Musings from Missoula: The 34th International Wildlife Film Festival

On a flight to Montana, I sit next to a 30-something man with crew cut, tattoos and work boots.  "Going home to Missoula?" he asks. "No," I answer. "And you?" "Yeah, I was just in Salt Lake for a surgical equipment convention showin' how to use these C arms I'm makin'...."So why Missoula?" he asks. "A film festival," I tell him, assured this would end the conversation. The man smiles with excitement. "Is this week of the Wildlife Film Festival? I almost forgot! I'll have to go to some of that.” First impressions say a lot.

This is not just another film festival; it’s an event the community is proud of. The next morning I attended a slot of “family friendly” screenings at the Roxy, a 124-seat theater downtown. The opening film, Microworlds--What Do Marine Animals Eat? (Prod.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), displays an the enormous caterpillar walking on a set of delicate hairy legs. "That's a big cat!" exclaimed a boy from his dad's lap. "Wow," came from a tot behind me. When the music accelerated to the dizzying spin of cocoon building, it was nearly drowned out with "Oooh, that's pretty," and "Ahh, Look at that!" And "Mom, what's he doing?" But nothing matched the audience reaction as when that skinny black leg pokes out of the cocoon and moments later, a full-fledged Monarch butterfly.

Here in Missoula, on a rainy Saturday in May, not one adult hushes their child's exuberant response to the subject on the screen. Nor should they. After all, are they not the next generation of environmental stewards? A clip from the grand and balletic National Geographic series Great
Migrations: Rhythm of Life
causes my own enthusiasm to rival that of the children's, as hundreds of colorful butterfly wings fill the screen against a symphonic orchestral score. My week has just begun, but I am glad I have come.

The afternoon screenings include California Forever: The Story of the State Parks,
a film I co-produced with David Vassar. The audience is slim, but they stay to ask questions. On my way out, a man stops me to say, "You know, I really like your film. But what impresses me the most is that you are here. Thank you for coming. It means a lot to us."

The International Wildlife Film Festival, in its 34th year, was the first wildlife film festival in the world and is now the longest running. This year's theme, "Hope in a Changing World," could not describe it better. Missoula's pride in participation is exhibited in the turnout at WildWalk, a yearly event to kickoff the festival. This year the parade fell on Mother's Day, so children and parents alike in every imaginable homespun, wildlife costume marched behind a giant, manned, papier-mâché elephant accompanied by a horn-playing child, sounding spookily like an elephant. Reminiscent of the Bread and Puppet Theater from the 1960s, right on cue, another group, this time adults, rallied across the street waving signs and chanting, "Resistance Is Forming to Stop Global Warming." The celebratory character
of the festival gave way to a more serious undertone: The elephant was indeed in the room, and could no longer be ignored.

According to Festival Director Janet Rose, the recurring topic of elephant in this year's festival happened by chance. Many films on the subject were submitted and accepted, including the Best of Festival winner, Echo: An Unforgettable Elephant (Dir./Prod.: Mike Birkhead). What's more, Dr.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the keynote speaker and winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, runs an organization to Save the Elephants in Kenya. The wonderful and emotional story of Echo, an elephant matriarch, was the official festival opener at the packed, 1,000-plus-seat restored Wilma Theater. When Echo dies in the film, she is mourned by not only her family, but also by the humans who have observed her for over 36 years. Echo's daughter, who routinely returns to her mother's carcass, displays the capacity for elephants to grieve deeply for their kin. Grieving poignantly characterizes the feeling audiences were left with after viewing many of the films in this year's festival. We grieved the loss of wild horses in our great American landscape when viewing the
impassioned festival finalist Wild Horses and Renegades (Dir.: James Kleinert); we mourned the potential loss of animals and plants in the high desert of New Mexico, following John Grabowska's
beautifully written and photographed Sky Island; and we were nostalgic in our sorrow for long lost landscapes and species changed forever by human interference, as expressed in numerous other films screening at the festival.


From Mike Birkhead's Echo: An Unforgettable Elephant, which won Best of Festival honors at the International Wildlife Film Festival.


But our sadness and sense of loss was only matched by endurance, strength and hope in much of the festival as well. Noteworthy titles included National Geographic's Rise of the Black Wolf, where a rebellious wolf uses unusual tactics of subordination to survive and ultimately gain leadership of his pack; For the Love of Elephants, from Make Believe Media, where an elephant, orphaned when his mother is speared by poachers, ventures back into
the wild to join another herd after a group of human caretakers assists him; and Sara Poisson and Alberto Montaudon's Bird Island: The Story of Isla Rasa , where chicks miraculously survive in their harsh landscape. To underscore this theme, Dr. Douglas-Hamilton, in his keynote address, reminded us of the pertinence of "observing, which leads to understanding, which leads to caring."


From National Geographic's Rise of the Black Wolf.



For one week in Montana, a group of filmmakers, judges and programmers; scientists, students and professors; public-land executives, as well as individual community members come together to go to films, partake in panels and participate in retreats. We come to educate each other as well as ourselves, discuss and at times passionately argue the issues, lend constructive criticism to the films screened as well as form lasting collaborations. In the end we emerge with a fresh understanding of why we do what we do and return home with a renewed call to action in the ever more relevant fields of conservation, preservation and restoration in which we wildlife and natural history film and
television professionals reside.   


Sally Kaplan founded Backcountry Pictures with David Vassar in 2001. Their film California Forever: The Story of California State Parks won awards for Cinematography and Best Educational Value at the International Wildlife Film Festival.