Movie offers glimpse of polar bear life

February 20, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
A groundbreaking documentary about polar bears makes its West Coast premiere in San Francisco this weekend. The film is a spectacular look at polar bear life on Alaskan ice fields and how the bears are being threatened by oil and gas drilling and climate change. The filmmaker hopes his production will show people why polar bears are worth saving.

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The Beaufort Sea is about as remote an area as one can imagine - north of Alaska - covered most of the year by ice.

About 2,500 polar bears live in the pristine wilderness. It is the perfect habitat for one of nature's most remarkable creatures.

"These bears use this whole environment; they are on the land, they are on the water, they are on the ice, they are in the water and playing," filmmaker Arthur Smith said.

Smith spent the last five years creating a documentary called "Ice Bears of the Beaufort." He and his wife live in an Eskimo community and have constant contact with the bears.

"They learn who you are and if you are OK and you aren't threatening," Smith said. "They actually will grant a tolerance of your presence and you get like a pass. So instead of being aggressive and running toward you, they will just let you be and basically you become invisible to a point that you can observe and document their actual behavior."

The film is a revealing look at the life of polar bear families. It is 50 minutes long, set to music. Smith was especially enchanted by how much polar bears play.

"There's no narration on the film because we don't want to tell people what to think, we want the polar bears to speak for themselves," Smith said.

What the polar bears cannot say is that their home is in danger. Global warming is a long term threat, but even more immediate is the possibility of drilling for oil and natural gas.

In October, the state of Alaska began selling oil and gas leases off the coast of the Beaufort Sea, a vital habitat area for the polar bear, according to smith.

"What it amounts to - it's a polar bear maternity ward; this stretch of coastline, it's got the highest concentration of polar bear dens of this part of the world, and that's not accidental, because the whole coast in that area is undeveloped and it's got the most consistent ice of the Arctic Ocean," Smith said.

Many environmentalists believe oil and gas drilling will be disastrous for polar bears, especially if there was ever a spill. Smith is hoping this film will encourage a movement to turn the area into a sanctuary. Smith thinks polar bears may be able to survive climate change, but only if their territory remains undeveloped.

"Right now this stretch of coastline and this part of the Arctic is that last place, once we take that away, there's no place left," Smith said.

"Ice Bears of the Beaufort" will be showing Sunday afternoon as part of the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival.

Related Links:
San Francisco Ocean Film Festival

Information about the film, "Ice Bears of the Beaufort"

To get on the mailing list for the effort to protect the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea:

To find out about the proposal to create an international ice park in the arctic:

Article about making of the "Ice Bears of the Beaufort:"

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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