You come to all manner of new understandings when you spend two whole days watching wildlife documentaries. I watched a good half of the International Wildlife Film Festival’s 2004 program over the weekend. Predictably enough, all but one or two were excellent, the cream of the crop. The good news is that I’m never eating gorilla again. The bad news is that I might have to give the hirudarium (like an ant farm, only with leeches) another shot this summer.
Saving the Quoll from the Cane Toad
The quoll is a small mammal native to Australia, faced with extinction by the eastern onslaught of the cane toad, a nasty invader first introduced to the continent in the ’30s to control a grub that was destroying the local sugar cane industry.
The cane toad’s story has been told elsewhere. Saving the Quoll looks like what it is: a quickie news segment produced for Australian TV to draw attention to the plight of a previously-obscure species of mammal threatened—somewhat counterintuitively—by an amphibian. The current plan is to relocate quoll populations to uninhabited islands off Australia’s northern coast. As the cane toad’s rampage continues unchecked, other species are sure to follow.
The Natural History of the Laboratory Rat
Fascinating premise, here: a group of 50 white lab rats, bred into drug-testing docility over 2,000 generations, are turned loose in the wild so researchers can determine how quickly—and if—the rodents can recover the protean adaptability of their wild ancestors.
As it turns out, the rats “remember” a lot, and learn with astonishing speed. It’s amazing, in fact, how little time it takes them to establish a complex, highly structured society in a pile of hay bales with central heating provided by their own fermenting urine. Rats, along with humans, are among the very few species able to make a connection between feeling sick and something they ate a few hours earlier—one of many traits that helps them get to grips with new surroundings. You learn all kinds of stuff about rats watching this film.
Get up close and personal with two common rainforest species, a mantis and a butterfly, one of which can’t wait to eat the other. Bugs! was originally filmed in 3-D, but unless the exhibition copy differs from the screener copy available for preview, the IWFF showing will be in plain ol’ 2-D. Don’t be too disappointed, though—it’s still a nifty macroscopic immersion in a world where “raindrops fall like hand grenades, a leaf weighs more than a car, and a blade of grass soars high into the clouds.”
Viva Vicuña: Return of the Long-Haired Llama
The vicuña is a relative of the llama that inhabits some of the barest, coldest, most inhospitable parts of the Andean high plain in Peru and neighboring countries, where its predators include foxes, pumas and, more recently, human hunters. Prized for its wool (a tailored vicuña coat can fetch $30,000), the species was hunted nearly into extinction before Peruvian officials launched a management program for shearing wild vicuñas of their wool without killing them. The traditional chakus—vicuña roundups—depicted in this enjoyable and encouraging documentary look much the same as they would have during Incan times, when tens of thousands of people participated.
Piranhas with Nigel Marven
As any boy will tell you, fish don’t come much cooler than piranhas, which hunt in packs and can strip a cow to the bone in a matter of minutes. Or so the old saw goes. There’s plenty of slice, dice and julienne action in Piranhas, but we also learn that piranhas have enemies of their own (like river otters and eight-inch water beetles), and that they are devoted parents, with the male piranha sharing equally in the the young-tending duties. Host Nigel Marven is one of those charismatic zoologists who just loves bonding, laughing at danger and making kissy faces at the slimiest, scariest-looking (to the uneducated eye, anyway) jungle creatures and telling them how gorgeous they are. Loads of fun.
It’s a little-known fact that scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light. Even scorpion experts aren’t completely sure why this is so, but it makes for a stunning effect: They look like living glow-in-the-dark cereal-box prizes, hundreds to a single stone wall or writhing in one big pile at the bottom of a bucket. This documentary is likewise teeming with fascinating scorpion facts, and, though only a mother scorpion could love a beady-eyed, translucent baby scorpion, you might actually feel pity for the majestic specimen captured in a humiliating diorama in a Mexican souvenir shop. Totally amazing stuff.
This installment of National Geographic’s Ultimate Explorer series (with blank-screen commercial breaks unfortunately left intact) about nature’s cleaner-uppers benefits greatly from have-a-go host Nick Baker, not to mention astounding time-lapse footage of decaying animals and maggots squirming around in ulcerous wounds frothing with purulent foam. By the time self-medicating Baker detaches a leech from his temple—bloated with blood to the length, girth and stiffness of a ballpark frank—you might find yourself wishing you’d skipped the dinner part of your dinner-and-a-movie date. Intriguing, though.
Documentaries about exotic species in faraway places are great and all, but it’s always nice to learn something about your own neighborhood in the bargain. This documentary was filmed in and around a remote Finnish pond, but local viewers will recognize many of the same starring critters from Western Montana’s ponds and lakes. In Finnish folklore, dragonflies are the reincarnated spirits of travelers; they’re also marvels of natural aerodynamic engineering that feed and breed on the wing, traits which rank them in the “aerobatic elite” of the insect world. A supporting cast of toads, frogs, beetles, spiders and so on makes Dragonfly Pond a living tableau of backyard wonders.
It took cheek to borrow the title from Frank Herbert, but this cocksure documentary about sand, sand dunes and dune ecosystems in coastal Namibia is up for it. For starters, this Dune boasts some of the most enchanting time-lapse footage and macro-cinematography ever committed to film—grains of sand look like tumbling boulders. Especially haunting are the ghost towns of Namibia’s “Diamond Coast,” with bricks naturally sandblasted away, leaving lattices of intact mortar, and houses slowly filling with shifting dunes.
With a premise better suited to a John Grisham novel than a traditional wildlife documentary, Missing…Presumed Eaten tells the strange story of a South African businessman’s controversial disappearance while on safari in crocodile country—and the subsequent investigation into possible insurance fraud. An engrossing true story, light on the croc biology and heavy on the human angle, but with amazing shots of crocs taking down hartebeests at water’s edge and night-vision hunting scenes that will haunt your dreams.
Wildlife films often follow a predictable trajectory, the really predictable part being the inevitable warning that human activity is threatening this reef or that preserve. So it’s a refreshing change to see humans threatened for a change—at least until you learn what the West Nile virus did to one Chicago-area family. Virus Crisis, hosted by the same energetic Nick Baker who narrates Creepy Healers, does an excellent job of compressing relatively recent current events into a timely documentary special. Virus Crisis packs more existential wallop than your average wildlife doc, too: Baker is visibly nervous about catching the mysterious virus and holds forth at length about what ebola represents to the human psyche.
The 27th International Wildlife Film Festival runs May 1–8, with movie screenings daily (and nightly) at the Wilma Theatre. For a complete schedule of screenings and other events, or to buy tickets, stop by the IWFF office in the old Roxy Theater on Higgins or log on to www.wildlifefilms.org. The office can also be reached at 728-9380.