Thursday, June 21, 2012

Documentaries and Me: Musings on "Dogs That Changed the World", "Radioactive Wolves", and "Claiming the Title"...

One of the things I love about documentaries is that I learn something new from virtually every one I watch every week.

I may be a trained historian but I really see myself as someone interested in general in the humanities and the social sciences. As such I generally gravitate toward the more historical, sociological, and ethnographic documentaries on PBS rather than the science ones. I do, however, occasionally watch Nova and Nature and have on several occasions learned a lot from watching documentaries in each series.

In the last year or so two documentaries I watched in the Nature series, one on dogs called Dogs That Changed the World, and the other on the wolves of Chernobyl, called Radioactive Wolves, really intrigued me. I learned from Dogs quite a bit about the state of the art of dog evolution from wolves, the role dogs played in human evolution, dog and human interactions, and dog intelligence. As I was watching Dogs That Changed the World I couldn’t, as someone who did postgraduate work in Anthropology, help but think that scholarly concentration on apes and the attempts of researchers to teach apes sign language, all of which derive from our perception of and the reality that apes are our closest evolutionary and genetic relatives, has led researchers to downplay the fact that dogs seem more capable of learning human “language” than our closest cousins, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. One Border collie, for instance, knows over 300 human terms. The famous signing gorilla Koko knew only some 100 signs.

Radioactive Wolves was just as fascinating and just as educational as Dogs That Changed the World. Radioactive Wolves tells the tale of what has happened to the area around Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Belorus since the nuclear disaster that occurred there in April of 1986, the worst nuclear power disaster the world had seen until the disaster at Fukuskima, Japan in 2011. Radioactive Wolves shows that humans may have abandoned the region around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant including the largest city in the area Prypiat which was once the home of some 50,000 citizens, but nature has not. Wolves, beavers, flora, and thanks to beavers waterways are once again thriving in the region despite significant levels of

radiation in the ground and in the wolves themselves, something made eerily clear by the sound of the Geiger counters those researching the wolves in Chernobyl make when they are waved across the bones of dead wolves and the soil.

What was particularly interesting to me about both of these documentaries was their portrayal of animal and human interactions. In Dogs it is the close ties between humans and dogs over time, prehistorical and historical, that seems to have given each a singular relationship with one another. Some scholars, in fact, maintain that humans may not have been able to survive without the aid of dogs while humans have played a major role in dog evolution through manipulative breeding and that this co-evolution allows each to understand and even empathise with each other in unique ways. In Wolves it is the fascinating fact that when humans disappear from an environment, a disappearance eerily reflected in the camera as it moves through the ghost town of abandoned buildings, abandoned books, abandoned furniture, and abandoned graffiti that is now Prypiat, that they have massively transformed, it is still possible for that environment to go "back to nature" despite how much humans have changed the environment.

Something else I recently from a documentary I watched, this one a more historical and sociological documentary, on PBS, was that there had been a fight between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and those involved with the Gay Olympics, San Francisco Arts and Athletics, in the 1980s. The documentary Claiming the Title: Gay Olympics on Trial tells the story of how the USOC successfully went to court to stop the Gay Olympics from using the term “Olympics” in their title thanks to the Amateur Sports Act passed by the US Congress in 1978 which gave the USOC exclusive right to the term “Olympic”. Claiming the

traverses the history of the Gay Olympics from its founding in 1982 in San Francisco through to the 1987 US Supreme Court decision, San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Committee, which ruled in favour of the USOC but which, at the same time, as one of those interviewed notes, found four Supreme Court justices willing to acknowledge the gay minority as part of American life, a legal breakthrough, some of those interviewed claim, in the wake of Hardwick v. Bowers (1986), the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution did not protect the right of gay adults to engage in private, consensual "sodomy".

Some, including many in Claiming the Title, attribute the opposition of the USOC to the use of the term Olympics by San Francisco Arts & Athletics to homophobia in the age of AID’s noting that the USOC did not go after the Dog Olympics or the Police Olympics. Others point out that the IOC objected to the use of the term Paralympics by the Paralympics movement beginning in the 1950s, went after the Frog Olympics in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1958 for the use of the term Olympics, forced the English Transplant Olympics to change its name to the Transplant Games in 1978, and forced the World Senior Olympics to change its competition to the World Senior Games in 1988. Whatever the truth, and perhaps one day we will know if researchers are ever able to get hold of the minutes of the IOC and USOC relating to the Gay Olympics, not an easy task, by the way. As I was watching Claiming the Title I couldn’t help but wonder whether the IOC and USOC would, if they could go back in time, sue the organisers of the original Olympic Games to force it to change its name to the Greek Games because of its nudity, boozing, homosexuality, and infringement of copyright.

Documentaries. The best school someone like me who is interested in learning about virtually everything ever had. Much better than divided into little disciplinary boxes bureaucratic mass education not much in the way of teaching critical thinking academia.

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