Once, it was all lions prowling in the grass, getting ready to pounce on some poor, hapless impala. Or chimps picking the critters off of other remarkably human-like chimps. The presence of animals in nonfiction films used to put them in one category: The Nature Show.

Poster for Project Nim, a documentary directed by James Marsh

2011’s Project Nim, directed
by James Marsh (Man on Wire),
is no nature documentary.

I grew up in the ’70s, watching one of the greats of the genre, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” every Sunday. But we’re way past that now. Sure, there are all sorts of nature shows on TV, but there is also a steady stream of narrative documentaries that feature animals as characters with storylines that go beyond mere mating or hunting habits. Most notably, this summer, there was Project Nim, James Marsh’s portrait of a chimp who was the subject of a controversial behavioral experiment. And there was Buck, which focused on a horse whisperer, but was also very much about the animals he cared for.

Those are just two drops in an expanding pool, thanks to the stunning success of animal-focused films such as March of the Penguins and Winged Migration. A very big part of this surge must be the many, many animal lovers. Eleven million Americans are members of The Humane Society of the United States, which has recently gotten involved in the documentary film business.

The animal welfare organization has been, for five years, sponsoring the annual ACE (Animal Content in Entertainment) Documentary Film Grant, which this year is giving more than $20,000 to nonfiction filmmakers highlighting animal advocacy. (Past grants winners include Lisa Leeman’s One Lucky Elephant and Michael Webber’s The Elephant in the Living Room.) The deadline for the grant is Sept. 2, 2011, and there’s more information about ACE at humanesociety.org.

Jonny Vasic of The Humane Society and 'Whale Wars'

Jonny Vasic (“Whale Wars”) faces
a different kind of beast in his
work with The Humane Society.

The grant is about more than the money, according to Jonny Vasic, who works out of the Hollywood office for The Humane Society. Vasic says that it’s an opportunity to get one’s film seen by a panel of judges who are documentary gatekeepers and decision-makers. In addition to the grant, ACE is a resource, willing to lend out their experts or do research for documentary filmmakers who need animal-related information. They also have all of those members who can be reached via social media, which can create a groundswell of support for a film. (These are not the guys who deem whether animals were harmed in the making of a particular film, by the way. That’s the American Humane Association. The Humane Society promotes positive representation of animals in film and on television.)

Vasic also happens to be one of the creators of the ever-popular “Whale Wars” reality show on Animal Planet, about tough anti-whalers. Despite his claim to fame on TV, he is enthusiastic about feature documentaries. “I think with a good solid documentary, you are getting more real,” he says. “In a docu-reality series, there’s so much crunching of time and taking things out of context. With a movie like Buck, you feel you are getting access in a genuine way.”

Vasic and I were throwing around some of our favorite animal docs — He’s a big fan of The Cove, but he had qualms about one of my favorites, Grizzly Man. This got me thinking it’s about time for a Doc Soup Man list! Look out for one next week…

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen