With all the talk of wolf hunts and quotas these days, it's hard to imagine a time before themunless you remember 1995, when wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies. True Wolf revisits that controversy with the story of a wolf pup named Koani that was born into captivity in 1991 and raised in the Bitterroot. The couple who raised her, biologist Pat Tucker and filmmaker Bruce Weide, along with their dog Indy, became her unlikely pack.
The wolf was left to Tucker and Weide by another filmmaker, which forced a decision: euthanize Koani, who lacked the wild skills to survive outside of captivity, or keep and tame her. They went a step further and utilized the opportunity to educate people about wolves. Their organization, Wild Sentry, is devoted to demystifying the wolf, and over Koani's 16 years the pack has visited thousands of classrooms across America. The goal was to show the wolf as it is: something close to a dog but wild and complex. The couple still struggles with their decision to give Koani a decidedly un-wild life.
True Wolf is mostly archived video shot by Weide, who says he took it to someday tell the story of Koani. After her death in 2007, he started putting the pieces together, eventually finding Missoula filmmaker Rob Whitehair to direct the project. The archived Koani footage is accompanied by interviews and more recent wild wolf footage. Whitehair recently chatted with the Indy about howling for wolves, the making of the film and the stories we tell ourselves.
Indy: You've shot several nature documentaries featuring the California condor, the elephant seal and others. So why wolves, and why now?
Whitehair: I made my California condor film, and sent it up here to the IWFF [International Wildlife Film Festival]. I was really excited about the prospects of what this career could do for me. That was 1996. I was working as a wildlife ecologist at the time.
So I came up here, went backpacking in the Bob Marshall. I had an experience with a wolf: I howled, I didn't know any better at the time, but all of a sudden here's a return howl. I was absolutely floored. Later that night, that wolf came into camp. It was one of those experiences; as soon as that happened, I said, "I've got to live here, in Montana, and at some point make a movie about wolves."
Indy: Using all of this archival footage, was it hard putting that together not using your own shots or your own vision?
Whitehair: Bruce had approached a couple filmmakers before me, and they had their own ideas to maybe not use as much of the archival footage and shoot re-creations just have the whole thing based on re-creations with a living wolf. But I thought, "No that's not it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have to see what it was actually like." It took me about six months to go through all the footage, hundreds of hours. It's so impressive to me that there's as much footage as there was when they had to be taking care of the wolf, too, and being careful with people around it. It was a 24/7 thing, and to actually get footage of that, it's amazing.
Indy: What is your intended audience for the movie?
Whitehair: Initially, the main thing is that target audience you want to get to; we know wolf people are going to love it. But the thing that happened with me and this film is that it became larger because the wolf acts as this charismatic animal to tell the larger story of how stories influence us in civil discourse. Especially in today's day and time, when we're just so polarized, we're so hellbent on screaming at each other and not coming up with any solutions. Well, here's a golden opportunity. I think there's a pretty wide swath of people that will end up liking the film.
Indy: You talk with a variety of vantage points. Why didn't you talk to a rancher?
Whitehair: Well, we talked to Ron Gillette. He's kind of the quintessential spokesperson for all of the anti-wolf sentiment. One of the things I really didn't want to do was stack the deck. Especially with the wolf issue, it's really easy to do. I really wanted a balanced approach. We know there are problems. We know wolves kill livestock. The key is, on both sides, we need to come to a compromise of some sort in order for the wolf to become just the wolf, and get rid of these stories. It's not the demon, it's not the deity. The sooner we drop those myths and legends, the easier it's going to be to work together.
Indy: How do you think Koani's story will change people's minds?
Whitehair: The soul aim of this was to show what a wolf really was. In the end run, what I hope is that people will look at this and say, "Huh. We really do have to question the stories we've grown up with, the stories we keep telling ourselves. Are those based in facts?" That's the one thing I'd like anyone to get out of this.
True Wolf screens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, June 29, at 7 PM and 9 PM. A Q&A with Whitehair, Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide follows the 7 PM screening. Visit truewolfmovie.com for more info. $7.50/$5.50 students.