Either you’re avant-garde or you’re not. Two decades before Bear Grylls was even a twinkle in Mr. Grylls Sr.’s eye, the NFB was already getting lost and surviving in the wilderness for the entertainment (and possible edification) of TV audiences.
The resulting piece is Survival in the Bush, a thrilling half-hour program the NFB released in 1954. Made for On the Spot, the NFB’s first documentary series made specifically for television, the film follows host Robert “Bob” Anderson as he is taken by canoe to a remote corner of the Quebec bush, dunked into a swamp and abandoned. His challenge? To survive in the wilderness armed with nothing but an axe and hopefully make his way out. Failing the latter, a crew of paddling “judges” promise to come to his rescue and pull him out, 3 weeks hence.
Anderson, who is young and intense and bears a passing resemblance to Hugh Jackman (the hair, at least), is far from alone in this adventure. With him are a cameraman, and more crucially, Angus Baptiste, an Algonquin jack-of-all-trades without whom it soon becomes apparent Anderson wouldn’t have survived a day.
Much like Grylls, who was busted for sleeping in a motel when he was supposed to be roughing it on a “desert island,” or for leading viewers to believe he was intrepidly lassoing wild mustangs when the animals he was roping were actually tame specimens from a local pony-trekking operation, all is not quite what it seems in Survival in the Bush.
One gets a sense of this early on, especially in segments involving the cameraman. In the first case, Anderson, already chest-deep in the swamp, informs us that the next splash we’ll hear is the camera guy leaping from canoe to water. This would make perfect sense if the camera wasn’t already filming Anderson – at water level.
Later on, Anderson tells us the man we see gathering spruce branches for bedding is the cameraman. Fair enough, but who’s filming then? Before one can consider the possibility that the camera was put down on a rock, and is shooting away unmanned, the camera moves and the lens focuses, tracking the action.
Truly enjoying this quirky short, then, calls for a temporary suspension of disbelief. Lord only knows how many people are actually playing Robinson Crusoe on that “forsaken enough” patch of Quebec hinterland, and no one can prove that the whole lot of them don’t sleep in a cozy chalet at night, mere steps from the rudimentary lean-to, but as the film progresses, these little details pale in importance. What shines through – and brightly so – is Angus Baptiste’s very real woodsmanship. Forget the dubious set-up and shenanigans: this man’s skills are mesmerizing.
Do you know how to build a fire without matches, catch fish without gear, or set bear traps and rabbit snares? Just sit back and let Angus show you. (All the while, Anderson stands by his side, clutching a skinny handheld mic attached to a long, snaking electrical cord. One doubts he got his hands very dirty.)
Although all these feats are decidedly impressive, Angus’ crowning achievement comes towards the end in the shape of birchbark canoe built from scratch. And not only is this canoe a thing of beauty – it floats! It floats so well, actually, that the entire crew hops on board and skedaddles out of sight.