One of the most intriguing films at this year's International Wildlife Film Festival is a mystery of sorts. Hunt for the Super Predator, an Australian documentary by Michael Lynch, follows a great white shark via a tracking device as it's chased and eaten by what appears to be a much larger creature. But what is it? Talk about the perfect documentary for science fans and lovers of the BBC's "Sherlock."
The 37th annual festival, which runs Sat., April 12–Sat., April 19, will screen over 60 films, many of which play to an audience that's thirsty for a super predator storyline. Mike Steinberg, director/programmer at the Roxy Theater, took over the IWFF last year and changed the focus beyond animals to cover conservation and environmental issues that directly and indirectly link to wildlife issues. Hunt for the Super Predator screens Mon., April 14, at the Roxy. Here are four other anticipated festival films on subjects ranging from GMO controversies to the "Game of Thrones"-style strategies of lion kings.
About 10 minutes into watching this film at home, I paused, mid-chew with a mouthful of popcorn, and looked ruefully at my bowl. The non-organic Orville Redenbacher was undoubtedly just a few kernels of the 88 percent of corn in America that's genetically modified. Dammit.
Filmmaker Jeremy Seifert's 2013 documentary GMO OMG explains how pervasive GMOs have already become in our food supply, in a style that's light on science terms and heavy on cute graphics and shots of luscious (GMO) ice cream cones. He focuses his lens on his young, precocious kids as his motivation for investigating GMOs and what risk they might pose to our health. He asks people on the street and corporation representatives a simple question: Are GMOs safe? In the process, he travels from southern California to Haiti, where farmers are burning Monsanto seeds, to the international seed bank in Svalbard, Norway.
GMO OMG is definitely one of the prettiest films about corporate greed and modern agriculture I've ever seen. (The Mumford and Sons song on the soundtrack made me roll my eyes, but whatever engages the kids these days, I guess.) Seifert insists he's not trying to dismiss scientific advances, but asking for more rigorous testing on GMOs before they become 90 percent of the American diet. Oops, too late.
If you're familiar with the debate, GMO OMG will mostly be an emotional reminder of the sustainable ag movement's fight. For those who aren't familiar with the issues, the film covers a broad swath in a short time. As for the question Seifert is asking, it's no spoiler to say we still don't have a satisfactory answer. (KW)
GMO OMG screens at the Roxy Mon., April 14, at 7 PM.
Game of Lions
Blood and gore. Battles for bloodline supremacy. Masculine aggression. Ferocious maternal instincts. Adolescent struggles for survival. It's not just the plotline for the next episode of "Game of Thrones," but the daily lives of African lions, as captured in this 2013 documentary shot by husband-and-wife team Dereck and Beverly Joubert for the National Geographic Channel.
Only one out of eight lions survives into adulthood, and as we see in the documentary, it's because the African wild poses threats like angry water buffalo, droughts and starvation. Lion cubs can even be squashed by overly cuddly lionesses. If they make it to adolescence, they're kicked out of the pride to wander, often starving, to try to grow big and tough enough to become king of their own group. That's Mother Nature for you.
Since these are animals we're talking about, Game of Lions, from last year's award winning filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert, is more family friendly than anything on HBO. The basic storyline follows a few individual lions in Botswana, with contemplative narration from Jeremy Irons (who, fittingly enough, voiced Scar in The Lion King). Be warned that Game of Lions is still pretty upsetting—fuzzy, big-eyed baby animals die here. But that doesn't even compare to the film's final gut-punch. Lions are facing extinction, because as brutal as nature's system of checks and balances is, human interference has wreaked much worse havoc. That injustice is not just some fictional plot twist. (KW)
Game of Lions screens at the Roxy Thu., April 17, at 5 PM.
"It was kind of embarrassing how little I knew about dams when I started this film," says Ben Knight at the beginning of DamNation. The statement suggests one of the most valuable aims a documentary filmmaker can strive for: to show us exactly what we don't know about subjects we take for granted.
DamNation, directed by Knight and Travis Rummel, unfolds in three parts, opening strong with a brief history of United States dam projects and an overview of the conflict over dam removal. Next it examines the threat of dams to the salmon population and the communities that rely on salmon fishing. That part drags, but it's worth it for the breathtaking footage of dams exploding and rivers rushing back to life. Finally, DamNation takes a look at Earth-Firster Mikal Jakubal's proto-Banskian artistic assault on a few dams in the 1980s, starting when he rappelled off the top of the 300-foot Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite to paint a 40-foot crack down the concrete face.
While unapologetically biased on the side of dam removal, the film does its best to give voice to both sides (though most pro-dam politicians refused to be interviewed). DamNation's shrewd narrative and devastatingly gorgeous cinematography alert us to what kind of ecological impact even seemingly innocuous industrial projects can have on the environment and sustainable food sources like salmon fishing.
Knight admits that after working on this film he'll never look at dams the same way. I doubt anyone who watches DamNation will either. (JW)
DamNation screens at the Roxy Tue., April 15, at 7 PM.
She Wolf, by Montana filmmaker Bob Landis, follows the dramatic story of an extraordinary Yellowstone National Park wolf. Not long after her birth in 2006, the aptly-named She Wolf was forced to leave her family and create one of her own. Soon she became an alpha pack leader, rare for a female in the wolf world. The film explores the difficult years living on her own, her rise to power, and the triumphs and tragedies of her pack.
This all might sound a little like the summary of a fictional drama, but that's exactly how She Wolf plays out. There's a great scene where a herd of buffalo helps her survive. Her time as a lone wolf teaches her to become an expert hunter. She finds two young male wolves, mates with one, and while pregnant has to step into leadership because of the males' inexperience. They battle a rival pack. They venture outside of the park to avoid starvation. The whole Yellowstone wildlife spectrum seems to join in like a supporting cast, from grizzlies to bald eagles to coyotes. In many ways it's the stuff of storybooks.
Though the narration often tends to be trite and repetitive, the photography is intimate and the heart of the story, riveting. Its best moments range from tender to brutal. Landis delivers his anti-wolf-hunting position with tact and never belabors the point. The lives of the wolves speak for themselves. (JW)
She Wolf screens at the Roxy Sat., April 12, at 7:15 PM. Visit wildlifefilms.org for a full schedule.This article was updated April 10 to reflect the correct name of the directors for the documentary film DamNation.