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Hairy issue: nature programs that stage animal action

Opening this month, the premier wildlife film festival sheds light on many shows' unscrupulous tactics.

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2000



MISSOULA, MONT.

Every year, when Charles Jonkel leads nature lovers from Montana north to watch polar bears along the frigid shores of Canada's Hudson Bay, he's offering them a reality check.

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It's partly because the grizzled, bearded bear guru thinks the nature programs that appear on television too often transform science into science fiction.

Twenty-three years ago, he cofounded of the International Wildlife Film Festival here, widely considered the Sundance of wildlife cinematography and the influential "granddaddy" of its genre.

Mr. Jonkel stepped forward to protect the animals he loves and foster a respect for wildlife. Even today, he's worried that many filmmakers, lured by the possibility of making big money, are being led to do unscrupulous things, ranging from enlisting tame captive animals to act out supposedly natural behavior to staging bloody animal-on-animal attack sequences that would never occur.

Public understanding, he says, has never been more important, since the proliferation of hand-held cameras have turned thousands of of amateurs into aspiring wildlife filmmakers.

"People believe what they see on TV. They expect that what filmmakers give them is always the truth," Jonkel says. "While most are in the business because they love wildlife, some just want to make a buck."

Beginning later this month, the film festival in Missoula remains a folksy venue where unknown filmmakers can make a name for themselves with heavyweights like National Geographic, BBC, and Discovery.

"People have made relationships and deals here that changed their lives," says festival executive director Amy Hetzler.

This year, a record 254 entries were screened and judged, some of which will soon flood network and cable channels in living rooms across the country.

Over the years, larger, more commercial festivals have spun off in England and Wyoming. But Missoula is separated from the rest by its atmosphere. The audience here isn't just made up of filmmakers and producers, it also includes thousands of school kids, parents, and senior citizens.

"We have showings where the audience gasps and giggles and applauds," says Ms. Hetzler. "It's not stuffy."

The films in Missoula this year take their viewers into tropical rain forest canopies with songbirds, through the tall grass of the African bush, and across coral reefs and behind the fins of whales.

Industry observers credit the Missoula festival as the single most important event for promoting wildlife conservation and stressing the obligation for those standing behind the camera.

"The backbone of this festival is public education, but Chuck Jonkel has made it a stage for exploring the difficult issues of ethics," says Thomas Mangelsen, a well-known photographer and award-winning cinematographer from Jackson Hole, Wyo. "It is the purest festival of the lot."

Indeed, wildlife films have come a long way since the weekly adventures of Marlin Perkins and his trusty sidekick, Jim, on Wild Kingdom decades ago.

Reforms are needed, say Mr. Mangelsen and others. Among them:

They want to force force cinematographers who use captive animals to say so in the opening credits. Nature magazines that feature pictures of wildlife at "game farms" would have to warn readers.

They would also establish strict ethical standards for professional nature-film organizations, demanding humane treatment of captive animals and condemning films that mislead the public.

Those prescriptions, however, have met with resistance as more people than ever before are using game farms. For wildlife films to become blockbusters on TV, in moviehouses, or on video, they need action that can hold a viewer's attention.

"More and more, decisions are being made on a monetary basis rather than a content, message and artistic basis," says Franz Camenzind, a coyote biologist and executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

"We are victims of a remote-control society," he says. "The producers say if you can't hold the viewer's attention for 10 seconds, you're not getting the job done. They think that in order to hold a viewer, you need action and gore. To get those scenes might mean pushing the ethics question."

Mr. Camenzind, who has won national film awards acknowledges that getting every shot in the wild is often impossible, and that some controlled circumstances are necessary.

"You're not going to get a camera down an ant hole, therefore you build an ant colony that is accessible to your lens," he says. "Most people would accept that."

At the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, like its Missoula counterpart, organizers have not drawn hard lines for the films that are entered.

Setting ethical boundaries are left up to individual filmmakers, says Mary Ford, the festival's executive director.

The International Wildlife Film Festival runs from April 15 to April 22.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society