When Mike Steinberg took over the International Wildlife Film Festival four years ago, Chuck Jonkel paid him a visit at the Roxy Theater. Jonkel, who founded the festival in 1977, was known around town as the bear guy—a wildlife biologist who started the Great Bear Foundation, a pioneer of bear management and a colorful storyteller who could often be found at the farmers market helping children make bear paws out of grizzly molds. People always attributed an ursine quality to his character.
"He just came around the theater one day," Steinberg says. "There was a note waiting for me when I got in that said, 'Chuck Jonkel is looking for you.' He sort of stalked me—and I think that was very bear-like of him."
Steinberg says Jonkel was interested in meeting to size him up, to see what kind of person was going to carry on the legacy of the International Wildlife Film Festival, which is the first and longest-running event in the world focused on wildlife films. For Steinberg, it was a daunting meeting. He was still finding his footing.
"That year, my first year, it was really just about making sure the festival happened," Steinberg says. "There was not a lot of vision. I was the guy helping to push the car across the finish line at NASCAR just so you could say you finished."
Still, he wanted to reassure Jonkel that the festival was in good hands, despite some changes. For instance, Steinberg was seeking sponsorship funding from larger corporations—something Jonkel and some other festival directors had been loathe to do. They talked for a long time, Steinberg says, about how to keep the festival's original mission—fostering knowledge and understanding of wildlife and habitat through filmmaking—intact.
"Chuck really had great forward thinking about what something like a film festival could be," Steinberg says. "And for better or for worse, the film fest held onto that ethos for a long time, even when the notion of a festival was much more progressive than what they were up to. There was a very pure sense about how IWFF began and what they wanted to continue as the legacy, going so far as to reject sponsorship and putting it entirely in the uncompromised hands of the scientists and filmmakers. It was great and very noble, so in that sense it went beyond its time."
Jonkel died on April 12, 2016, at the age of 85, just a few days before the 39th festival began. This year, IWFF celebrates Jonkel with a series of events and the Thursday, April 20, screening of a film by Frank Tyro called Standing Bear Comes Home: The Life and Work of Chuck Jonkel. Steinberg says it was always the plan for IWFF to honor Jonkel on the festival's 40th anniversary, but without him here, it's bittersweet. Also on April 20, poet Vic Charlo will recite poems for the unveiling of a memorial to Jonkel, which will be permanently housed inside the Roxy. In the evening, Western Cider Co. will showcase its Jonkel juice, cider made with Jonkel's apple press.
The celebration is about remembering a man who believed that if people could get excited about wildlife, if they could understand it, they'd want to protect it. These days, that mission comes with more challenges. Wildlife filmmaking has opened up audiences to the natural world, but it's also become harder to make these films. Big networks are willing to back some projects, but if you're an independent filmmaker, access to funding—and wildlife—hasn't gotten any easier. This year, Steinberg hired film producer Jeri Rafter (Winter in the Blood) to take charge of programming and seed new programs to keep the festival on the cutting edge. Rafter created Wildlife Labs, by which selected documentarians and scientists can get a crash course in wildlife filmmaking and incubate short wildlife film docs for future pitch sessions and production.
Another interesting change since Jonkel launched the festival is that wildlife filmmaking has gone from offering stories purely about animal life cycles and behavior to stories about how humans impact wildlife. This year's festival films include two episodes of British television's Planet Earth 2 and a hotly anticipated Netflix film called Chasing Coral, both of which capture the kind of breathtaking landscapes viewers crave and also provide a window into how resources are dwindling. A lot of the other films are centered on people or environmental cries, and Steinberg says it takes some finessing to produce a festival that simultaneously makes a case for wildlife, documents environmental issues and doesn't completely bum everyone out.
"That's the unavoidable, inconvenient truth, right?" Steinberg says. "You can't tell a story about rhinos or lemur or grizzly bear without exploring the actual impact humans have because of the sheer population explosion and depletion of resources. It's hard to tell those stories these days without having a broader view of the planet."
Jonkel had a term for how you make connections with people about wildlife. He called it "sittin' and whittlin'." He told me a story back in 2010, when I met with him for an interview at the Great Bear Foundation, about how he once approached a circle of hunters at the tip of Hudson Bay and asked them about the local polar bears. They pretended they didn't know what he was talking about, even though the bears were in plain sight in the distance, right across the tundra. It wasn't until Jonkel spent several hours with the men that they finally pointed him toward the bears. That whole time he'd been patiently whittling a stick, and the time he put in with them paid off. Bears were Jonkel's passion, but he knew it wasn't enough to understand wildlife—you had to understand humans, too. His complex viewpoint is reflected in the best films at this year's festival and in the conversations that continue within the wildlife filmmaking community.
"The tendency was always to say, 'What kind of bear would Chuck Jonkel be?'" Steinberg says. "And the response I've heard from [some people] is that Chuck isn't really an animal, he's like this primitive man with a connection to the natural world that goes well beyond our modern times. He was an ancient communicator. He was like a Lorax speaking for the bears."