32 minutes, 2001, DVCAM/Super 8

“The Naturalist”
The Dog Pile, August 21, 2001
by Matt Hudson

This is one those moments where I find myself sitting here scratching my head and thinking, “What the ?!#@” On the table in front of me is a copy of The Naturalist. A rather short documentary about a man by the name of Kent Bonar. I’m thinking about the fact that the fine folks here at “The Dog Pile” like reviews in the area of a thousand words. And I’m thinking that if I write that much and you read my review, then you might not need to watch the documentary.

Right now you’re probably asking me in your head, “Who is Kent Bonar and why did they make this documentary that you apparently have a problem with?” I’m egotistical enough to think you readers care about me, so allow me my fantasies, please. Kent Bonar is a man who has spent most of his life traveling the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas on foot. He has examined the plant and animal life there, made extensive illustrations of the plants, leaves, seeds, and insects that belong to the region, and devoted his life to the continued study of the Ozarks and its natural dynamics. He is a man who has made a commitment that few can understand and even fewer would consider accepting.

With the set up out of the way, let me jump to my “problem” with this documentary - it is too damn short! The running time is roughly thirty-five minutes. I was quite prepared to settle in and listen to this man discuss the interconnections of the region’s plant life to the health of the Ozarks as a whole or, even though it is a bit trite these days, talk about how man is destroying the eco-system there with very specific examples. I could have even enjoyed letting the man wax poetic in the vein of Thoreau, a person Kent Bonar is often compared to in the interviews with the people who know him. The fact that one of those interviewed is moved to tears while talking about Mr. Bonar is enough to tell me that I want to spend more time in the company of this man of nature.

But I don’t get to. I can understand that making this film as short as it is, was probably a very wise move in a business sense. At roughly thirty minutes, it can be marketed to public television stations or be the right length for museum patrons to sit through if featured in an exhibit. However, it almost seems to undermine the stature of Kent Bonar’s achievements and life’s mission. And that saddens me greatly.

I don’t want to give the impression that the film is bad. It isn’t. If anything, it succeeds too well. I mean, the photography is appropriately scenic and beautiful. And the interviews with people who are Kent’s friends or have worked with him are good at showing how he has touched other people’s lives. But the subject of the film is so interesting that keeping it as such a short film just leaves the viewer disappointed.

So, if you have read this far and I have caught your attention, let me tell you what to do. Contact High Plains Films, the company who distributes the film, and get a copy. Ask for The Naturalist. And when you have finished, if you feel shortchanged in getting to know more about this man, let them know. Maybe if enough people hound them, they might contact Doug Hawes-Davis, the person who made the documentary, and push him to make a feature-length film that gives Kent Bonar and his life the amount of film time that it deserves.