Over the years, wildlife filmmakers have learned to make documentaries with the kinds of story arcs found in dramatic movies or literature. Disney's recent African Cats, for example, has Shakespearian undertones: A family of cheetahs in Kenya's Masai Mara reserve become rivals to a pack of lions—Capulets and Montagues, anyone? The television series "Meerkat Manor" is even more theatrical, with a hierarchy embroiled in scandal and power struggles. Other wildlife films incorporate humans to add tension—classics like Born Free, about a woman who raises a lioness in Central Africa. All these elements help audiences connect with the natural world, but there has to be a balance. Too much anthropomorphizing can cheapen a nature doc, but without a good story hook, even films with incredible cinematography can fall flat.
In the next few weeks—from May 7 through May 14—the 34th annual International Wildlife Film Festival screens 100 films that attempt to tell wildlife stories that are both entertaining and accurate. Among those, The Rise of Black Wolf is at the top, as a film that tells a good, solid story without resorting to melodrama. The Montana-made documentary, by Emmy Award-winner Bob Landis, follows almost the entire life of one wolf as he breaks from his pack and lives to be nine-and-a-half years old—one of the oldest wolves documented in Yellowstone National Park. This particular black wolf, known by scientists and wolf enthusiasts as Black Wolf, Casanova, and 302M, has been the protagonist in other Landis films, including In the Valley of the Wolves, and was monitored by the Yellowstone Wolf Project because of his unique behavior.
Following one wolf to tell a story about all wolves is one thing, but The Rise of Black Wolf is about following one wolf to show how it's different. It's about a wolf that appears to not follow wolf rules. The film sets the tone from the beginning when the narrator says: "There is a code among wolves: Honor the hierarchy. Maintain order. Obey the rules. But this is the story of a rebel."
Black Wolf's early years aren't actually documented. The film fills that story with footage of other wolf pups playing along the banks of a Yellowstone stream. This could feel like cheating if the filmmakers weren't so honest about it, and it seems like a necessary way to show young wolf behavior and what happens to a pack as new generations of wolves come into the picture. In the hands of Landis, who's filmed wolves for decades, it doesn't seem cheap, especially since it supports his main conjecture about Black Wolf's submissive behavior, something that would eventually serve him well.
There's some fantastic footage here. In one scene, a wolf weaves through unconcerned herds of bison trying to save an elk carcass from a grizzly sow. In another, Landis captures Black Wolf playfully batting pine cones through the snow and tumbling down hills, all to the tune of foot-tapping harmonica. It's charming and humorous, teetering on the edge of silliness, but Landis sets it up effectively as a contrast to other heavier scenes such as the heartbreaking moment when Black Wolf watches, terrified, as a helicopter hovers above him.
It's easy to believe that in the wild, dominance and physical strength reign above all other survival traits. Black Wolf's story is about how his more submissive approach to social status helps him live longer than his peers. From being merely youthfully submissive, Black Wolf begins to see other sneaky ways to achieve his adult goals of mating and getting food. He bides his time. He finds refuge on one of the Yellowstone roads where no other wolves dare to follow him, no matter how much they want to kick him out of their territory. In the process, he charms female wolves to the road and mates with them, all the while avoiding run-ins with the males.
The Rise of Black Wolf won this year's Best Animal Behavior award for the festival, and for good reason. Landis captures a wolf that fulfills a hero archetype, and that's what makes it so successful. The animal kingdom is an amazing place in and of itself. But when you have one animal whose life plays out like Odysseus's journey, it's impossible to resist. Add to that Landis's knowledge of wolves and a well-interpreted plot, and you've got gold.
The Rise of Black Wolf plays at the Wilma Tuesday, May 10, at 7 PM followed by a Q&A with Bob Landis; Wednesday, May 11, at 2:30 PM; and Saturday, May 14, at 5 PM, with American Serengeti. 50 min.