Consider this hypothesis: If David Attenborough appears in a wildlife documentary, then by default it becomes at least 20 percent better, no matter how large or small a role the legendary naturalist plays in the production of that film. The institutional knowledge and gravitas that Attenborough lends to any production is no fluke, whether it's as producer, contributor, or narrator. I thought a lot about the quirky Brit when screening these four films for the final days of the International Wildlife Film Festival (three of which he appears in), especially the fact that after more than 60 years in the business, Sir David has so deftly avoided becoming a caricature of himself.
Note that the worst of these four documentaries is the one in which he does not appear. Coincidence, perhaps, but the more troubling fact is that as he turns 85 years old this week, Attenborough has no heir apparent—and that should be cause for concern among all who document wildlife.
Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story
The book Born Free became an international sensation upon its release in 1960, selling more than six million copies and altering the way many people viewed wildlife. The idea that every animal is unique was, at the time, a revolutionary concept. The story of Elsa, the lion raised from infancy by Kenyan game warden George Adamson and his wife Joy, challenged previous notions that one could not relate to wild animals as individuals.
It's also a story that would never happen today, given the daily risk of living side-by-side with a full-grown lion, not to mention the serious and legitimate ethical questions of doing so (see Scope). But this was a different time, and one captured well by Elsa's Legacy as it examines the story behind the story of Born Free, first as a book and later as a Hollywood film. It dismantles the fairytale partnership of George and Joy, giving us an honest look at a marriage that ultimately crumbled. And it does so in the context of the life of Elsa and her cubs, and other lions that followed later.
The documentary focuses much of its attention on the 1966 filming of Born Free and the impact the movie had on its actors, particularly Virginia McKenna, who played Joy Adamson. Filming on location in Africa with the assistance of George Adamson, the filmmakers originally brought in captive circus lions to play the parts of Elsa and her cubs. When that failed, wild lions were used, at great risk to the cast and crew. McKenna is a bit melodramatic as she visits the Adamsons' old camp and reflects on the couple and their legacy, but at its core the documentary presents both a moving story and a cautionary tale that still resonates today.
Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story plays at the Wilma Thursday, May 12, at 5 PM with Panthera Promo and Lost Land of the Tiger. 55 min.
Echo: An Unforgettable Elephant
Echo isn't so much a documentary as it is a eulogy to a fallen elephant, and if you enter with that mindset there's something to appreciate here. It's not the most riveting of wildlife films, and most of the footage is a decade or two old, but it did win Best of Festival, and there's something to be said for a film about a dead elephant that doesn't turn into a 60-minute tear-fest. Plus, David Attenborough handles the narration, which never hurts.
Echo, who has been called the world's most famous elephant, was 65 when she died in 2009, the victim of old age and a horrendous drought in Kenya and Tanzania. An Unforgettable Elephant is a mix of reflections by the naturalists and film crews who studied and filmed her, edited together with footage of the matriarch leading her herd.
The format is a bit clunky, and given that it moves so often between time periods, you're never quite sure if we're in present day or 15 years ago. But the footage is at times very good and quite moving, most notably when we watch Echo help her newborn son, whose leg joints have locked up, attempt to stand. Her devotion and persistence are inspiring.
Echo: An Unforgettable Elephant plays at the Wilma Friday, May 13, at 9:30 AM, followed by guest speaker and IWFF Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton, plus Panda Makers. The film also screens at the Wilma Saturday, May 14, at 7 PM with Panda Makers. 60 min.
Panda Makers, which got the IWFF Special Jury award this year, is yet another entry out of the BBC's Natural World wildlife film factory, so at the very least one can expect top production quality. And if anyone is going to speak at length about the detailed mating habits and sexual positions of panda bears, as well as the disproportionately small panda penis, I want that person to be David Attenborough. Here he leads us on a 60-minute exploration of the Chendu Breeding Center in China's Sichuan province, where a team of biologists are attempting to increase the population of one of the world's most endangered animals.
What's most interesting about Panda Makers is the history of the animal in China. For many years the panda was used as political propaganda, with Communist leaders often giving animals to other nations as way to curry favor or extend appreciation. It was less than two decades ago—as panda populations further dwindled—when this practice came to an end, and the government began a leasing program with zoos around the world. Now, for $1 million per year, you too can rent a panda. Just remember that any offspring produced during the leasing period automatically belong to China.
Panda Makers gets bogged down a bit by extraneous information about panda inbreeding and artificial insemination, but most of the science is well presented and the rare footage of a live panda birth is riveting. And, as one who experienced firsthand the hubbub surrounding a panda birth at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., I can tell you they live up to the hype. As we see many times in this film, panda babies are really damn cute.
Panda Makers plays at the Wilma Friday, May 13, at 9:30 AM, with Echo and Saturday, May 14, with Echo. 60 min.
Wild Horses & Renegades
Why is it so hard to make a quality horse documentary? The BBC might want to think about making one of their own, because Wild Horses makes for two sub-par horse entries in this year's IWFF, following last week's Saving America's Horses: A Nation Betrayed.
Wild Horses is the better of the two, but it suffers from similar ailments, the most glaring of which is serious editing problems. In trying to make the case that the Bureau of Land Management is managing wild horses to extinction, the filmmakers do an okay job at connecting the line between wild horse roundups and the BLM catering to the needs of the livestock and mining industries. But this is a sloppy and overlong 90-minute production that desperately needs a narrator as much as it needs an editing tool to cut out 30 minutes.
There is some good footage here, especially video that shows the stress on the wild horses as they are rounded up and corralled by low-flying helicopters. But clips from that same video are replayed over and over to little effect. Wild Horses & Renegades also features some of the strangest celebrity cameos in recent memory, with Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, and Darryl Hannah all getting more screen time than they deserve here. Oddly, many of the other interview subjects are filmmakers who also made documentaries about the plight of wild horses. Maybe that's why so much of this feels redundant.
There's a decent advocacy film hidden inside a below-average wildlife documentary here. If you have the patience, there's a reward lurking somewhere in its depths.
Wild Horses & Renegades plays at the Wilma Thursday, May 12, at 7 PM. 90 min.