Where the Wild Things Are



It's a Jungle In Here

An Observer's Notebook of the International Wildlife Film Festival

As I observe them through an open doorway, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the judges are, in fact, the specimens. They sit there around their collapsible, vinyl-covered conference tables, eyes fixed at the front of the room, their paws grappling glasses of water and pints of dark beer.

At times, some of them make strange, trenchant noises. Others fidget in place. Many seem prepared to strike without much provocation. But it's no wonder. They are all in the process of a crucial and, no doubt, painful transformation. In the dim, flickering light of the video screen, they slowly molt into a unique genus of folk-folk who must, by their very nature, watch, rate and ultimately rank the world's best works of wildlife film.

And let me tell you, the final hours of judging at the International Wildlife Film Festival are truly a sight to behold-something akin to seeing salmon spawn, elk rut, fireflies mate in incandescent mystery. Only here, it gets a little weird. In the waning hours of this dark March night, the whole judging process becomes a derby of debate, deliberation and percolating opinions.

You think you’re feeling a little wild? Check out this proboscis monkey, star of one of this year’s film festival winners, Hutan: Wildlife of the Malaysian Raniforest.

At one point, one of the six judges broaches the subject of the IWFF's merit awards, the prizes that they dole out for technical, written or visual proficiency.

"What makes 'Award for Storytelling' different from 'Award for Narrative'?" she asks.

Guttural moans issue from the five other throats.

"And why is 'Footage' separate from 'Photography'? Can someone explain that to me?"

Suddenly, one the judge's den mates lays a hand on her shoulder diplomatically. "Let's-um-can we talk about that, maybe, later?"

It's a ritual of supplication that, I find, is common within the native habitat of film festival judges. In the next few minutes, similar encounters take place so quickly that it's almost impossible to record them all. For example:

"Uh. Can we please nominate something that's not by the BBC?"


"Excuse me, but there are some of us in this room who are quite partial to the BBC."

More giggles.

Then there's a discussion of whether the nation of Guyana should be pronounced "Gu-hana" or "Guy-ana." Followed by what it might mean for a narrator's voice to be described as "a bit plummy." Not long after that, one of the judges tells her neighbor to "shove off."

And finally, an indiscernible murmur that sounds something like "Bass liquor."

"Ass licker!" one of the judges half-stands in his chair, pointing at the judge seated next to him. "She actually called me an ass licker!"

At which time, even more chortles rise from the group. It's then that one of the judges produces a wild turkey feather from her purse (seriously now; I only report what I observe), rises from her chair, strides over to the squabbling couple and begins enacting what seems to be some kind of cleansing canter, prancing in circles and dowsing the feather over the heads of her comrades. It appears to work.

Because soon, everyone in the room erupts into laughter.

It's times like this that I wish my eyes were cameras, and I could film all of this as it happens. There's no disputing, it's a jungle in here.

Honesty is the Only Policy

With all this roguish display and tussling for territory, it may seem kind of impressive that the judging for the International Wildlife Film Festival gets done at all, let alone every dozen months for the past 22 years. But the fact is, since 1977, it's been taking place like clockwork and without a hitch. And for that matter, people will tell you that the IWFF has been getting bigger and better with each passing year.

In case you've been out of touch for the past quarter-century or so, trawling for pollock off the Aleutian Islands or something, I should tell you that the IWFF has been-and remains-one of Missoula's premiere cultural events. Perhaps more importantly, it's the longest-running program of its kind on planet Earth-an eight-day celebration of the science, art and finesse of wildlife filmmaking.

Talk about sitting pretty. The film Serval Secrets, which features plenty of characters like this one, won four awards in this year’s festival.

The notion for the IWFF was first hatched by Charles Jonkel, a wildlife biologist, who, on UM campus in the dawning days of the Carter administration, hosted a screening of the best and most honorable bits of nature documentary ever to stick to celluloid. Quickly, the tradition took hold. Not only because of its appeal to Missoula audiences but because of its overarching mission: to highlight works of wildlife film that were credible, responsible and, above all, true. It's a dictum that sticks to this day.

"We very much support ethical filmmaking," says Amy Hetzler, director of the IWFF, with a lion's share of determination in her tone. "You don't manipulate animals. You don't stake out prey to get a predation shot. You don't mess around with nests and disturb life. You don't fake."

An odd-sounding call, perhaps, if you're new to the trade, but the fact of the matter is, the IWFF is one of the few groups out there that's fighting to preserve the integrity of nature film. Throughout its history, you see, wildlife documentary has seen more than its share of controversy.

Just this winter, for instance, the National Wildlife Federation ran a photograph of grizzly bears in one of its publications, shot by a photographer who lives on Flathead Lake. Controversy erupted when the shooter was charged with having seeded his back yard with grain in order to lure the animals to within range of his lens, a violation of one of the nature photographer's cardinal rules: Thou Shalt Not Tamper.

Also, it was scarcely over a year ago that Hollywood released Wild America, a drama inspired by the adventures of Marty Stouffer, a wildlife filmmaker who, by the time of the film's release, was just recovering from a series of serious allegations about his work. The accusations, leveled by former colleagues and animal trainers, ranged from scientific inaccuracy to inhumane treatment of wildlife. And although PBS, which had often aired Stouffer's work, exonerated him after a year of investigation, the imbroglio took on new steam as Wild America hit the screens, and with it, the issue of credibility in wildlife films came onto the national stage.

And then there's the granddaddy of all nature-film fakes-White Wilderness-produced by Disney in 1958, which depicted Arctic lemmings leaping off the edge of a glacier into the frozen sea. These selfless acts, we were to have believed, were committed in the name of trimming down the lemming population, so that their fellows might survive in the barren wilderness.

Nice moviemaking, maybe, but false. As devoted film historians will be quick to tell you, the Arctic scenes were in fact filmed in Alberta, Canada; the depictions of the critters' migration were achieved with animals perched on a snow-covered turntable; and the infamous suicide footage was actually engineered by crew members who had herded the lemmings to the water's edge-all in the name of getting a dramatic, but wildly inaccurate, shot.

The film gave rise to an entire generation of Americans who believe, even still, that lemmings are some sort of self-destructive vermin. But if nothing else, it remains a testament to the power of wildlife filmmaking.

Hence, the IWFF was born, Missoula's home-grown institution of honest documentary. In fact, this night in the gibbous hours of the festival's judging, honesty is invoked as the defining quality of IWFF fare.

"A TV reporter today asked me, 'What's the difference between wildlife films and Hollywood films?'" Hetzler says, as the judges continue their work in the next room. "And my answer: The difference is in the honesty of the end product."

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

It's not long after this that the six judges emerge from the screening room, blinking the light out of their eyes. They're only among us for a few minutes-gingerly picking at pieces of pizza, stabbing at salads on plastic plates-before they go back in to resume their work. But while they're milling around, a trained observer can pick up some tell-tale snippets of conversation.

There's talk of budgets, production values, night-vision filming gear, and cameras that you mount on your belly.

More than one mention is made of "the Beeb"-shorthand, it seems, for the BBC, which is famed for its elegant nature films.

And then some of the judges reminisce about that afternoon, when two of them strode out to the greensward outside the IWFF office at Fort Missoula, and began wrestling in the grass. Again, I remind you, I only report what I observe.

A striped hyena strides through Tale of the Tides, this year’s Best of Festival.

Overheard small talk aside, it begs to be said that all of the IWFF's judges are professionals of one stripe or another. Each of the panels-at least one for each of the festival's 16 major categories-consists of six members: two experts in biological science, two in media production, and two members of the humanities, including writers, artists, journalists and teachers. Together, they compare notes and make assessments. And the top-ranked films from each category are then passed on to the esteemed final judges, who measure up the cream of the crop and, when they find the time, wrestle on the lawn.

But while everyone who's here tonight is a seasoned professional of one sort or another, all are first-time members of the final judging panel. In fact, all final judges only get to serve for one year. It's all part of the IWFF's larger effort to keep the festival fresh.

"That way," as Amy Hetzler puts it, "it's never the same festival twice."

But though the array of films screened throughout Wild Week is always changing from year to year, there are some things that festival-goers can still rely on-events that have approached the status of institutions in these parts. Like WildWalk, the parade of home-made animal costumes that trails down Higgins Avenue (look for it this Saturday, April 17 at 11 a.m.); or the seminars of Jeffrey Boswall, former BBC producer and long-time ally of the Festival, who will be presenting his six-day course on how to make wildlife films (that winds up the fest, April 25 to April 30); and then of course there are all of the screenings in between-films that range in scope from We Die to Live: Primeval Shrimps and the Art of Survival (winner of this year's Newcomer Award) to Varmints (which claimed First Place for Best Conservation Message); from Tale of the Tides (this year's Best of Festival) to Careerplanning for the Oystercatcher (which took top honors in the independent film category). Among all those who have a taste for anything natural, there's sure to be something for everyone.

And perhaps best of all, all of the events offer a truly unique mix of education and entertainment. As IWFF board member and Big Sky brewer Brad Robinson stresses, there's plenty of real learning to be had, as well as genuine fun, during the festival's wild days. It is, to borrow an old saw, the best of both worlds.

"You're getting educated, and you're being entertained," he says. "Entertainment does not necessarily have to be vacuous, and education does not have to necessarily be bone dry. You can do them both."

It's a balance that is struck very rarely these days, he adds, as the six-member party files back into the screening room. That's why the IWFF has met with such success: why the number of entries to the festival has steadily climbed from 24 in 1977 to 246 in 1999; why the volume of people attending the festival's screenings, seminars and educational programs has grown; and why the festival's reputation has spread to countries that had never participated before. It's obvious, Robinson says, that there's a demand for the IWFF's special brand of smart fun.

"This has existed so long because there's a vacuum," he intones with a definitive tilt of his pint glass. "And nature abhors a vacuum."

This is a Zoo

It's quite a bit later when I take up my observer's perch again in the open doorway, and the judges appear to be winding down. As it turns out, they need more time tomorrow to make their final decisions, and they have certainly earned their rest. They've been through uncounted hours of screening and note-taking, followed by the parry and riposte of debate that follows each film. So, unless the festival staff wants to see more cleansing dances enacted or more wrestling matches break out, it's probably time to call it quits.

But it's interesting to observe after all this time that the genteel disagreement of their marathon session, the ritualized conflict, disappears as they stand up, scatter, pull on their coats. They're laughing and joking and poking even more than they were before, speaking of the next day's work, in fact, with some anticipation.

It makes sense, when you think about it. After all, they're all united in a single effort: to carry on-and if possible, improve upon-the International Wildlife Film Festival, a home-grown effort to nurture both credibility and beauty in an industry that's falling ever more under the influence of cable TV, corporate sponsorships, big money and easy images. So it seems fitting that Hetzler outlines the earnestness of her group's mission as her exhausted volunteers wind up their long day.

"There will always be the Hollywoodish natural history filmmakers who love the kill," she says with some tired resignation. "They want the sex, they want the high-action drama and will package things around that. But I think there's a growing group of people who admire us. We're more successful now at having a presence in the industry. And people do applaud Chuck Jonkel and his vision 20-odd years ago and the doggedness with which that's been maintained."

Maybe it's just a combination of me, the late hour, and the overall giddiness of the evening, but "doggedness" certainly seems like a well-turned word for this crowd. Because it's just then, in a rare occurrence for an outsider like me, that one of the judges speaks directly to me from inside the screening room. His hair is a black toussled mane, made unkempt from hours of head-scratching. He is doe-eyed and dazed-looking after several hours of gazing at the video screen. You can tell, his defenses are down.

"Man, this is a zoo," he says with a laugh. "And it's becoming zoo-ier by the moment."

It puts you in something of a bind, really: The more films you want to see this week, the more pressed you’ll be for time to catch them all. That’s what you get when there’s so much to enjoy in only eight days. So perhaps it’s best to look upon the festival as an embarrassment of riches, an exercise in how best to budget those 192 hours during which wildlife will reign supreme over Missoula. To help you decide, here are some of this year’s biggest winners. For a complete roster of what’s playing when, see the schedule on pages 18 and 19. And choose wisely.

Catch 22!

The Winners of the 22nd International Wildlife Film Festival

Tale of the Tides
Survival Anglia Ltd.
Executive Producers: Alan Root, Petra Regent
Producers: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone

Serval Secrets
British Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Producer: Robin Hellier
Producers: Owen Newman, Amanda Barrett

High Plains Films/The Ecology Center
Producer: Doug Hawes-Davis

RedFish BlueFish
Producer: Scott Levy

Endangered Species
Earth Conservation Corps
Executive Producers: Sarah Guinan Nixon, Twan Woods
Producer: Robert Nixon

Serval Secrets
British Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Producer: Robin Hellier
Producers: Owen Newman, Amanda Barrett

Tale of the Tides
Survival Anglia Ltd.
Executive Producers: Alan Root, Petra Regent
Producers: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone

Cutthroats of Yellowstone National Geographic Television
Executive Producers: Michael Rosenfeld, Keenan Smart
Producer: Jeff Hogan

Hutan: Wildlife of the Malaysian Rainforest Prospero Productions
Executive Producers: Ed Punchard, Julia Redwood
Producers: Ed Punchard, Julia Redwood

The X Creatures: Alien in the Abyss
British Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Producer: Paul Appleby
Producer: Peter Nicholson

RedFish BlueFish Producer: Scott Levy

Tale of the Tides
Survival Anglia Ltd.
Executive Producers: Alan Root, Petra Regent
Producers: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone

RedFish BlueFish
Producer: Scott Levy

Tale of the Tides
Survival Anglia Ltd.
Executive Producers: Alan Root, Petra Regent
Producers: Mark Deeble, Victoria Stone

Careerplanning of the Oystercatcher
Musch & Tinbergen
Executive Producers: Musch & Tinbergen

The Nature of Things
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Producer: Michael Allder

The Life of Birds
British Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Producer: Mike Salisbury

High Plains Films/The Ecology Center
Producer: Doug Hawes-Davis


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