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Wildly successful

International Wildlife Film Festival navigates the mainstream



Every year the International Wildlife Film Festival attracts thewildest creatures to our local screens, and this year’s 29th annual week-long event is populated by some of the most intriguing to date: red pandas, albino gorillas, feral parrots, procreating penguins and John Waters.

The charismatic director, who’s offered such odd cinematic fare as Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, both of which managed to insert themselves into mainstream consciousness despite cross-gender lead actors and counterculture storylines, narrates one of IWFF’s more bizarre inclusions, Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea. The fact that it’s Waters’ voice talking audiences through this strange and compelling film is suggestive of a larger trend evident in this year’s festival: recognition of commercial cinema’s embrace of wildlife documentary films, and vice versa.

To a schedule of films usually destined for and drawn from PBS and the Discovery Channel, IWFF has added screenings of some of the biggest commercial wildlife documentary successes of the past year, including the summer hit March of the Penguins and the less appreciated but widely released film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Documentaries like these have always been a part of the IWFF, says executive director Janet Rose; only now they’re receiving major studio distribution and marketing.

“There’s this growth of wildlife films for theatrical release that we’ve seen within the last five years—a whole new market and audience,” Rose says. “That’s why we’re focusing very intently with this year’s festival on the evolution of the feature doc in this genre.”

Still, despite the success of Penguins and an uptick in popularity, most of the IWFF lineup remains below the commercial radar. With that in mind, here are some selected reviews of some of the IWFF’s best.

Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea (70 min.)
There is so much fodder for weirdness and tragedy in Salton Sea that it shouldn’t be missed. It’s not a typical IWFF flick: narrated by John Waters; scored by Friends of Dean Martinez, a popular surf-rock trio from Austin, Texas; overrun with freaks who seem only to exist in documentary films—and that’s exactly what makes this humorously cautionary tale about wildlife and development so appealing.

An engineering catastrophe involving an overflow of a Colorado River irrigation canal created the Salton Sea in the middle of the California desert in 1905, approximately 50 miles south of a city it once rivaled in popularity, Palm Springs. The Salton Sea was known for years as a prime fishing destination and thrived as a recreational gathering spot. But by its very nature as an unnatural, stagnant body of water it was prone to unpredictable flooding and, because of the surrounding soil, unusually dense salt content. The latter becomes so problematic that fish die by the thousands, with carcasses lining the shore “from wall to wall.” No matter to the spirited remaining locals—they still eat ’em, including one wacko who claims he makes a mean tilapia sashimi.

IWFF judges awarded Salton Sea a special jury prize for its “novel approach,” which is another way of saying this film is too weird and too well done to go unnoticed.

Screening: Wednesday, May 17, 7:30 PM

Norfolk Broads (48 min.)
Speaking of once-glamorous water-centric areas, this independent documentary explores the rich past, tragic decline and potential rebirth of Great Britain’s expansive swamplands, Norfolk Broads. The area attracts vast flocks of migratory birds and sustains a complex underwater ecosystem, but like all good things natural, at least in wildlife films, humans screwed it up.

The draw of Norfolk Broads is the cinematography: the film takes viewers link-by-link through the complex food chain, highlighting by some beautiful and intense underwater scenes, like an incredibly patient northern pike, stoic in a river current as it stalks perch. It’s close-up sequences like those that earned this film Best in Festival honors.

Screening: Saturday, May 20, 7:30 PM

“Life in the Undergrowth” (multiple episodes, 58 minutes each)
Ah, Sir David Attenborough—it’s impossible to imagine a week of wildlife films without this now-80-year-old British chap well represented. Attenborough’s been making wildlife films for 50 years and his latest project is this BBC series, also named Best in Festival (there were two honorees), which has some truly mind-boggling scenes.

For instance, the sex between two leopard slugs, where they tangle like twisted taffy, and then extend and twist their organs to exchange sperm, as seen in “Invasion of the Land,” is slimily spectacular. There’s also footage of the largest insect in the world, the 7-inch titan beetle of “Taking to the Air,” which Attenborough dares to pick up knowing full well the creature is capable of chomping off his finger.

Screening: “Invasion of the Land” Saturday, May 13, 7:30 PM; “Taking to the Air” Monday, May 15, 5:30 PM; “The Silk Spinners” Friday, May 19, 7:30 PM.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (83 min.)
Everyone knows about March of the Penguins (screening Tuesday, May 16, and Thursday, May 18, at 9:30 AM), but the film that got lost in the March mayhem was Wild Parrots. While Penguins lasted months at the Wilma last summer, Wild Parrots stayed just six days.

The film tracks the daily life of a San Francisco resident who’s befriended—and, in fact, personalized—a flock of more than 40 non-native feral parrots. It’s a quirky, understated study of a colorful (in more ways than one) pairing of man and bird, which Indy reviewer Nicole Panter went so far as to say “beat the pants off” of Penguins.

Screening: Wednesday, May 17, 12:30 PM; Friday, May 19, 7:30 PM

A Life Among Whales (56 min.)
Dr. Roger Payne is to whales what Jane Goodall is to primates. The biologist (and now activist) has studied whales since the early 1970s, and is most renowned for being the first to discover whale songs and cross-ocean communication—a then- controversial suggestion that almost derailed his career. This film, which received IWFF’s Marine Conservation Award, is part Payne biography and part history of man’s often-abusive relationship with the large mammals.

Payne is interesting and articulate, but it’s the educational elements that offer the film’s most intriguing and visceral moments. For instance, there’s a vivid description of whale electrocutions and heartbreaking images of whaling; one scene shows the lassoed tail of a whale upside down with half its torso still underwater, futilely flailing while being tugged alongside a ship.

Screening: Saturday, May 20, 7:30 PM

Caught in the Headlights (53 min.)
Local filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis, Margot Higgins and C. Wolf Drimal present this glimpse into the realities of roadkill, moving beyond the statistics (one animal dead every 11.5 seconds; one million dying from vehicle collisions per year) to delve into some of the personalities associated with the issue. The goofiest is artist Peter Bevis, who turns actual roadkill into bronze sculptures. He’s extremely passionate about increasing recognition of the problem, going so far as to make a wildly misplaced comparison between the significance of his artwork and the controversy surrounding the photographing of caskets returning from the Iraq War.

The film’s most poignant moment comes from Kate Davis, of Raptors of the Rockies, describing a bald eagle, “the symbol of our country, feeding on a carcass by the side of the road and getting hit by a car.” Davis talks about the profound impact and symbolism of the accident, a larger issue the filmmakers convey with admirable subtlety.

Screening: Monday, May 15, 7:30 PM

All showings are $6 each at the Wilma Theatre. For a complete listing of the IWFF schedule visit

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