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"To the Arctic" Director Greg MacGillivray Tells a Story of Motherhood in the Frozen North

Filmmaker discusses the emotional impact of documenting Arctic families

All Animals magazine

  • IMAX Filmed Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Four years in the making, “To the Arctic” tells the story of life at the northern tip of the globe. The film crew ventured five times into the bitter cold and rugged terrain, capturing awe-inspiring footage of Canada’s Porcupine River caribou herd crossing the frozen tundra toward their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. On an icebreaker 5,500 miles north of Norway, they documented the struggles of a polar bear family in an unforgiving environment of melting ice. And off the shores of Canada’s Baffin Island, they dove into the underwater world of 1,700-pound mother walruses teaching their calves to dive for clams.

The landscapes are majestic, but at its heart, “To the Arctic” is the “story of motherhood,” says director Greg MacGillivray, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, “and how it’s always been tough to be a mother in the Arctic north and how it is even a little tougher [now].”

In this edited interview with HSUS staff writer Ruthanne Johnson, MacGillivray discusses his experience filming in a frozen land and the impact he hopes the film will have on audiences.

How did you capture the footage of the polar bear family?
It just so happened that the ice floes in this particular year and month had been blown into an inland area. We had 200 bears compressed into a small area. A mother bear and her two 7-month-old cubs camped out by our boat the whole time. It’s 24 hours a day of sunshine, so I had my crew on a 24-hour schedule. For five and a half days we were observing this one family of bears. It was amazing.

What impressed you about the Arctic’s wildlife?
The thing that amazes me the most is that they can put up with the cold. We would occasionally see a musk ox. They look like buffalo, but they’re adapted to the cold. They will stand in the middle of a gigantic storm in the winter. The wind will be whipping at them, but they have so much insulation that for them it’s just fine. For us, we were all bundled up. I was still cold.

The polar bears never wasted energy. It looked like they were lounging around a lot, but they were conserving energy. They were ready to go whenever they had to go, either running from a predator or finding a seal they could sneak up on and grab. There is not much to eat out there. They have to outsmart everything.

How do caribou moms interact with their calves?
The nurturing when they are just born is spectacular. They lick them clean. They hold them close and lie down together to stay warm. We saw examples of animals moving slowly, and the little guy was running alongside nursing, trying to get a drink on the run. I never got a good shot of that, but it was funny to watch.

What about the walrus moms?
They are just as protective as the other moms. The little calves are very curious. So when   we were photographing them underwater, the calves wanted to come right up to the cameraman. The mother was continually putting her flippers around the calf to hold it and swim away with it. At one point, a cameraman was photographing, and one of the mothers came down and head-butted the camera as if to say, “It’s time for you to get out of here.”

What was the greatest challenge of filming wildlife in the Arctic?
Making an IMAX documentary is tougher that anything. You are dealing with gigantic cameras that are noisy and hard to operate—and heavy! Even unloading the camera film is a unique situation that you don’t learn in school. It’s so cold that it’s hard to get things done. Cameras don’t like the cold. The batteries absolutely hate it. It’s a tough job to shoot a movie up there. It took us a long time.

What made actress Meryl Streep the right narrator for this film?
I wanted a woman, and I wanted a mother. And I wanted someone who is well-respected around the world—the mother who you know is intelligent enough to be saying these words.

Was it difficult to remain detached observers?
Absolutely. The polar bear family was the hard one. Though they mostly eat ringed seals, male polar bears will prey on polar bear cubs. There were four chases in the five-day period we were there. The mother had to be vigilant and smart and alert all the time. We wanted to shout, but you can’t interfere. The bears made it. It would have been tough for us [otherwise].

How did making this film affect you?
The major emotional impact for me is telling the story of motherhood, and of this mother polar bear and her two cubs and what a poignant, touching relationship they have. She clearly loves her cubs beyond anything else and is willing to risk her life for them.

Presented by IMAX Filmed Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures, “To the Arctic” opens April 20 in select IMAX theaters (see imax.com/tothearctic for details).

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