The big blue 

An Underwater Odyssey makes waves in Missoula

A curious thing happened in Missoula this April, as it does here every spring. Children of all ages could be seen dressed up as all manner of wild, winged, hoofed and finned creatures, parading down Higgins Avenue and gathering as one of the oddest herds Caras Park has ever seen. This migration of costumed youth was part of the annual Wild Walk Parade held the day before the start of the International Wildlife Film Festival, (IWFF), the first and longest running natural history film festival in the nation. For the past 25 years, the festival has drawn to Missoula a gathering of top-notch films and filmmakers from across the globe.

Those who showed up for the festival this year heard international filmmakers speak about the IWFF’s world community fundraising effort to buy the Roxy Theatre for use as its new home. In fact, astute Higgins travelers have probably noticed that the Old Roxy now bears the IWFF’s name. The eye-opening, often mind-blowing films that enter the festival, along with the IWFF’s long history of community involvement and outreach programs, have helped the nonprofit raise the $200,000 needed to put a down payment on the theatre. As impressive as this accomplishment is, the IWFF still needs another $180,000, since world-class natural history film and media centers don’t come cheap. In the same way that the IWFF started the first festival of its kind almost 26 years ago, so will this new natural history film and media center set a precedent as the first such center ever.

The IWFF is a non-profit organization, so to enable it to pay off the Roxy and get on with the business of entertaining as well as educating the community about wildlife and the natural world, a Roxy Grand Re-opening Event of the International Wildlife Media Center and Film Festival is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 14. The event is called An Underwater Odyssey and will bring two of the top underwater filmmakers in the world to Missoula.

Headlining the event is Al Giddings, legendary diver and underwater photographer of numerous commercials, documentaries and feature films. Giddings is the man behind the underwater camera in such Hollywood blockbusters as The Deep, The Abyss, several James Bond adventures, several recent IMAX big-screen productions and National Geographic and Discovery specials. Sharing the stage with Giddings is Rick Rosenthal, visiting professor of science and natural history filmmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman. Rick is a marine biologist and wildlife filmmaker who has produced films for the BBC, PBS, CBC and the Discovery Channel and is currently up for a primetime Emmy for his work on the multiple award-winning series, “The Blue Planet.” Both filmmakers will show video clips of their work and chat about their many experiences in the worlds’ oceans.

The best part is that this is just an introduction to the marvels that such a unique venue and media center will attract to the Garden City. Between the recent placement of the Discovery-funded Program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking in Bozeman, the Montana Film Board Office in Livingston to promote films in Montana, and the new IWFF media center in Missoula, western Montana is becoming the epicenter of elite natural history filmmaking. Sony has helped sponsor the festival and donated equipment to the new media center, allowing the IWFF center to operate with state-of-the-art technology.

Since its beginning, the IWFF has been sponsoring workshops, festivals, the annual parade and various outreach efforts in Missoula as well as bringing award-winning films to towns and cities around the world with its annual post-festival tour. With Missoula as its permanent home, the IWFF will also offer a permanent, three-theatre venue for wildlife film viewing and the arts, as well as video rentals, workshops and outreach programs. Among the new programs, a Kids’ Wildlife Film and Video Workshop will allow children to spend a week or more with professional filmmakers and biologists, make a movie on a specific species or topic, and then screen it in the theatre at the Roxy. Conservation at the Crossroads is an ongoing film and lecture series put on by the IWFF consisting of screenings of films and accompanying lectures by the filmmakers or scientists involved.

Such programs underscore the importance of having the center here. People concerned about habitat loss and the fate of wild places and critters, from hunters and conservationists to children and teachers, need to understand that the medium of film is one of the most effective tools for bringing about change and promoting understanding and knowledge. Janet Rose, director of the IWFF, says that this understanding is what makes Missoula the ideal place for the new center.

“Missoula is supportive of so many diverse activities,” she says. “That’s what makes a dynamic and giving community.”

And it’s about time somebody put that building to use! And what better use for the old Roxy ever been dreamed up?

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