this large population in a confined area.
It is only my personal opinion, but I have some stylistic problems with the documentary, or actually the trend all recently produced nature documentaries follow in general. The excessive use of slow-motion honestly bores me because it does not provide a natural picture of the animals moving. Many shots of the horse herds contain a lot of inserted horse neighing to an annoying level trying to create the illusion that there is more going on in the crowd than grazing – so often that you recognize the single cries in different scenes. What struck me the most is what happened when a horse was filmed pooping: they inserted a fart noise. Seriously, a fart noise. Actually two. I also did not like the kitschy music, sometimes resembling Disney’s “Fantasia”, that tries to create that feeling of harmonic idyllic nature in an almost importunate manner.
Call me conservative, but I prefer the good old style of documentaries of the 1990s and partly 2000s documentaries with less editing, almost no music and slow-motion only used to emphasize fast actions that happened immediately before (like a cheetah hunt, for example). And what I strongly dislike is when a documentary inserts or cut things that simply don’t happen (like the fart noise – was that an anthropomorphic joke? Or cutting scenes of predators and prey simulating a chase scene). The style of narration in nature films also changed over the years. While earlier documentaries tried to inform people in an objective and unemotional way, the voice-over today often try to enchant the viewer and facts are only a secondary matter. This documentary is a good example because it should have covered the controversy around this reserve more intensively, such as the uncontrolled reproduction of the herbivores in the absence of predators (= “unnatural”) and the resulting high death rates during the winter and overgrazing and other damage on the vegetation. And it is premature to call this reserve a wilderness or nature area in the first place.

But maybe I am just upset because of the total neglect of the cattle in this documentary. Remember that I only express my personal opinion and taste here. And if you like its style and can put up with the lack of notion on the reserve’s most interesting and exceptional aspect – a large, free-roaming cattle herd in a running dedomestication process – you’ll probably appreciate this documentary pretty much.


  1. Where did you watch this? I've been trying to find it online for months and I just can't seem to get hold of it (in English or with English subtitles anyway). The trailer looks good, if not a little fanciful.
    Now what I'd love to see is the same documentary, done by the BBC Planet Earth team in about 20 years, after the creation of Oostvaardersland (connecting Oostvaardersplassen with the Veluwe and Germany), with the introduction or colonisation of wolves, beavers, wild boar, lynx and elk and (as I'm an advocate of Pleistocene rewilding rather than just historic) the Asiatic Lion but they were native to Southern Europe during the classical age and if not for humans they may well have spread north again (I know, a pipe dream).
    On top of that, perhaps the introgression of a large group of Exmoor and Przewalski into the current Konik herd and a cull to keep only the best looking Heck cattle, supplemented by some good Tauros individuals and even the Lidia that will perhaps need rehousing when bull fighting is banned. Now that would be a wildlife documentary ;).
    Also I'd just like to add, if you ever get a call from a very excited English Conservation Biology student, it means I've won the Euro millions and that I'll be buying up a huge area of land in Europe where we can conduct our own backbreeding/rewilding project haha.

  2. Actually, if you haven't already, I'd love to hear your opinion on the idea of Pleistocene rewilding. Particularly in North America as they probably have the biggest scope for achieving it. Not really a backbreeding topic but still broadly relevant to the subject area.