MISSOULA, Mont. - On a cloudy Saturday morning in mid-April, fantastic critters take over the streets of this college and timber town. Ladybugs assume human proportions and you can see a spotted loon as long as a Volkswagen bus float by.
Not to worry. It's only the Wildwalk, a
prelude to the 21st International Wildlife Film
Inside the cardboard and cloth
creatures walk the children and young-at-heart of Missoula.
Hundreds more gawk from the sidewalks and applaud. Halfway down
Higgins Ave., the parade slows for three judges perched on a
One judge is Chuck Jonkel, who has
been the leading force behind the film festival since its inception
in 1977. Jonkel, a soft-spoken but gregarious Canadian, emigrated
to the University of Montana in the 1970s, fresh from
ground-breaking research on polar bears in the
While Jonkel enjoys the parade, he
doesn't take kindly to some of the masks donned by the wildlife
film industry in recent years. Poorly produced wildlife films
undermine the work of biologists, he says, by presenting a false
picture of how animals function in the wild. That's why he and some
of his university students started the film festival in 1977, to
encourage filmmakers to base their work on good
The week-long gathering now attracts
more than 10,000 people. They jam Missoula's grand old Wilma
Theatre to watch movies by heavyweights like the National
Geographic Society and the British Broadcasting Corp., as well as
by smaller independent producers. Filmmakers from around the world
attend daily seminars and workshops ranging from "Wildlife Film in
Education" to "Trends in Equipment and Technology."
While the festival's budget can now support one
paid staff person, it still depends on volunteers for its life
force. Despite its modest size, Jonkel believes the gathering has
made a difference in the way many filmmakers approach a wildlife
shoot. The coveted IWFF seal of approval says a film has been done
"We have the toughest judging of any
festival in the world," says Jonkel. "Our power is peer pressure."
Wildlife gets a lot
Jonkel's work is
all the more important as the market for wildlife films booms. With
the expansion of cable and foreign networks, the industry has
"There are suddenly hundreds
of new producers out there who know little about camera work,
editing, or ethics," he says. "They care nothing about biology and
science. They are just responding to the glint of
"There is a lot of distortion," he adds.
"They make the animals look twice as big as they really are. They
focus on the violence or fierceness of an animal. There are a lot
of scenes of animals running, killing and fornicating. There's too
much entertainment and not enough science."
because most people only see wildlife on television, shoddy films
can cloud people's judgment when it comes to supporting
"People don't see wildlife
like we used to," says Jonkel. "Still, they have to make important
political decisions about animals."
example of poor film, Jonkel points to Marty Stouffer's "Wild
America," which aired on public television for five years. Denver
Post writer Mike McPhee said the program sometimes rigged shots
with animals that would never be seen together, and even shot a
scene where a pet mountain lion was playing with its trainer and
portrayed it as an attack.
Stouffer denied the
allegations, but PBS dropped the series.
wildlife film industry is a slice of life," says McPhee. "There are
people who want to cut corners, and some very immoral people."
Even filmmakers who try to get every scientific
detail right can run into problems with ratings-obsessed producers.
Just ask Montana filmmaker Ray
Paunovich's company, Natural Image
Films, was hired to film the reintroduction of the wolves at
Yellowstone National Park. A fastidious cinematographer, Paunovich
documented every aspect of the reintroduction process. But as the
project wound down, the production company decided to hire actor
Matthew Fox to inject glamour and attract the 18- to 35-year-old
"It was made to look as if Matthew Fox
were involved with the project from the start," says Paunovich. "We
had to recreate a lot of scenes, sequences were edited out of
context, and a new story was kind of created."
In the end the producer hired two film editors
from Baltimore with no experience in wildlife biology to make the
"It was not an inaccurate story. But
it was not accurate," says Paunovich. "Television expects nature to
be like "The A-Team" with animals."
get into film
Jonkel has a few ideas that could help resurrect quality wildlife
First, he would create a market for good
films by incorporating more television programming in schools. "The
television set is where the kids are," he says. "Not the library,
or out in the forest. It used to be that Uncle Joe took you
trapping when you were a kid, Uncle John took you fishing, and your
father took you camping. But that doesn't happen much anymore."
Second, to make sure kids watch genuine
depictions of wildlife, Jonkel wants to train teachers to spot
bogus footage. He would also like to see classes on wildlife film
that reveal the biological, management and enforcement problems
caused by poor documentaries.
believes scientists need to get into film-making. "Why do
biologists sit idly by, running statistical tests on meager
databases, or collecting data on problems already solved, while
ignoring the devastation the mass media have brought down upon
Mother Nature?" he asks.
Mark Matthews reports
from Missoula, Montana.
best of the International Wildlife Film Festival will be touring
the country this summer. For information check the festival's Web
site at: http://www.wildlifefilms.org, call director Amy Sperry at
406/728-9389, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.