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All Natural

The International Wildlife Film Festival, Missoula’s rite of spring


It’s here again, the International Wildlife Film Festival, for the 23rd time. Award-winning wildlife films, culled from 254 entries from around the world, will be shown to the public from April 15-22. A certain frenzy will permeate the air as everyone tries to find a seat for the Best of Festival (this year: Hokkaido: Garden of the Gods). Children will cry when their killer whale costumes rip to shreds just prior to the start of the famed opening day WildWalk Parade (show up Saturday at 11:00 a.m. at the north end of Higgins wearing feathers, fur or fins and you’re in). Mothers will worry about exposing over-agitated preschoolers films like Eat-Mate-Die (though at 27 minutes, the four o’clock showing should leave time for recovery with the second half of KUFM’s Pea Green Boat).

But these travails will daunt almost no one. In fact, hardened film-goers will adopt a dreamy, blinking visage after a few days, start neglecting their families and work responsibilities. At the week’s end they will have to undergo rehab—back-to-back viewings of American Beauty and Mission to Mars—alienated humans, humanized aliens, nothing natural.

The Wildlife Film Festival has become a rite of spring in Missoula and has earned an international reputation among filmmakers as a good place to show their work. British filmmaker Nick Upton, before departing for filming in Africa, told Montana Living this year that “the Missoula festival stands out as the big festival with the relaxed atmosphere. The really big wildlife film festivals like Wildscreen and Jackson Hole are great events too, but have a far tenser, more businesslike edge to them, and there’s less time to just talk about filmmaking and discuss ideas, passions and motivations behind making good films.”

From the public’s viewpoint, as well, there is little that is tense or edgy about the Wildlife Film Festival. In fact, it might strike a newcomer here—if he or she belongs to the mysterious population who arrive for reasons not involving wilderness—as odd, the happy aura surrounding this event when animal worlds are everywhere going to hell, as at least some of the films will surely show. (One could worry about a hardened response inevitably arising in the hearts of small children who watch too many compelling documentaries of nature that end with the epilogue: This, too, is trashed.)

I think one of the reasons the Wildlife Film Festival—started by Charles Jonkel in l978 with just 24 entries—has grown to be such a big hit here is that many Missoulians feel an attachment to the topic of wildlife that is very personal. Our interest has to do with the state of the world, yes, but it also has to do with us—our pleasure, our everyday pastimes, as much as our fate. And this is a diffuse and pervasive feeling; not always dependent upon our experience of the actual outdoors. We like to think about what’s out there as much as we like to interact with it. Mountain lion encounter stories, for example, have become part of the shared mythology of Missoulians. We bond through the telling, as if we’re all sitting around an imaginary campfire. Some of these stories are even true.

Truth—or rather, biological accuracy—was the initial impetus for the creation of the festival and, according to Kathy Fernandes at IWFF headquarters out at Fort Missoula, this goal remains interwoven in everything the festival seeks to do. But imagination is what most of us non-scientists still bring to our wildlife encounters—whether they occur in the flesh or fur or via film. And the never-ending question of what to do with those imaginations, which are sometimes ruminating, sometimes rabid, is undoubtedly what keeps the festival always new.

For a complete listing of IWFF events, see the schedule on pages 22-23.

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