It took me a few minutes after watching the last film to realize something was wrong. I double-checked my notes, re-read the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) program, then jumped online to triple-check. I couldn’t figure it out: What happened to David Attenborough?
You know Attenborough. If you’ve ever attended IWFF, the ubiquitous British naturalist has been involved in approximately every award-winning film ever shown at the festival, ever. At least it appears that way. Attenborough is to IWFF like Dick Clark is to New Year’s Eve, or like Missoula’s dancing couple is to any outdoor event at Caras Park. He’s inextricably linked.
But I watched six of this year’s honorees and Attenborough wasn’t associated with a single one. While it turns out Attenborough did sneak into the outer ring of this year’s winners’ circle—he narrates Best Educational Value honoree Charles Darwin and The Tree of Life, which I didn’t receive for review—he was left out of the big ticket awards. And you know what? I didn’t miss him. Not a bit. In fact, this year’s collection of lesser-name winners injects some fresh perspective into the wildlife genre. Here’s a look at five of the best newcomers.
The Legend of Pale Male (88 minutes)
It’s hard not to fall for this year’s Best of Festival winner, and I say that as someone who, at the start, couldn’t have cared less about the fortunes of a famous red-tailed hawk living in New York City. But like all good documentaries, this effort by rookie filmmaker Frederic Lilien includes enough unexpected turns and twisted characters to win over even the most apathetic viewer.
The story of Pale Male made national headlines in 2004, years after Lilien first discovered the hawk’s nest on an up-scale Fifth Avenue co-op. The film starts with Lilien, a 30-something Belgium native and former hair salon manager, deciding to take up wildlife photography on a whim. Pale Male becomes his muse, and Lilien joins a dedicated group of bird watchers fixated on the hawk’s every move. Interesting, maybe, to Audubon fanatics, but ultimately an unremarkable story that relies too heavily on Lilien.
That is, until the bourgeois co-op decides to boot the hawk. Then things get interesting—and I’m not just talking about the heroic appearance of former sitcom sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore. The hawk-hate whips Pale Male’s most adoring fans into a picketing frenzy, and hundreds decide to join the fight. Moore, who lives in the co-op, helps lead the charge. Next thing you know, Conan is doing skits with a fake Pale Male, Regis is joking about adopting the hawk, and the co-op, which happens to be headed by CNN anchor Paula Zahn’s husband, backpedals to try to make things right.
Lilien uses 16 years of footage—16 years!—to tell Pale Male’s entire story. By the end, it appears the project was worth the wait.
Showing: Sat., May 9, 2:30 PM; Sun, May 10, 7:30 PM; Sat., May 16, 7:30 PM
Green (48 minutes)
You know where this is going: The opening scene shows Green, an orangutan, stuffed in a duffle bag, her head hanging outside the bag and bobbing limply as a pickup truck takes her away. Green’s not dead, but her blank stare shows no hope.
This moving documentary doesn’t do hope. It’s about the harsh realities of deforestation in Indonesia and, more broadly, the effects of rampant global consumption. Green serves as just one symbol of abuse, and the film—without narration or interviews—jumps back and forth between the orangutan’s recovery room and the actions that led her there. IWFF awarded Green the festival’s Sapphire Award for second place, as well as honors for Best Editing.
Showing: Fri., May 15, 7:30 PM; Sat., May 16, 5 PM
Amba The Russian Tiger (50 minutes)
Amba offers an interesting Zen approach to wildlife films. Noted British wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan sets off to eastern Russia and the remote forests of Ussuriland to find the famed Russian tiger. He fails—sort of a bummer for those primed for a wildlife film festival—but becomes immersed in the locals’ near-mythic accounts of the animal. At least Buchanan ends with a convincing journey-not-the-destination message. This film wins Best Sound Design, Best Use of Music and, from me, best scenes involving naked dudes getting beat up by olive branches.
Showing: Sat., May 9, 7:30 PM; Fri., May 15, 5:30 PM
The Riddle in a Bottle (30 minutes)
This Special Jury winner is purely for fans of the Noggin Network or PBS Kids Sprout. Your little one will learn a lot about the ocean, including a neat lesson on currents and tides. My 3-year-old loved it. I’m embarrassed to show off my knowledge within the demographic and call it a cross between Disney’s “Zoboomafoo” and Discovery Kids’ “Mystery Hunters.” Let’s move on.
Showing: Mon, May 11, 9:30 AM; Wed., May 13, 9:30 AM; Thu., May 14, 12:30 PM; and Fri., May 15, 9:30 AM.
“Yellowstone: Episode 1, Winter” (60 minutes)
This quintessential wildlife documentary from the BBC gorgeously captures Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter. Touted as the first high-def footage of the park, it features breathtaking aerial shots, vivid animal encounters and exquisite snow-covered landscapes. The program deserves its award for the festival’s Best Cinematography.
Wolves rule Yellowstone in winter, and their story dominates here. In one scene, a male loner tries to secretly mate with a female from a pack. When wolves mate, they’re literally locked together for at least 30 minutes. That makes things mighty interesting when the pack’s alpha male catches the loner in the act—and attacks.
Wolves are just part of the appeal. Perhaps my favorite shots showed foxes hunting for mice and fish buried under feet of snow and icy waters. The bison images are iconic, as expected, and Yellowstone’s geothermal pools appear otherworldly. “Winter” is why I return to IWFF every year, with or without Sir Attenborough.
Showing: Sat., May 9, 7:30 PM; Tue., May 12, 12:30 PM; Sat., May 16, 5 PM
The 32nd International Wildlife Film Festival runs May 9–16 at the Wilma Theatre. $7/$5 student/$3 under 12/$40 all-screenings pass. For a complete schedule, visit www.wildlifefilms.org.