Hollywood tarts up wildlife films

  • A parade kicks off Missoula's Wildlife Film Festival

    Mark Matthews photo

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 Festival.

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 flatbed truck.

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 Arctic.

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 science.

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 right.

"We have the toughest judging of any festival in the world," says Jonkel. "Our power is peer pressure."

Wildlife gets a lot of bad press

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 increased fourfold.

"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 money.

"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."

And because most people only see wildlife on television, shoddy films can cloud people's judgment when it comes to supporting conservation efforts.

"People don't see wildlife like we used to," says Jonkel. "Still, they have to make important political decisions about animals."

As an 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.

"The 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.

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 crowd.

"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 final cut.

"It was not an inaccurate story. But it was not accurate," says Paunovich. "Television expects nature to be like 'The A-Team' with animals."

Scientists should get into film

Chuck Jonkel has a few ideas that could help resurrect quality wildlife films.

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.

Finally, Jonkel 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.

The 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: [email protected]

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