Look back in danger 

Taste-testing a sampler platter of prize-winning wildlife films

What’s your pleasure? Tiger? Iguana? Squirrel? Here’s the International Wildlife Film Festival and you can take your pick. Elephants, penguins, mosquitoes, cheetahs, whales and squirrels crowd this year’s screens. One of the nice things about mounting such a festival is that it’s really guaranteed to please, because who can resist? Admit it: You’ve flipped the channels late at night looking for NASCAR or a blind-date show only to find yourself completely transfixed by the plight of the clown fish, or brought to tears by the call of the hungry baby cheetah missing its mother. Something about animals—we can’t not watch them.

Wildlife films seem to fall chiefly into two categories. In the first, animals are edited and narrated to resemble humans, a trick always popular with kids. The other category concerns more pragmatic themes of extinction and preservation. In fact, the two categories are at odds; the anthropomorphized images make us insensible to the animals in their own right, and the eco-crusade has to work uphill against childhood preconceptions. The International Wildlife Film Festival’s 44 films manage to address both ends of this spectrum, and what follows is a random sampling of this year’s winners.

The Festival opens it screenings with City Slickers (First Place, Children’s Program), an amusing movie of about an hour in length with a friendly narrator and a jaunty score. The focus is on a colony of South African penguins that lives side by side with people. Two principal penguins are identified, named (Henry and Margo) and followed, as they waddle among the bathers on the sand, steal bikini tops to build nests, and launch midnight raids on garages and gardens. A government ordinance protects the birds from virtually any intervention, and residents must tolerate the noise, stink and droppings of the comic animals. It all feels much like those Disney features of thirty years ago, including the overly wise narrator who interjects with little jocular warnings to the creatures.

Wildly swinging to the other end of the spectrum, Ape Hunters (First Place, Conservation and Environmental) explores the illegal hunts and trade in bush meat in Cameroon. As they have for generations, the rural residents hunt chimpanzees and gorillas, to eat and to sell. Primate meat is sweet, rare and expensive on the streets of the bigger cities, and those who can sell the kill profit well. The BBC documentary is a graphic and frank depiction of the hunting practices, intended to sicken the viewer to the point of outrage (don’t bring young children). Its interviews are careful and diverse, compelling and honest. Overall, the film seems respectful of all viewpoints without overtly pushing one agenda, while revealing a dilemma and debate. The footage of slaughtered gorillas—their charred, smoked bodies and severed limbs—is indeed horrifying, not least because the primate body parts look like ours. The movie concentrates on the different perceptions of these animals depending on a Western or African bias.

Iguanas: Living Like Dinosaurs (Best of Festival, Best Photography, First Place Television Program) has blissfully close-up footage of iguanas, partly in an effort to evoke the hugeness of dinosaurs, partly because this genre demands it. This is a more straightforward nature film: watch iguana climb the tree, watch iguana dig its nest, watch iguana outwit predators. The film suggests that the social patterns of these modern-day lizards echo those of the dinosaurs, but the film’s script too often sounds cautious. “These amazing creatures may indeed be possibly mimicking their prehistoric ancestors and might one day give us clues to how those giant beasts lived.” That sort of thing (italics mine). The intended audience of, say, eight-year-olds won’t much notice all this hedging, but the unscientific, tentative circumspection does limit the film’s power. The audience can find satisfaction instead in the masterful camera work, the sparkling, microscopic shots of iguana claws ripping into bark.

In Bilby Brothers: The Men Who Killed the Easter Bunny (First Place, Independent category), the audience travels to the distant reaches of the Australian outback, 11 hours of dry driving from Brisbane, to capture a zoologist at work as he devotes himself full-time to increasing the bilby population. His efforts draw the attention of a widowed parks ranger, and they team up to build awareness and a preserve for these little-known creatures (this involves, among other things, tote bags and plush toys). A bilby is about the size of a rabbit, with translucent ears equal to the size of its body and a long, feral snout. Ever since the Australian rabbit plague of the early 20th century, bilbies have been on the decline as their resources are consumed and habitats eliminated. The movie, in an uplifting, heroic way, emphasizes not only the importance of rescuing animals from extinction but the overwhelming efforts it will take to do so (my son was eager to pledge his allowance to the Save the Bilby Fund at the movie’s end). The eccentric characters around whom the story is told give this movie its depth, and actually this is a documentary rather about obsession than animals.

There’s the story, too, of the man who loves flying squirrels, titled The Flying Squirrel (Second Place, Newcomer category), about a man who buys a house in a Finnish forest in order to get close to the objects of his affection. When he isn’t in the woods with his homespun tracking gear, he’s in the garage building squirrel dens to post in nearby trees. Happy to laugh at his own preoccupation, he makes fun of his decade-long efforts to document the elusive creature. “But no matter how many times I’ve seen the squirrel’s flight,” he says, “it is always beautiful and eerie.” And there’s plenty of proof: slow-motion footage of the rodents who shape their bodies into kites and achieve up to 100 meters of distance. Young audiences will most appreciate the camera placed a few feet below the squirrel on the tree trunk for an intimate glimpse at a squirrel pooping. High schoolers may be more amused by the mating practices, which include the male squirrel as busy in the hips as a hummingbird’s wings. Again, the film winds toward the depressing conclusion that diminishing habitat has threatened a species to the brink of extinction. The naturalist would, he tells us, buy a forest as his legacy if he could, to ensure the survival of the species after he’s gone.

With over 40 screenings, the film festival can illuminate the worlds of dozens and dozens of fish and animals—wild dogs, squid, sea turtles, the elephants of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Timbuktu, the animals closer to our home such as the bison and grizzly bear.

With a captive audience, the filmmakers hit the extinction theme hard, but it is impossible to resist the urgency of preservation watching all this. Like the reporters in Ape Hunters, who are asked to purchase an orphaned baby gorilla, we are quickly drawn into a worldwide crisis that demands some sort of action. But what? It seems that our possibilities are limited to the near-crazed mania of the Bilby Brothers. As we film and watch animals, we come up again and again against our own species, humans having decimated resources, habitats and eco-systems while profit and consumption are placed at a premium. The movies illuminate a vanishing beauty and inspire a renewed sense of appreciation and responsibility for the earth as a home for all life.

One African hunter, who has been converted into a conservationist, demands of his documenters, “Why do you say this is our problem?” The apes face extinction because people hunt them for meat, and Western outrage and attention have created a hostile pressure on traditional life. Long ago, the gorilla was hunted in balanced proportion to its population, which stretched far into the African forests. Those forests, however, are gone. “You have to make a change,” the hunter insists. “Your Western world has to stop wanting and consuming the goods supplied by these forests.” And we feel the unpleasant sting of accountability as well as the intricate network that binds all life forms together.

The 26th annual International Wildlife Film Festival films are scheduled for screening from Saturday, April 19 through Saturday, April 26 at the Wilma Theatre. Call 728-9380 for info.

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