You can't blame the International Wildlife Film Festival if its feels a bit defensive these days. First, the venerable institution—now in its 36th year, it's the oldest and longest-running wildlife film festival in the world—has seen its position of local prominence diluted a bit over the last decade, with the emergence of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. (Of course, it's not as if the two festivals can't—or don't—peacefully coexist.) Secondly, longtime IWFF director Janet Rose departed abruptly, in a career move to Pittsburgh, just a few short months before the kickoff of this year's festival on Saturday, April 27.
But the IWFF board responded gamely, hiring former Big Sky director Mike Steinberg to lead the 2013 event. The Independent recently spoke with Steinberg about the challenges of getting up to speed, and his vision for the festival going forward.
IWFF is a significant logistical challenge, and you had just over two months to pull it together. What were your thoughts when the IWFF board approached you?
Mike Steinberg: I knew if I could pull together a team, we could do this because I have great resources and a great network in the Missoula community. Having worked with several awesome people at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I knew if they were available we could make it happen. After little research, we said, "Okay, nine weeks until the film festival—let's do it!"
The tagline for this year's festival is "Come Back To The Wild." Is the focus of this year's festival to re-engage the Missoula community?
MS: Absolutely. Our primary goal is local audience-building, to get our audience back and get them to recognize how relevant and extraordinary this content is.
What are some other goals this year?
MS: Our second focus is emerging filmmakers. We feel that IWFF can be the place for emerging filmmakers, for people trying to connect to the broader industry and trying to bring their work to bigger audiences. We're doing that through the newly established Newcomer Award, and through the panels and discussions that have been the hallmark of festival week. And our third focus, because it's a crucial issue in wildlife filmmaking and conservation, is the question of ethics in the media. How do you tell a scientific story, keep it true to the science and reality of the issue, but not make it "reality TV"?
The popularity of nonfiction films in general has exploded over the past decade. What makes wildlife films relevant in this burgeoning industry?
MS: Wildlife films offer the most primordial sense of voyeurism. We can't get close to many of these animals in the wild, but we can sit there and watch and observe in that way we probably did a long time ago. Coming back to the wild myself, I realized once again, what's so awesome is the kind of understanding about our own species that we can gain from these films. Wildlife films are made for our species, right? They're for our benefit, but ultimately they're for the benefit of all living creatures, because we're learning things about ourselves, we're learning things about them and we're doing what we can to help as a result of what we learn. Many of the films address environmental issues, species being threatened by pollution, poaching, climate change, etc. In terms of relevance, what more could you ask?
For all the changes to IWFF in 2013, it's important to note that the festival will still deliver the events and programming that have allowed it to thrive for three decades. Those highlights include the ever-popular WildWalk Parade and WildFest, youth programming outreach, industry workshops, readings and the awards ceremony.
And then, of course, there are the films. More than 75 wildlife and nature films will be screened over the eight days of the festival, covering just about every type of species and habitat on the planet. Here's a sneak peek at a few of them:
Wings of Life
An incredibly shot and beautifully constructed film, Wings of Life tells the story of the unsung heroes of plant life—pollinators—and the complex symbiotic relationships they hold with the plants they service. The high-speed, slow-motion footage of bees, bats, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies going about their business is jaw-dropping, as are the wiles by which plant species have evolved to attract and assist their winged helpers.
Wings of Life screens Sat., April 27 at 7 PM at the Roxy Theater and Mon., April 29, at 5 PM at the Top Hat.
Battle for Elephants
Bozeman filmmaker John Heminway's latest is a compelling combination of conventional documentary and investigative journalism work. Part call to action, part exposé, Battle for Elephants outlines the dire condition of African elephant populations and the seemingly insatiable desire for ivory in Asian markets. Along the way, Heminway calls out corrupt government officials, black marketers and the wealthy collectors who drive demand for the precious ivory.
Battle for Elephants screens Wed., May 1, at 7 PM and Sat., May 4, at 5:15 PM at the Roxy.
The Last Lions
While it calls attention to the plummeting populations of African lions, The Last Lions engages viewers on a much more personal level. The film documents a story with eerie parallels to the human experience: A newly widowed lioness chooses independence rather than subservience to the pack that killed her mate, and she struggles to survive and rear her infant cubs outside the fold. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, and packed with all the action and suspense you'd expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, The Last Lions is a constant wonder.
The Last Lions screens Sat., May 4, at 3:15 PM at the Roxy.
The International Wildlife Film Festival runs Sat., April 27 to Sat., May 4 at the Roxy Theater, Wilma and Top Hat. Single screenings are $7/$6 for seniors/$5 for students/$3 for children. Full festival passes are $45. Visit wildlifefilms.org for full schedule and details.