It's a wild world 

Dolphins, hippos and hummingbirds fill the 33rd annual IWFF

As the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) hits the Wilma Theatre this week, it's easy to note that not only does 2010 mark the 33rd anniversary of the world's oldest wildlife film festival, but also the 33rd anniversary of the world's most depressing set of documentaries.

This is not entirely true, of course. Yes, many of the nearly 50 films screening this week will leave you in tears or clenching fists in anger as you slouch in your seat and wonder why the world isn't a better place. It's okay to get angry. But, it's also okay to relax and smile, too, and IWFF provides ample opportunities for some feel-good moments, as well (a good rule is to look for titles that contain "hummingbird" or "prairie dog"). Here we give you a taste of a few films from both categories:

click to enlarge The Cove is one of 50 wildlife - films screening at this week’s 33rd International Wildlife Film Festival.
  • The Cove is one of 50 wildlifefilms screening at this week’s 33rd International Wildlife Film Festival.

The Cove

This is a documentary unlike any you've seen. It plays out like a caper movie, following a motley group of U.S. activists, divers, technicians and photographers who make it their mission to expose the annual slaughter of more than 23,000 dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and bring to light the exploitation of dolphins that are spared death in exchange for captivity at sea parks around the world.

It's an ultimately brutal film that earns its PG-13 rating. The filmmakers are not welcome by the Japanese; the group is filmed and followed by Taiji fisherman, government officials and even the chief of police. There is a lot at stake for the town, whereevery day between March and September, migrating dolphins are scared toward the shore and captured. Many are sold to parks like Sea World for more than $150,000 each. The rest are moved to a cove outside of public view and slaughtered for food. To make matters worse, most dolphin meat is full of mercury and highly toxic, a major public health threat that is either overlooked or covered up by the Japanese government, according to the film.

These facts—as well as information about the intelligence and self-awareness of dolphins—are interspersed between clips of the covert mission to place video and audio devices in the cove. The payoff will leave you queasy for a while. The questions will linger even longer.

The Cove screens Saturday, May 8, at 7:30 PM; Monday, May 10, at 12:30 PM; and Friday, May 14, at 7:30 PM.

First Flight: A Mother Hummingbird's Story

To douse the accrued frustration and anger of watching The Cove, First Flight provides a welcome antidote that children will love and adults will appreciate. In this light, 45-minute feature we follow the life of a hummingbird over the course of several years as she hatches and raises her young beneath a sheltered, backyard clothesline.

In a convenient coincidence, the mother hummingbird happens to be nesting at the new home of a photographer/filmmaker couple who have the equipment and patience necessary to film the tiny bird as she raises her chicks. The process is meticulous; the nest is half the size of a walnut shell and the eggs are the size of coffee beans. But through the use of mirrors, time-lapse video and a good zoom lens, we get a close-up view of all the action.

Narrated by Noriko Carroll as if reading a bedtime story, First Flight manages to avoid drowning in its own cuteness thanks to a delicate touch and intelligent script.

First Flight screens Sunday, May 9, at 2:30 PM; Thursday, May 13, at 9:30 AM and 7:30 PM.

Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom

Near the beginning of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, one of the volunteer scientists in charge of tracking wolverines in Glacier National Park recounts the tale of one wolverine who, in the middle of January, decided to cross a ridge via the summit of Mount Cleveland, the highest point in the park. He did so successfully, at one point covering an astonishing 4,900 vertical feet in 90 minutes.

Such stories make this Montana-made documentary about the "ice age weasel" a pleasure to watch. But the film contains more than just anecdotal tales of these rare North American mammals. Stunning video of the wolverines in action showcases their hunting skills and helps to dispel common myths, including that of the wolverine as a total loner. The nighttime motion camera that catches two Alaskan wolverines in the same frame is downright eerie.

Wolverine screens Saturday, May 8, at 2:30 PM; Thursday, May 13, at 12:30 PM; and Saturday, May 15, at 5:30 PM.

Expedition Grizzly

It's hard not to like Casey Anderson, the narrator who shares protagonist duties in this documentary with Brutus, the 800-pound grizzly he has raised since birth and treats like the family dog.

Anderson spends much of the film tracking grizzlies (without Brutus in tow) throughout Yellowstone National Park. There's a lot of intense whispered narration as he describes how close the bears are getting to him. Kids will like this movie, and they'll probably learn some things. Adults won't be able to ignore a number of self-serving scenes, as well as the nagging feeling that keeping an 800-pound grizzly as a pet is not going to end well.

Expedition Grizzly screens Saturday, May 8, at 2:30 PM; Tuesday, May 11, at 9:30 AM; Friday, May 14, at 9:30 AM; and Saturday, May 15, at 5:30 PM.

Africa's Lost Eden

Not quite as depressing—or as well filmed—as The Cove, Africa's Lost Eden is nonetheless a gripping look at efforts to restore Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park following the country's horrific Civil War. The 15-year conflict killed more than 1 million people and left a former wildlife paradise with almost no remaining animals.

The film documents the often heartbreaking process of trying to relocate elephants and hippos from more than 1,000 miles away in order to re-establish herds large enough to survive. It also takes a look at the animals that fared better than most during the war—namely crocodiles, which are flourishing today. The "seeds of restoration" may be planted, but there's still a long way to go.

Africa's Lost Eden screens Sunday, May 9, at 7:30 PM; Thursday, May 13, at 12:30 PM; and Saturday, May 15, at 7:30 PM.

The International Wildlife Film Festival runs May 8–15. All screenings at the Wilma Theatre. $7/$5 student/$3 youth per film, or $40 full pass. Visit www.wildlifefilms.org for a full schedule.

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