Terribly good 

Lessons learned from this year’s IWFF

After a weekend of watching award-winning work from the 30th International Wildlife Film Festival, one clear theme emerges: we are terrible people. Perhaps not intentionally, like murderers or politicians or Barry Bonds, but terrible nonetheless in the sense that a lot of bad things have happened on our watch.

This year’s festival seems poised to show us exactly how terrible we are, although that message is served with all the trimmings viewers expect from wildlife films—striking cinematography, arresting action sequences, even palatable scientific explanation. Let me be clear: these are all films worth watching. They are, as always, representative of the best wildlife films in the world. This year’s selection just seems heavier than most. (I blame/thank Al Gore.) Therefore, each selected review below is prefaced with why, exactly, you’ll feel terrible after watching each excellently crafted program.

Climate Chaos (117 minutes)

Will make you feel terrible about living on Earth. Whereas Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth tackled climate change with a PowerPoint-fueled onslaught of pie charts and line graphs, Climate Chaos puts a face to all the facts. Part one of the series looks at, among other things, polar bears and Patagonian ice fields to expose how badly we’ve damaged the planet; part two addresses how to slowly start digging out from the substantial hole we created.

Sir David Attenborough, who is something like the Jack Nicholson of wildlife films—reverential, beyond accomplished and still delivering A-list performances after some 50 years in the business—hosts the series. And the archives from his unrivaled career become the most convincing and engaging argument for climate change: segments from Attenborough’s 1980s BBC television series “The Living Planet” preface his visits to the same spots 20 years later to see how drastically things have changed. It’s no surprise, really, but they’ve changed. A lot. The Tuvalu Islands and its inhabitants are sinking into the ocean. Polar bears are starving.

Attenborough’s approach is much more intimate than An Inconvenient Truth, and the result is that much more sobering. It’s a deserving Best of Festival recipient.

Showing: Sunday, May 13, 2:30 PM; Friday, May 18, 12:30 and 7:30 PM.

Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History (60 minutes)
Will make you feel terrible about how we treat chimps. And terrible isn’t a strong enough word. You’ll feel extraordinarily disgusted and cripplingly saddened to learn exactly how NASA used chimps as crash test dummies and sacrificial pilots. You’ll feel particularly sickened at how New York University infected 225 chimps with HIV only to realize they were poor subjects for the study, winding up with no use for the infected animals; the NYU studies were so brutal that one chimp chewed off three of his own digits during the research. How disturbing is this film? The person I watched it with was sobbing before the six-minute mark. Not lump-in-the-throat-when-Old-Yeller-bites-it crying—outright sobbing.

The thing is chimps are cute. They’re cuter than, say, aerial shots of the planet Earth. So even though the destruction of our planet is infinitely more tragic than chimps dying in the name of science, watching the adorable little buggers get strapped into some NASA rocket/time bomb—and then seeing their dead bodies hauled away, uncovered, on stretchers—is jarring stuff. An Unnatural History won IWFF awards for Best Editing and Best Television Program. It wins my award for most depressing documentary ever.

Showing: Saturday, May 12, 7:30 PM; Tuesday, May 15, 12:30 PM; and Sunday, May 19, 5 PM.

Swan Song (48 minutes)
Will make you feel terrible about not doing more to protect lynx. This local documentary (made by Colin Ruggiero, with narration by former Indy photographer Chad Harder) explores lynx conservation efforts in the Swan Valley. Ruggiero tags along with the Forest Service’s Lynx Research Team and learns that these creatures are dangerously low in numbers. Responsibility for this is placed firmly on Plum Creek Timber Company and the Bush administration; neither have apparently done anything but pillage the threatened animal’s habitat.

Ruggiero’s film is beautifully shot and the soundtrack—also done by Ruggiero on acoustic guitar and percussion—is excellent. The film received an honorable mention for Conservation Message, but deserved more.

Showing: Thursday, May 17, 3:30 PM.

Irani Wildlife (26 minutes)
Will make you feel terrible about Iranian poetry. Ultimately a small point in this otherwise gorgeous look at the country’s inhabitants, the script is passionately dramatic. In one segment introducing winter, Saeedeh Akhkan writes: “Head high, foot in bounds / Kiss the skirts of the sky / The diamond gift of the snow / From the generous hands of the wind / Trace. Sign. Instinct. Heart.”

It’s over the top, but not so much so that it undercuts the breathtaking scenery and traditional footage—bears, lizards, owls, etc., appearing naturally as playful, aggressive, stoic, etc. Irani Wildlife, which won the Best Government Agency award, is a pleasant, meditative look at a region of the world where images are normally associated with violence. And considering the dire tone of its counterparts in this year’s festival, its beatific outlook is welcome tonic.

All showings are $7 each at the Wilma Theatre. For a complete listing of the IWFF schedule, visit www.wildlifefilms.org.
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