Natural history documentaries have long followed a certain formula. David Attenborough and the BBC set the stage long ago for what we now take for granted as the typical nature programs that reveal the lives of the natural and the non-human. In the 1950s, though, such ideas were revolutionary and provided a novel way to bring the true wild into people’s living rooms. There will always be a place for these classic documentaries – I don’t think it could ever be said that the work of Attenborough will at any point be irrelevant – but, like all art, there is always room for adaptation and imagination.
SIXTEEN LEGS arguably does just that. Described by creator Niall Doran as ‘essentially a love story’, the film tells the unique and at times fantastical tale of the Tasmanian cave spider (Hickmania troglodytes). A love story involving spiders may not immediately appeal to all, but it is an important story to tell. The result of five years of filming in dark and confined caves, and based on a scientific research project spanning decades, SIXTEEN LEGS is the brainchild of the team at Bookend Trust – a non-profit organisation based in Tasmania and focused on communicating and educating students and their communities about the natural world. Their documentary represents the culmination of art and science – the art of cinematography and storytelling, and the science of arachnology and ecology.
Speaking with Niall, it is easy to comprehend the passion behind this immense project and why the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, Tara Moss, Kate Miller-Heidke, Adam Hills and Mark Gatiss all chose to be a part of it in various capacities. Niall places particular emphasis on the fact that the film is not simply the story of an everyday spider, but of one of the most ancient species of arachnids in the world, and a ‘story of the deepest caves in Australia’ and their ecology. He understands ‘why a lot of people dislike spiders’, but that there is a need to build empathy for them so that we can better understand their importance – especially for the male spider who, as with other species, often faces a grisly death when attempting to mate with a female. This is why, Niall explains, the film explores an age-old question for many spiders and other species: ‘How do I approach the female without dying?’ It is not surprising then, that the slogan for this love story reads: ‘Giant prehistoric spiders seek kinky love in the dark.'
The Tasmanian cave spider in fact ‘represent[s] a global shift in spider evolution’ and is one of the oldest remnants of the time when some spiders evolved to become aerial predators, using their webs to catch prey. Their habitat – some of the deepest caves in Australia, measuring nearly 400 metres in depth (in comparison to most mainland caves of less than 200 metres) and sometimes in cavern systems extending for kilometres – might ‘actually have been the location that saved them over time’, according to Niall. Being at least 250 million years old, and possibly even older, this species would have seen (and escaped) two mass extinctions that wiped out other, less fortunate species. It is therefore a remarkable survivor in the grand scheme of things and subsequently a very important species for arachnologists, such as Niall, to study. We are at a point in human and environmental history where, Niall believes, ‘It is important to start learning lessons from animals that have made it through extinction events before.’ Tasmanian cave spiders ‘date back to at least the first age of the dinosaurs, have survived the splitting of the continents, and have endured the entirety of human civilisation’ – so there is indeed lots we can learn from them.
He explains that the primary aim of the documentary is to ‘reach out to other audiences’, which is why Neil Gaiman was approached as the first choice for a key presence within the film. Gaiman is a master storyteller with an immense back catalogue of fiction publications that explore the weird, the wonderful and the otherworldly. Regarded especially for Stardust, Coraline and American Gods, he is well known in arts and pop culture communities, but perhaps less so in those of science. Although a welcome move for a literature-science geek such as myself, it is an undeniably unusual choice for a nature documentary. However, it does speak volumes about the current predicament for many trying to communicate science to the general public; we need both scientists and those of other industries to push for better communication of scientific concepts that improve the public’s appreciation for the natural world. Niall believes that, in particular, ‘filmmaking is a great communication tool to teach people about natural history.’
So far, feedback from viewers strongly suggests that SIXTEEN LEGS ‘actually introduces them to a spider that they can adjust to and accept…They suddenly see the world from the spider’s point of view.’ Perhaps some of the most welcome feedback came from author George R.R. Martin, whose cinema in Santa Fe was the location of the first test screening of the film: ‘Giant Tasmanian Cave Spiders and Neil Gaiman!! What more could you possibly want???’ That’s one testimonial that will certainly draw in more than just the spider lovers.
Niall also admits that ‘we suffer a bit from the perception that science and art… are different towers.’ People have been attempting to bring the two together in myriad ways in recent years, and perhaps it is time for film to take the plunge, using the influence of fiction and fantasy to draw in more diverse audiences. And this documentary definitely has a twist. Alongside the customary narrative of the science behind the Tasmanian cave spider’s life history, there is a more poetic side to the story. This is where Gaiman’s role comes in, bringing a ‘dark-fantasy’ edge to reinforce this already thrilling story about one of nature’s most unnerving organisms. Many would believe fantasy has no place in science – but isn’t truth often stranger than fiction? Niall tells me that ‘the film takes you into a world that is so unusual that it starts to surpass fantasy.’
There is also a third component to the film: a global perspective that takes into account how ‘these spiders fit into the global story of spider evolution.’ But if you’re worried about too much spider love, Niall assures me that a large portion of the documentary is dedicated to exploring and celebrating the natural history of the caves themselves – not just the spiders – as well as the stunning and unique environment of Tasmania in which the film is set.
Niall describes the cinematography as ‘absolutely glorious’ and compellingly explains that ‘it’s impossible for people to look at this film and not see the absolute beauty of the natural world.’ To him, ‘photographs are brilliant, but they’re that one frozen moment in time… Instead, you can construct a sequence and a narrative with film.’ Overall, the documentary almost functions ‘as an expedition into a cave, so by the end you feel like you’ve started on the surface, you’ve descended into the cave…and then you return to the surface having experienced this unique and unusual world.’
A short behind-the-scenes film, 16 Legs: Spider Love, has already received an impressive number of accolades in the lead-up to public screenings, and now the full feature, SIXTEEN LEGS itself, has won a Gold Award from Australian Cinematographers Society for Wildlife & Nature Cinematography, and Official Selection at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2017 and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (Washington D.C., where it will screen at the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, 2017), amongst several others. Additionally, a review of the full documentary was presented as the headline article in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s review of Science Books and Films in late 2016 – as the publishers of the world-renowned journal Science, this is considered significant recognition.
As the awards and festival selections suggest, this unique film is paving the way for a more unusual form of nature documentary: one that will hopefully appeal to a wider audience than simply those already possessing a passion for spiders and the natural world. Niall describes how ‘nature documentaries need to compete in a fast-paced, multi-tasking, media-rich world. We need to draw in audiences beyond the usual, including pop culture audiences that might not otherwise look twice at a nature documentary.’
A strong supporter of both the arts and sciences myself, it is difficult to disagree. We have unfortunately reached a stage where just doing the science is not enough – we need to passionately and accessibly communicate the importance of non-human species, their environments and their relevance to the viewer, which will in turn create a better quality of life not just in nature, but in the homes of those watching as well.
SIXTEEN LEGS will be screening at The Astor this Sunday 5th March and will be the first test screening of the film in Australia – purchase your tickets here to see both the film and Neil Gaiman who will be in attendance. If you can’t make it, the team at www.sixteenlegs.com will advise of future screenings, including the opportunity to express interest in screenings near you. All film profits will go towards the nature education and communication projects of Bookend Trust, of which you can read more about on their main website here as well as their Expedition Class website here.
Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.
Banner image courtesy of Joe Shemesh/Bookend Trust.