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Curiouser and curiouser: the ever-expanding world of Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival

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The International Wildlife Festival takes place at the Roxy Theater Sat., April 14, through Sun., April 22. Visit wildlifefilms.org for tickets and event schedule.

Back when Missoula’s downtown was a wild west of biker bars and underground art heroes, before the internet and amphitheaters, before the multitude of art galleries and kid-friendly breweries and the barrage of beer and music festivals, there was a lone film festival centered solely on wildlife. The International Wildlife Film Festival was founded in 1977 at the University of Montana as a way to engage viewers, through cinema, with the plight of wildlife. It’s the world’s first and longest-running festival focused on wildlife, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how it took root in the Garden City, an epicenter of wildlife habitat, given the reputation of UM’s wildlife biology program and the creative wherewithal of the festival’s legendary founder, the late bear biologist Chuck Jonkel.

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The festival gained a permanent home at the Roxy in 2002, where it has carried on with many of its traditions: screenings of classic-style wildlife films, panel discussions, director Q&As and the Wild Walk parade. In the last few years, especially, it has expanded its scope, keeping pace with audiences that consume culture in ways that go way beyond watching a David Attenborough film on a theater screen. (We still love David Attenborough, though!) Now in its 41st year, the festival has added to its podcast programming, bolstered its selection of experimental films on science, and scheduled speakers whose Instagram followings give wildlife a higher profile. In anticipation of the festival, we offer a handful of film reviews and a couple of pieces about documentarians using popular mediums to deliver powerful wildlife and environmental stories.


Below the surface

Photographer Ami Vitale talks rhinos, technology and finding your story

by Sarah Aswell

With 793,000 followers, Ami Vitale owns what’s likely Missoula’s most popular Instagram account. It’s no wonder. The National Geographic photographer travels the world capturing stunning images of everything from heart-wrenching human conflict to roly-poly baby pandas. Ahead of her interactive presentation at the International Wildlife Film Festival, we chatted over email with Vitale about her career and passion, from what it felt like taking viral photos of the last of the white rhinos to what makes a photograph resonate.

How did you become interested in photography?

Ami Vitale: As a young woman, I was painfully shy, gawky and introverted. When I picked up a camera, it gave me a reason to interact with people and take the attention away from myself. In the beginning, photography was a passport to learning and experiencing new cultures. Now it’s much more than that. It’s a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities and countries, a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. It can be powerful and amplify others’ voices.

Over the past 18 years, I’ve worked in nearly 100 countries, which makes it look like I am a travel photographer, but I don’t view my work that way. It’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when I stay in one place, often for years, to get beyond the surface.

Tell us a bit about the talk you’re delivering at the IWFF.

AV: I will talk about my career working for National Geographic, starting off just as a photographer to today, where I am also writing and making films, such as my VR film My Africa. I will discuss my transition from covering stories of human conflict to stories about the natural world and how connected it all is. Losing one part of nature impacts all of us. The more I document people and their issues, the more I realize I’m documenting nature, and the more I document nature, I realize I’m photographing people’s lives. Today, I use nature as the foil to talk about our home, our future and where we are going.

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How do you use Instagram to tell stories and connect?

AV: It’s not just Instagram, it’s about using every single medium we can to tell stories. We need to be able to embrace every single new technology as it comes.

Can you talk about your photos of the last white rhino, which recently went viral?

AV: If there is meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call. In a world of more than 7 billion people, we must begin to see ourselves as part of the landscape. Our fate is linked to the fate of all these majestic animals.

I met Sudan nine years ago when I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern White Rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film, of captive animals returning to the wild, dusty plains of Africa, but in reality it was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save an entire species. At the time, there were only eight of these rhinos left in existence, all in zoos. When I saw this gentle, hulking creature in this snowy environment, surrounded by smokestacks and humanity, it broke my heart and seemed so unfair. He looked ancient, a species that has survived on this planet for millions of years, yet they could not survive us, mankind.

Sudan changed the trajectory of my work. Before this, I had been focusing on stories of human conflict, but after meeting these creatures on the brink of extinction, I realized that I needed to broaden the scope of my work. Every single issue I covered, whether it was war or poverty or health, always ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes.

Who inspires you?

AV: The people I meet who often have very little but are making great changes in their communities.

What are you working on now?

AV: I’m starting a television documentary series and also doing a story about the decline of giraffes all over Africa for National Geographic.

What advice do you have for people who want to be wildlife photographers, or who just want to be better at capturing the world around them?

AV: The secret is about going deep and revealing more than just an “exotic” image. Sticking with a story for years helps you understand the complexities, characters and issues that are not always immediately obvious. I’m a really slow photographer. I go back and back again. Empathy and earning trust is the most important tool one can have. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else. So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you — maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective.

Ami Vitale will present “Warriors Who Once Feared Elephants Now Protect Them,” at the Roxy Tue., April 17, at 7 PM.


When it comes to wildlife podcasts, size doesn’t matter

by Alex Sakariassen

When dumped by the thousands from a hydraulic trailer, dead zebra mussels sound a lot like cornflakes being poured into a bowl. From there, the mind quickly fills in the sensory gaps: the blackish gray mounds of shells, their razor-sharp texture, the rancid smell. If a picture is worth a thousand words, good audio is worth a million.

Last November, Montana Public Radio debuted its first-ever podcast, a five-episode series on invasive zebra mussels called “SubSurface,” reported and narrated by Nicky Ouellet. It’s full of evocative scenes like the one described above, which was taped during Ouellet’s two-week trek to the Great Lakes, where these tiny aquatic critters first established a beachhead before advancing across America. The discovery of a single mussel in Montana last year was enough to launch wildlife managers into a frenzy and convince MTPR that the situation called for a dive into deeper, more vivid storytelling.

“People take it personally when their lakes get infested,” Ouellet says. “And communicating that in a way that was meaningful, at a time when we could still potentially prevent that happening in Montana, that was kind of the really important moment. Montana’s not infested yet, and if we could convey the size of the risk accurately, it would maybe cause change.”

So it’s by chance and circumstance that Ouellet joined the growing ranks of podcasters with a nature-based bent. The trend has not gone unnoticed. In its 41st year, the International Wildlife Film Festival has added to its docket a schedule of podcast-centric events dubbed “Wild Sounds.” The lineup includes Montana podcasters Amy Martin and Jule Banville, as well as a live recording of Harvard-based Shane Campbell-Stanton’s “Biology of Superheroes.” Banville, who spearheads the podcast “Last Best Stories” (and copy edits the Indy), says she’s psyched to see IWFF dip into the world of “movies that don’t have images.” She plans to unpack two wildlife-focused episodes: one on the impacts of human urine on mountain goat behavior in Glacier National Park, and one on a harrowing altercation between several park staffers and a grizzly.

“Wildlife stories aren’t different from other stories. There has to be something that keeps the listener interested and wanting to hang with that story,” Banville says. “So I’m going to talk a little about narrative and how to think about storytelling in a way that’s accessible to people who aren’t, maybe, goat researchers or bear scientists.”

Ouellet intends to use her hour-long IWFF spot on April 16 to “pull back the curtain” on key moments in “SubSurface” and illustrate how a podcast can take something as tiny and technical as a zebra mussel and turn it into an engaging story. Her director for the series, MTPR’s Eric Whitney, says it was refreshing to dabble in the podcast format. The station’s daily news coverage is extremely regimented regarding length. But with podcasting, Whitney says, “there really are no rules.” And giving space and breadth to scene-setting sound and easygoing narration can bring the natural world to life.

“The visuals are there,” Whitney says. “Anybody who listens, they’re getting those big nature vistas, but they’re creating them in their own head. I think it’s a tribute to Nicky’s skills as a radio journalist and as a writer to use the words and the sound together to make those images work in your head.”

Whitney views “SubSurface” as environmental reference material, or a bibliography of sorts, to which MTPR can steer listeners as it continues to document Montana’s efforts to keep the zebra mussel from taking over the last major American water system it has yet to invade: the Columbia River. Ouellet, now a de facto expert on the issue, plans to continue covering the mussel beat in more traditional daily segments as news develops. MTPR might need to update episode three at some point, she says, to reflect changes in Montana state policy. But those changes are incremental enough that “SubSurface” can still enjoy a long shelf-life. The series’ reception has also inspired MTPR to dive into another podcast, which will focus on the city of Butte and debut later this year.

“We went into it thinking of it fully as an experiment: ‘Let’s see what we can do with podcasting,’” Whitney says. “We know that the people who listen to podcasts are typically much younger than the public radio audience, so it was a way for us to reach a new audience.”

Asked about the decision to dedicate two and a half hours of podcast time to an invasive bivalve that’s smaller than a dime, Ouellet laughs. Yes, she says, they’re tiny. But their presence has sweeping repercussions. Her trip to the Great Lakes — billed by MTPR as “reporting from the future” — revealed how mussels can plug municipal water systems, festoon beaches with razor-sharp shells, and even trigger ethical conundrums about genetic manipulation.

Ultimately, though, a podcast about wildlife is really a podcast about people and the psychological impacts of living in a contaminated ecosystem.

“I want people to care,” she says. “It’s funny to nit-pick on one invasive species when humans have such a long-lasting impact anywhere they go. But it just seems to me we’re at this moment in Montana where if we just choose to pay attention, we can preserve something that we all love and value. It’s so sappy, but it’s very true.”

Wild Sounds schedule

Want to learn more about what goes into making a nature-centric podcast? Here’s a rundown of the IWFF’s upcoming Wild Sounds events, all of which will be held at the Roxy Theater:

Amy Martin, “Threshold” podcast, Sunday, April 15, 6-7 PM

Nicky Ouellet, “SubSurface” podcast, Monday, April 16, 2-3 PM

Shane Campbell-Staton and Arien Darby, live recording of “The Biology of Superheroes” podcast with University of Montana professor Doug Emlen, Tuesday, April 17, 2-3 PM

Jule Banville, “Last Best Stories” podcast, Thursday, April 19, 2-3:30 PM

Jake Willers, “Master Wildlife Filmmaking” podcast, Friday, April 20, 2-3 PM


The Last Rhino (60 minutes)

Extinction prevention is a common theme among the films screening at this year’s festival, but The Last Rhino has a particular poignancy. The 60-minute PBS Nature documentary, which aired Feb. 21, documents efforts to save the last Northern White Rhinoceroses. But on March 18, nearly a month after the film aired, it was announced that Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhinoceros in the world, had died. He is survived by two female rhinos of his species, leaving limited hope of preventing extinction.

As you can guess, the slaughter of rhinos for their horns is not a topic that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. Instead, this documentary induces a sort of despair-to-numb feeling as it examines the attempt to undo some of humanity’s worst actions. And that feeling is amplified with the knowledge that the species no longer lumbers around the savannah.

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The Last Rhino explores the years before Sudan’s death, as a horde of invested scientists and activists tries to save the rhinos. The filmmakers interview the directors of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where Sudan lived, offering insight into both the impact this beast had on the world and the Hail Mary effort to save his species.

Sudan was 45 years old at the time of his death and had been receiving roughly 40,000 visitors a year. One shot includes tourists breaking down in tears at the sight of the rhino that earned his own depressing hashtag: #thelastmalestanding.

The cast of characters includes a rhino keeper who spends every day with Sudan and describes himself as “half-human, half-rhino,” soldiers tasked with full-time protection and scientists trying to develop a successful method of in vitro fertilization for rhinos. The latter part features detailed discussions about the size of rhino testicles and how to harvest eggs from the females, which is fascinating from a scientific standpoint, but highlights the extent to which humans have to intervene in the natural world to keep it intact.

Halfway through the film, the appearance of a $2 million security operation, which includes a 40-soldier all-night patrol, brings home the seriousness of the situation. As the film progresses and Sudan’s health declines, the emotional impact heightens. Watching the elderly rhino become too weak to stand, and hearing how the rest of his species withered away, will pull your heartstrings right out. The final phrase of the film sums it up perfectly: “While we have the power to drive entire species to extinction, we may not have the power to bring them back.” (Micah Drew)

Screens Sat., April 15, at 3 PM.


Albatross (97 minutes)

The albatross is no ordinary bird, and Albatross is no ordinary documentary. Both the species and the documentary are intensely weird. You’re probably familiar with the birds, known for their role in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and for their expansive wingspan (up to 12 feet) and insane flying abilities (they spend years at sea, covering up to 10,000 miles per trip). There’s also something intangibly mysterious and mythical about them, which might be related to an old superstition that they embody the souls of lost sailors.

The documentary, which was written, directed and edited by photo artist Chris Jordan, has two dueling centers: Half of the film follows the traditional arc of a wildlife documentary, focusing on the birds’ habitat and life cycle. The other half zeroes in on a recent tragedy that has befallen the birds: They are dying by the thousands from ingesting plastic that they inadvertently scoop from polluted oceans.

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The film is gorgeously shot on Midway Atoll, in the northern Pacific Ocean, where enormous flocks of albatross come to nest among the crumbling remains of a military base that was shuttered in 1993. And here’s where it gets weird. Much of the movie is quiet and slow, lingering on the birds and landscape, with long minutes passing without voiceover. We see extreme closeups of the odd birds, water droplets pinging off their feathers, abandoned military structures and the blue-green Pacific in the background. But it also lacks much structure. If you’re going to see it, you’d do well to understand that you’ll be watching, for example, a solid 15 minutes of fledgling birds learning to fly while opera plays on the soundtrack.

Some parts of the film do feature voiceover from Jordan, who discusses the birds in a way that is surprisingly personal, though sometimes overly poetic. He guides viewers through the gut-wrenching portions of the film, in which we see birds graphically dying, as well as bird corpses bursting with bottle caps, toothbrushes and lighters.

Jordan also appears in the film, seen placing his hands on dead birds, conducting autopsies to find the plastic in their bellies and, most strangely, giving the birds something like funeral ceremonies. He explains, in detail, that he is in love with and grieving for the birds. Think Grizzly Man, except with albatross and a frighteningly bleak environmental angle.

Albatross is certainly worth seeing, both for its shocking environmental message and its breathtaking cinematography. But know what you’re in for: Everything about this film makes it an odd bird, and it requires a prepared and open (and possibly chemically altered?) mind. (Sarah Aswell)

Screens Tue., April 17, at 8:30 PM.


Rancheros del Jaguar (12 minutes)

Jaguars are gorgeous, majestic creatures, and who would argue otherwise? In the short film Rancheros del Jaguar, producer and director Sara Matasick focuses her lens on the animals and people who reside in Sonora, Mexico, deep in the Sierra Madre mountains. The film opens on an interview with an elderly ranching couple. “I killed it,” the man says. And his wife follows, “It was a nice big cat.” For the ranchers, killing the jaguar isn’t about malice — it’s a matter of survival. They talk about the kill with a certain glimmer of reverence and regret that can only come from besting the most gracious and cunning of animals.

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We’re high in the mountains of Mexico, don’t forget, and everyone’s up there working the land the best they can and trying to make a living. Beset with severe drought and diseased cattle, the ranchers kill the jaguars to protect their livestock. Meanwhile, biologists and wildlife preservationists work to preserve what little remains of the dwindling big-cat population in this region, whose existence constitutes an indispensable piece of an uncommon ecosystem. There are historical records of jaguars as far north as southwest Arizona, a conservationist in a jaguar T-shirt tells us. Spoiler alert: American hunters killed them off. The preservationists aim to preserve and expand the jaguar population back into the northern reaches through inventive, collaborative efforts with local populations. In just under 12 minutes, Rancheros del Jaguar offers a gorgeously shot and meaty story about the complicated relationship between a specific slice of wildlife and the people who share their wilderness. (Molly Laich)

Screens Sun., April 15, at 8:15 PM.


Nature’s Wildest Weapons (60 minutes)

In Nature’s Wildest Weapons, University of Montana professor Doug Emlen gets pretty starry-eyed about the animals he studies. “For me, I’m interested in the weapons of offense,” Emlen muses. “Weapons that are used for fighting and, in particular, the weapons that are big. Those are the species that keep me awake at night.”

Aptly subtitled Horns, Tusks & Antlers, the hour-long documentary features a female British narrator who calmly explains all the violent, bizarre and seemingly senseless appendages certain animals have adopted to make a living in their inhospitable environments. The film starts in the hills of Montana, where we sneak up on some bull elk, majestic and generally peaceful, except during mating season. “Like a bunch of guys on Friday night at the bar,” a rancher calls them. They become so desperate to get some, they begin to fiendishly shunt calcium from the rest of their bodies, leaving them riddled with osteoporosis, all for the absurd imperative to parade around with heavy bone chandeliers on their head. Nature is so, so, weird, am I right?

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Emlen has spent a career studying the specific evolutionary conditions behind these improbable body adaptations. Simply put, animals engage in what the film cleverly calls an “arms race” when there is something to defend, when the competition for mating or resources is fierce, and most thrillingly, for head-to-head dueling.

The film travels far beyond antlers in Montana. We get to see elephants with 100-pound teeth (aka, tusks), chameleons with tongues that dart out of their body at 60 mph in one one-hundredth of a second (that sounds fast, right?), and female jacana birds in Panama who literally walk on water with weird large feet for the privilege of making it with doltish dudes.

Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks & Antlers features some thrilling animal scuffles up close, and there’s a strange beauty in the paradoxical civility (think Fight Club, but with slow-motion chipmunks and hummingbirds). Emlen has a lot more to teach us about nature’s various arms races than I’ve described here, and his enthusiasm for the subject is downright infectious. (Molly Laich)

Screens Tue., April 17, at 4 PM.

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