Telluride saw the world premiere of a new wildlife documentary titled Wild cat which has undeniable appeal for animal lovers as well as admirers of amazing true stories. Amazon will screen the film this fall. The South American ocelot who is at the center of this story of animal rescue and liberation will appeal to audiences, but the human characters in this saga have at least as much appeal.
Harry Turner had enlisted in the British Army in Afghanistan when he was just 18, and the horrors he witnessed there traumatized him and drove him to suicidal behavior. When he traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, he found a new purpose. While there, he met a woman named Samantha Zwicker who was involved in a project to rescue wild animals threatened by poachers. The two eventually struck up a personal and professional relationship centered around a young ocelot who probably wouldn’t have survived without their help.
A captivating journey into nature.
They began filming their encounters with the ocelot, eventually teaming up with professional filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost to chronicle the arduous steps involved in raising the wildcat and training it to return to the jungle and survive on its own. The film strikes a satisfying balance between wildlife photography and a more intimate, often disturbing human drama.
The filmmakers get remarkably close to the animals – not just the ocelot but also the birds and reptiles that the young cat must learn to trap in order to live in the wild. An encounter with a dangerous caiman (a South American cousin of a crocodile) that lives in the Amazon is one of the most surprising survival battles ever filmed.
But the dangers faced by the two characters go beyond the perils of the natural world. Harry’s wounds are deep and lasting. He cut himself in the past and moments of depression led him to more dangerous suicidal behaviors. The relationship with Samantha partially heals, but it is insufficient to counter the deep wounds caused by her devastating wartime experiences.
We gradually learn that Samantha has her own traumatic personal history, particularly a relationship with her abusive father. Harry’s family history is less problematic, as we learn in a particularly poignant sequence when his parents and younger brother visit him in Peru and express their love and support. His trauma definitely grows since his time in the army, and without insisting on the subject, this film underlines the danger of putting such young people in danger.
Harry and Samantha’s complicated relationship is handled a bit too sketchily to be completely satisfying. No doubt the filmmakers didn’t want to be accused of invading their privacy, but we are left with some lingering questions about their connection, which overlaps between the personal and the professional. Eventually, both of them moved on to other relationships.
But there’s no arguing with the film’s remarkable animal imagery and the powerful emotion that accompanies the inevitable moment when they have to part with the animal they raised. Moviegoers with long memories will see a connection to a 1960s blockbuster, born free, which focused on a couple raising a lion cub and ultimately recognizing that their only victory would be to part ways with the animal and return it to its natural habitat. It was a pure Hollywood production of course, but no one who saw it as a child will likely forget its impact. Wild cat is a less sanitized, harsher production, but it generates some of the same emotional power.
During a Q&A after one of the Telluride screenings, Zwicker and Turner reported seeing glimpses of the ocelot (whom they named Keanu) roaming free in the jungle. Perhaps most importantly, Turner displayed a newfound calm and maturity in his thoughtful comments. This only goes to show that healing can be (almost) complete for man and beast.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Directors: Melissa Lesh, Trevor Beck Frost
Producers: Melissa Lesh, Trevor Beck Frost, Alysa Nahmias, Joshua Altman
Executive Producers: Michah Green, Daniel Steinman, Dan Friedkin, Trevor Groth, Adriana Banta, Sarah Hong, Stephen G. Hall, Michael J. Kelly, Alison J. Saifer
Directors of Photography: Trevor Beck Frost, Melissa Lesh, Harry Turner
Editors: Melissa Lesh, Joshua Altman, David Zieff, Gene Gold
Music: Patrick Johnson
1 hour 46 minutes