From distant observer to ally

CLIMATE / A remote Russian geophysicist seeks to restore the Ice Age ecosystems.
Country: USA

If you doubt that it is possible to fight global warming by planting trees, you should definitely see Pleistocene Park. This documentary presents the initiative to re-create the mammoth steppe ecosystem, dominant in the Arctic in the late Pleistocene. The idea requires the replacement of the current unproductive northern ecosystems with highly productive pastures, which can promote climate cooling through a series of ecological effects. Such is the belief of Sergey Zimov, a Russian scientist and co-founder of one of the world’s three largest Arctic stations, the Northeast Science Station, located 150 kilometres south of the Arctic Ocean, that serves as a year-round base for international Arctic research. Zimov and his son Nikita started experiments with animal reintroductions in 1988. At present, Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve on the Kolyma River south of the city of Chersky in northeastern Siberia, is home to 10 major herbivore species: reindeer, yakutian horse, moose, bison, musk ox, yak, kalmykian cow, sheep, camels, and goats.

Pleistocene Park, a film by Luke Griswold-Tergis
Pleistocene Park, a film by Luke Griswold-Tergis

Fully dedicated

During the last two decades, ever more documentary projects directly aim at convincing their audiences to personally engage in the fight for sustainable politics and against global warming. Seeing a person such as Zimov, fully dedicated to saving the world from climate disaster by himself, surely brings relief. No wonder a series of documentaries about him and the Zimov hypothesis have been made recently. All this attention, of course, also shows in the way how well-groomed is Zimov’s rough look of a «home-made-scientist,» as he calls himself, when, for example, he turns his radical ideas into catchy phrases such as «when scientists do experiments with biological processes, they use white mice, I used white horses,» or, «If our civilisation will break, all our planet will be a beautiful Pleistocene Park,» or, «Why predict something? Because good predictions help for surviving.» Equally eloquently, Zimov responds to criticism, for example, to the fears that his intentional changes to the ecosystem might cause unprecedented consequences. «I only try to use species from this ecosystem: same territory, same soil, same climate, same species. There is no engineering, only reconstruction. I will never bring crocodiles here.»

When the director Luke Griswold Tergis set to make this documentary, he had to navigate among the films already made and craft out a particular identity for this film, a distinct view. It only shows gradually, but, yes, he did it well. His film is not about the project nor the scientist directly. Rather, its’ main theme is what other environmental documentaries also address, the problem of how persons get personally involved in the fight against global warming. Because, to put it cynically but not less realistically, a great majority of the world population (except, perhaps, the people from the Marshall Islands) has no direct experience with the dangers of the melting glaciers. So, as other protagonists of this documentary gradually get to speak, Zimov’s son Nikita and his wife, the scientists who support Zimov, and finally the director Griswold-Tergis himself, their personal involvement and dedication clearly show up. This is the topic of this film.

Pleistocene Park, a film by Luke Griswold-Tergis
Pleistocene Park, a film by Luke Griswold-Tergis

Far east

The Pleistocene Park is located in the far east of Siberia. Still, there is a huge difference between this documentary and Dersu Uzala (1975), the celebrated film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa about a nomad hunter living in the Siberian taiga. A film that, with slow empty shots of thick forests and deep green lakes, shaped the image of that part of the world for the global film audiences. The difference is partly due to the fact that Pleistocene Park is located in the northeast of Siberia, where taiga turns into tundra and trees are replaced by shrubs. But the documentary about Zimov is also different in another way. There is no calm in it. And everything seems out of place. There are animal bones on the river benches. Rocks roll down from the mountains, covered with mud and the roads are full of huge potholes. Even the swing on the children’s playground in the city of Chersky looks like a piece of junk. From hysterically playful violin music to angry guitar riffs of Russian punk bands, the music only adds to this representation of a world one would not want to be part of. But later in the film, this changes.

No wonder a series of documentaries about him and the Zimov hypothesis have been made recently.

The invisible voice of the director slowly loses the defiant note—Zimov’s complaints about the presence of the camera stop. When the camera turns to the crew, showing the team filming the scene and later the director shovelling the manure, this clearly signals that the film is about Zimov as much as about the director himself. He started as a distant observer, a fly on the wall. Still, He ended as an active participant in more than a month-long journey, transporting woolly beasts over 11 timezones and several thousand kilometres, to a natural reserve that aspires to be a contemporary equivalent of the late ice age. And somehow, it is about each, and every one of us and our quest for our very own private Pleistocene Park.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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