We’re at a stop sign, waiting. Looking up a long narrow, tree-lined street with houses all around, cars are parked on either side of the road, a cyclist goes by, the wind rustles the grass. Time passes, our eyes scroll across the frame, we could be anywhere in suburban America. A man walks his dog, a car passes by, the birds chirp, a deer walks into the frame, and suddenly the film begins.
Deer of North America is an experimental documentary that intersects the relationships between humans and deer. With clear references to the genre of wildlife documentary, filmmakers Jason Coyle and Laska Jimsen explore the spaces where lines between artificial and natural, domesticated and wild, are blurred. Yet, while wildlife documentaries are typically organized around a linear narrative and the dissemination of information (the lion is hungry, she hunts futilely with several near-misses, finally succeeding, and feeds her cubs). Instead Deer of North America uses vignettes and repetition with subtle variations to build a series of exchanges and close encounters between humans and nature, with scenes punctuated by moments of deer looking through the camera directly to the audience. The structure forms a tête-à-tête between the audience and deer, where the viewers are drawn into a game with the film and become active participants who are waiting, watching, reacting, and longing for the gaze of the deer to interrupt as the vignettes unfold. In a recent interview Coyle and Jimsen describe their intentions with the film:
While omnipresent and ubiquitous, deer are not always immediately visible. Deer of North America uses camouflage of the natural world as a cinematic device and activates what might be lurking just out of the frame. Splotches of sunlight and shade dapple a pile of twigs until suddenly a fawn emerges, then another and another, hidden all along in plain sight. Mist drifts across a gravel road, quiet and uninhabited, until a string of young deer gingerly cross in profile. By revealing deer in diverse landscapes, Deer of North America creates an active viewer playing “spot the deer,” with a heightened awareness of every movement and sound. These moments, combined with the more observational documentary footage, creates layers of suspense and surprise as deer emerge (or don’t) in a variety of environments or contexts.
The experiences of time and waiting are equally crucial to the narrative in Deer of North America, where patience and suspense open the film up to asking questions about how we coexist with nature, rather than simply telling us a story. Coyle and Jimsen are not looking for a resolution, but instead ask us to observe, contemplate, and form individual responses. They establish patterns that help trace the flow and crossover of activities, one key example being the cycle of seasons shaping and guiding us through our interactions, with fall and winter reflecting the disappearance of deer by merely showing us their imprints on the land, and the warmer months, when the deer, sometimes brazenly, confront the audience. As absence and presence help guide us through, so do ideas of stillness and motion or containment and expansion, as described by Coyle and Jimsen. “Themes of containment are part of the structure of the film and its use of fixed camera long takes. Motifs of boundaries: fences, walls, gates, doorways, frames within frames, boxes repeated throughout the film. Contemporary society attempts to draw lines between natural and artificial space, but these lines are often crossed. We try to contain the natural world, to place it in a grid, but it constantly erupts and escapes this grid. The soundtrack also plays with natural and constructed frequencies as wind, birds, video games, and generators blend. The film is an alternative field guide to seeing and hearing, which is to say a field guide to cinema ”
While the traditional field guide focuses upon distinctions between like objects through taxonomy, with the purpose of helping users distinguish animal and plant that may be similar in appearance, the concept of the alternative field guide referenced in Deer of North America points to the futility of such firm classifications and distinctions: between nature and the built environment, people and animals, containment and overflow, and between work and leisure. Instead it points to crisscrossing and intersections: deer saunter into town, people traverse natural landscapes, birds and wind occupy the off-screen space, but share that space with traffic, trains, and airplanes. Distinct cinematic scenes or locations are also eschewed: Are the deer being fed at the research facility? Is the airport adjacent to the small town? In contrast, Coyle and Jimsen set up an overarching ecosystem where everything in the film is interconnected and inseparable, churning together, watching and being watched.
The interconnectedness in Coyle and Jimsen’s Deer of North America is closely in reference to the “direct” and “observational” movements in documentary filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman, who is considered to have invented his own technique of what he calls “reality fiction”—acknowledging his subjectivity, yet remaining removed and, with absolute clarity, attempting to produce an evenhanded act of interpreting the reality.
While Deer of North America certainly borrows from this style, it diverges with its narrative structure. Wiseman’s films deal with institutions where the functions documented are determined by an institutional structure with conflict, climax, and resolution at its core. However, Coyle and Jimsen are working in what they consider an ecosystem that they describe as “a web of interconnection and interdependence between people, landscapes, and animals. The film is an open mosaic in which people and animals circulate as they are contained in a system and network; the weight of the ecosystem undergirds the arc of the film.”
The evocative film traverses documentary and field guides to function as an exercise in how we exist as part of a larger ecosystem. With patience and participation by the audience it reveals beauty and complexity in both the natural world and the cinematic space. By examining how the natural world is controlled and how we attempt to separate ourselves from its unruly, messy and unpredictable ways, Deer of North America is as much a meditation on what it means to be a human animal in the contemporary United States of America as it is about deer.