Three must-see features at this year's International Wildlife Film Festival 

David Attenborough's Light on Earth

You've probably appreciated fireflies before, as they twinkled in a summer field amid a chorus of frogs and crickets. But have you ever really thought about fireflies—exactly how they light up, and why they evolved the trick?

Like so many of Sir David Attenborough's projects, Light on Earth not only elevates the nature documentary to new heights with cutting-edge technology, it also exhibits genuine care and curiosity for its subject matter. As 90-year-old Attenborough travels the world, from Pennsylvania to Tanzania, to explore the phenomenon of bioluminescence, each segment leaves you increasingly in awe of the world and of how and why species can evolve.

The documentary begins in that common field of fireflies, but what it tells us about the bugs is amazing: Different species of fireflies use different light signals for different reasons. Some attract mates with specific flashes, while others imitate females of another firefly species in order to trap and eat male fireflies. Some firefly species blink in incredible synchronized waves of light—and we don't know why.

That's just the beginning. Soon we learn that literally thousands of animals, including insects, fish, worms, bacteria and fungi, utilize "living light" to survive, and many of these species evolved independently of one another. We visit strange, beautiful worlds—captured with a special camera developed specifically for the documentary—in which bioluminescence is used to attract food, propagate, raise warning flags and protect against predators.

We go deep into the ocean and observe a rainbow of glowing fish, including some that have never been filmed before. We see bright blue glowing earthworms in the French countryside. We see dolphins swimming through single-celled glowing dinoflagellates, which looks a lot like some sort of Lisa Frank acid trip. Along the way, we learn about the chemistry and biology behind the magic of what we are seeing, even though scientists don't have nearly all of the answers yet. It's a truly stunning, smart and moving 50 minutes, and a film that I promise will surprise you more than once. (Sarah Aswell)

Screens at the Roxy Fri., April 21, at 7:45 PM.

Yasuni Man

Yasuni Man begins on a hunting expedition through the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, where a small band of the Waorani people have successfully tracked and killed a wild boar. They disembowel and quarter the animal right there on the jungle floor so that each of them has a manageable load to carry back to the family. If that isn't living, then I don't know what is.

You don't need a documentary film to guess that in the 21st century, the hunter-gatherer way of life that supports the Waorani and other tribes like them is on the edge of extinction. The plot thickens when we learn that the Waorani civilization rests on oil-rich land. The Waorani have a rich recent history of the modern world encroaching on their good time. If it isn't money-hungry oil companies like Texaco, it's meddling Christian missionaries.

click to enlarge Yasuni Man, a film by University of Montana alumnus Ryan Patrick Killackey, is one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
  • Yasuni Man, a film by University of Montana alumnus Ryan Patrick Killackey, is one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Yasuni Man comes to us from Chicago native and first-time filmmaker Ryan Patrick Killackey. A graduate of the University of Montana, Killackey began his career as a wildlife biologist with a penchant for frogs and other reptiles and amphibians. Alongside the unfolding story of the people, the film treats us to all kinds of wildlife imagery, including big cats, rare woodland creatures and poisonous snakes curling around branches. The filmmakers make their way to the Waorani on rickety boats plying brown rivers. And lest you think they didn't get into the thick of it, look out for the scenes where Killackey has large maggots extracted from various places where parasitic insects have laid eggs inside his body.

Yasuni Man portends a sad and uncertain future for the Waorani people, but offers viewers a healthy dose of adventure and intrigue. (Molly Laich)

Screens at the Roxy Sun., April 16, at 5 PM, and Tue., April 18, at 5:45 PM.

An Acquired Taste

The themes of An Acquired Taste won't be particularly enlightening to a lot of local viewers. The philosophy behind ethical hunting is a major component of Missoula's locavore movement and has been for at least the last decade. The most interesting aspect of this documentary is how ethical hunting has caught the attention of a handful of kids growing up in urban landscapes. It seems shocking that kids living so far from the woods and wilderness, in a time when virtual worlds and devices are so appealing, would voice an interest in learning to stalk and kill their own food. Or is it? As the film unfolds, the idea that kids wouldn't naturally want to participate in ethical hunting starts seeming cynical.

Filmmaker Vanessa LeMaire follows the journey of several kids who decide to leave the city and enroll in camps where they learn to hunt. The most intriguing of them is a young girl who has never left her Hispanic neighborhood and whose love for the well being of animals seems crushing. Yet her eyes light up during a hunting-safety class when the instructor promises that they'll learn to minimize the animal's pain and, in learning to hunt, connect with their food.

The parents of the kids are mostly tentative: Will learning to use a gun put their kids in danger? Will their kids develop a lust for violence? Will they like killing? Even in the first 20 minutes, the documentary shows how wrong the parents are. The children learn to shoot arrows, make campfires, behead chickens (as a precursor to killing big game), and throughout it all seem to understand the complexity of hunting—that wrapped up in killing your own food is a healthy combination of grief, celebration and gratitude.

An Acquired Taste is nothing like the fancy Blue Planet films or sweeping wildlife stories you might expect at the festival. It's straightforward filmmaking with no plot twists. But the compassion and empathy that LeMaire captures in her subjects is about as hopeful as it gets for a story about conservation and the interaction between humans and wildlife. (Erika Fredrickson)

Screens at the Roxy Sat., April 22, at 2:30 PM.

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