On the prowl 

Hunting the best of the International Wildlife Film Festival

Three weeks ago the wildlife film genre received another huge boost. Still thumping its chest after the runaway success of 2005’s March of the Penguins and Discovery Channel and BBC’s high-def ratings grabber “Planet Earth,” the industry reeled in a big-money fish when Walt Disney Company announced its intention to plunge headfirst into wildlife documentaries. Disneynature will debut in 2009 with two new films.

Signs like this breathe new life into the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF), now in its 31st year of hosting the genre’s best and most influential work.

“It’s huge,” says Janet Rose, IWFF’s executive director and festival coordinator. “Five years ago, if you attended IWFF there was a bleakness. There was a cynicism or negativity when thinking about opportunities in this industry. Now, those opportunities seem limitless. The whole genre is energized because, finally, these deserving films are starting to reach larger audiences.”

This year’s IWFF lineup reflects the upward momentum. The special guests—including field scientist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, filmmaker Hardy Jones and “Planet Earth” Executive Producer Alastair Fothergill—and films may be the festival’s deepest in years. With that in mind, we’ve previewed three of the top award-winners that had us believing the industry was indeed on the rise.

Saving Luna, 95 min.

Luna may just be the star of this year’s IWFF, a sure nominee for Best Actor, if the category existed. Never mind that he’s an orca, or “killer whale.” That hardly matters when considering such an irrepressible, gregarious fellow like Luna.

In this sweet—perhaps too loving at times—film, Luna finds himself alone and separated from his pod, inhabiting the serene waters of Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. He’s perfectly happy and well fed here, but there’s one problem: Luna needs playmates, and he ends up befriending anyone with a boat from the nearby logging town of Gold River. The townspeople are smitten. Luna allows children to pet him, he mugs for visiting fishermen’s cameras, and he literally hugs the boats of those he knows best. He’s a mischievous and loveable ham.

Canadian authorities and scientists, of course, view the adorable situation with considerably more alarm. Offering up sobering statistics of what happens when dolphins or whales have too much interaction with humans, officials step in to play the heavy. Or at least try—boats staffed with well-intentioned young women who work for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans motor up to Luna’s growing legion of fans and declare, “This is not a watchable whale,” whatever that means. Then they threaten an unenforceable $100,000 fine if boaters continue to encourage Luna. Later, at the docks, town policemen are asked to fine anyone who pets the orca; one grandmother who has a habit of stroking Luna’s tongue is fined $100.

Naturally, an all-out fight—deemed a “tug of whale”—ensues. Solutions are murky, and when the prospect of sending Luna to an aquarium enters the discussion, it seems everyone in Vancouver, especially members of the local Mowachaht Muchalaht First Nation, picks a side.

Saving Luna is a project undertaken by Michael Parfit and his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, former residents of St. Ignatius. The couple initially went to Gold River to write a freelance article for Smithsonian magazine, but ended up spending years following—and in some cases, getting intimately involved in—the story. Their connection to the area and the people is apparent. The only downside of their closeness to the subject matter comes in the form of Parfit’s syrupy narration, which reminds viewers too often of just how amazing this story is. When the story really does amaze such fawning becomes overkill.

But let’s not lose the point—Saving Luna is a fantastic story (hence it winning Best Storyline). It’s Free Willy with real-life consequences, more complex than just the heartwarming saga of an unprecedented animal-human bond. And, best of all, it introduces a young orca that will be hard for audiences to forget.

Screening: Thursday, May 15, at 7:30 PM and Friday, May 16, at 12:30 PM.

Fish and Cow, 19 min.

This year marks IWFF’s inaugural Montana Filmmakers Award, and Fish and Cow, which is directed by Rick Smith, a graduate of Montana State University’s Natural History Filmmaking Program, covers a topic at the top of our state’s more pressing environmental concerns: the disappearance of the native arctic grayling.

Smith’s film follows ranchers and biologists working together to improve the Big Hole River fishery. But despite the film’s optimistic tone, it’s an uphill battle (just read George Ochinski’s take, “Mourning in Montana,” May 17, 2007). If nothing else, Fish and Cow offers another window into a difficult and dire situation.

Screening: Wednesday, May 14, at 7:30 PM and Saturday, May 17, at 5 PM.

Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth, 49 min.

One of the opening shots of this BBC documentary shows the iconic snow leopard perched on a rock in a driving snowstorm. In that single regal image, you can begin to understand all of the mystery and intrigue surrounding such an elusive and stunning animal.

Scientists know very little about snow leopards. They reside in the rugged mountain ranges of Pakistan, and while they actually traipse close to villages and people, it’s a landscape most wildlife cinematographers and scientists haven’t covered.

Led by journalist and Pakistani native Nisar Malik, this film crew painstakingly traverses the equally gorgeous and treacherous terrain in hopes of going “beyond the myth,” as wildlife narrator extraordinaire David Attenborough so eloquently puts it. Not only does the crew accomplish its goal, it gets more than it bargains for when, a year after initial filming of a female snow leopard, they return to find a separate team of scientists has discovered her. What started as a basic look at how the endangered animal lives evolves into a debate over what’s best for its survival.

That debate drives a lot of Snow Leopard—as does some broader context on Pakistan and its reputation as a harbor of terrorism—but the footage of the animal itself is what will wow audiences. The sleek, agile cat negotiates impossibly steep cliffs with ease. It hunts with a deft balance of power and poise, using its pale coat to help blend into the rocky mountainsides. Even in moments of rest, its extensive tail swatting at annoying magpies, the snow leopard looks impressive. The larger commentary and controversy may be what makes Snow Leopard different—and worthy of Best of Festival honors, despite a rough cut of the same film debuting at last year’s IWFF—but I actually liked it for exactly the sort of awe-inspiring scenes the genre has traditionally been known to deliver. Some animals are just cool to watch.

Screening: Saturday, May 10, at 7:30 PM; Thursday, May 15, at 12:30 PM; and Friday, May 16, at 9:30 AM.

All films screen at the Wilma Theatre. $7/$5 students/$3 children under 12. $40 all-screening pass. Visit wildlifefilms.org for a complete schedule
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