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Films gone wild

IWFF offers a nature smorgasbord from Finland to the American Serengeti



The 34th edition of the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) is a motherlode for National Geographic lovers and Missoulians with DVRs full of David Attenborough documentaries and Animal Planet programming. Not that Fast Five doesn't look like a quality flick, but if you're going to go see a film this week, wouldn't you rather watch prairie dogs fend off endangered black-footed ferrets on the American prairie than a sleeveless Vin Diesel do his thing in a fourth sequel to The Fast and the Furious? Here's a taste of what will be showing during the first half of the IWFF:

American Serengeti

It's probably not the best sign that I spent the first 15 minutes of American Serengeti thinking that A) I had seen the same film last year, possibly at the 2010 IWFF and B) I'm impressed that the filmmakers got Robert Redford to do the narration.


Turns out I was wrong on both counts. First off, that's Tom Selleck doing the narration, and a fine job of it at that. Magnum P.I. may have a future in wildlife documentaries. And second, because much of American Serengeti focuses on efforts to create a three million acre American Prairie Reserve over a swath of the Great Plains, I confused the film with last year's wonderful Facing The Storm: Story of the American Bison, which also documented attempts to create a Buffalo Commons National Park in the same part of the country.

Like that film, much of American Serengeti is focused on efforts to integrate herds of wild bison back into their historical habitat. But it also focuses on the plights of other native wildlife populations, including the pronghorn, cougar, prairie dog, and grizzly bear. The film is at its best when it explores the animals we rarely hear about, like the Missouri River's critically endangered pallid sturgeon. These enormous fish can weigh in at over 80 pounds and live for more than 50 years, but they are no longer able to spawn due to dams along the river. Their existence is in the hands of wildlife officials who help the fish to breed each year.

The film, which won the festival's Best Made in Montana award, does a good job clearly explaining how the sturgeon and other endangered animals on the prairie each fit into the ecosystem. Only when American Serengeti delves off into silliness—like a reenactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition getting chased by grizzly bears—does the film falter. Luckily those moments are few and far between, and generally the film presents an effective mix of education and quality cinematography.

American Serengeti screens at the Roxy's Missouri Theater Sunday, May 7, at 3 PM. It screens at the Wilma Monday, May 9, at 3 PM, Tuesday, May 10, at 7 PM and Saturday, May 14, at 5 PM with Rise of Black Wolf (see page page 40). 50 min.

One Ocean: The Changing Sea

Fishermen off the coast of Vancouver Island and other Northwest harbors are now hauling in Humboldt squid with their catch with disturbing regularity. It's a pain for the fisherman and an ominous sign for the ocean that a species with a historical habitat off the coast of Mexico and Southern California has made its way this far north.


As described by marine biologists and other scientists in One Ocean: The Changing Sea, the squid is the canary in the aquatic coalmine—a sign that all is not right with the ecosystem and that climate change is the likely culprit. As told in this effective and smart documentary, there are other signs that do not bode well for the future: Kelp forests are at risk as water temperatures continue to rise and stronger winds driven by climate change are causing oceanic upwelling that depletes the deep seas of their oxygen. The dead zones popping up off the coast of Oregon are unsettling to say the least, especially since the normal culprit, nutrient runoff, is not to blame in this case.

You're likely to be depressed by the end the film, but One Ocean is an education that manages to thoroughly cover a complicated and multi-layered problem in less than an hour, whether it's the acidification of coral reefs or the changing chemistry of the oceans. (Marine Conservation Award)

One Ocean: The Changing Sea screens at the Wilma Tuesday, May 10, at 5 PM. 52 min.


Initial concerns about this film being little more than a promotional video for the Finnish Bureau of Tourism were quickly erased when it became apparent that there's not a road, hotel or even a human to be seen in it. Instead, we get a lovely 50-minute documentary that follows a well-worn nature film template, but does it so well that its unoriginal conceit doesn't even matter.


Finland, which won the Sapphire Award, begins with a bear emerging from hibernation and takes us on a year-long journey in the deep Nordic woods, much of which is filmed near the Russian border. Along the way we see rare footage of wolverine siblings playing in the snow, as well as the first-ever video footage of the endangered lynx, only 1,500 of which are believed to live in the wild. Other stars of the film include caribou, seals, osprey and brown bears.

The cinematography is at times stunning, particularly as the film documents the life of a mother duck and her eight young ducklings. The mother uses an old woodpecker nest to hatch her young, and the footage of the little ones following their mother out of the tree and into the water is hilarious. I can't think of a better word to describe the expression of each duckling as they realize—while 20 feet in the air—that they cannot yet fly, and face a very sudden freefall to the soft ground.

Finland screens this week at the Roxy's Blackfoot Theater Saturday, May 7, at 5 PM with Sky Island. It screens at the Wilma Monday, May 9, at 7 PM with Night of the Hunt and Saturday, May 14, at 3 PM with Norway. 55 min.

Saving America's Horses: A Nation Betrayed

Katia Louise, who directed, produced, and wrote Saving America's Horses, is a passionate advocate for ending inhumane horse slaughtering operations in this country and others, but she does her cause no good in this poorly-edited, technically-flawed and overlong documentary about the plight of horses today.


Saving America's Horses feels like a very rough first cut that, with work, could become a solid piece of advocacy filmmaking. The flaws here are almost too numerous to list, but the heart of the problem is an incongruous narrative that lacks focus and a concise story. It's a hodge-podge of telephone interviews with poor audio, close-ups of newspaper clippings and highlighted spreadsheets with no context, all with an amateur film quality. It's made even worse by the constant use of the ominous-looking negative image technique (usually accompanied by clichéd ominous music) and an absurd propensity to show a close-up photo of the U.S. Capitol every time a piece of legislation is mentioned (at least 30 times, by my rough count).

Obviously the inhumane treatment of horses—whether they are retired thoroughbreds or once-wild species in the West—is a topic to be taken seriously, and one that needs a better film than this. It's possible that Saving America's Horses can be fixed, but it's going to have to start with an editor. Hidden within this 110-minute documentary may be an effective 45-minute film. It will take some heavy revisions, beginning with a clear explanation of the problem as it stands today and edited interviews that follow a coherent storyline with a logical progression. Throwing everything you have at us does no good. Louise's cause deserves much better.

Saving America's Horses plays at the Blackfoot Theatre in the Roxy Saturday, May 7, at 7 PM with a filmmaker Q&A afterward and at the Wilma Tuesday, May 10, at 3:30 PM. 90 min.

Go to for a full list of films and ticket info.

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