The International Wildlife Film Festival continues this week in Missoula. Here are a few highlights of films about pursuing the outdoors, and lessening human’s impact on nature.
‘A White Dream’
Saturday, April 23, at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, April 26, at 4:30 p.m. at the Roxy
Pitched somewhere between a quixotic Werner Herzog film and a Terrence Malick montage of Canadian wintertime, “A White Dream” covers remote and rewarding ground.
Director Mathieu Le Lay deserves much credit for undertaking the film, which requires following his protagonist on an arduous and deeply uncomfortable but gorgeous journey.
The subject, Jérémie Villet, is a French wildlife photographer with a very specific cold-weather aesthetic. He carefully frames and shoots birds, sheep and other fauna in the depth of winter, when their stark shapes can be seen against the all-white backdrop of snow.
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“I’m looking for the perfect immaculate moment where everything becomes white,” he says.
He’s a quiet but compelling character and the sole narrator, describing the meaning he finds in that particular environment.
“With snow, I manage to reflect the beauty that we all feel with our five senses when we’re in the wilderness. We feel harmony, purity, raw emotions,” he says.
He’s won awards for images of eagles photographed in this fashion. His latest goal is perhaps the most elusive: the mountain goat in winter. Le Lay follows along as they head to the Yukon Territory in far northwestern Canada in pursuit of the high-altitude creature. Even a local photographer tells him that they’re difficult to find, much less shoot, regardless of the time of year.
Undaunted, Villet buys a supply of camping food that will not freeze and a sled to pull along some of his gear. A lack of snow sends him farther north on a detour, where we see herds of caribou on the high plateau. Le Lay’s visual aesthetic doesn’t directly mimic Villet’s photographs, but complements them. Time-lapse imagery of the aurora pairs well with Villet’s musings about the deeper internal pace of the wilderness. We see gorgeous footage of ptarmigan, marten, foxes and Dahl sheep.
Villet’s final pursuit of the goats will be the most interesting portion for hikers and winter backcountry enthusiasts. He spends upward of four days hiking up and around rocky, snow-covered slopes at more than 6,500 feet, setting up his tent in snowstorms.
“This is photography, it’s having an ideal, and trying to find it with reality. And reality, well, is steep, surprising, disappointing, frustrating,” he says.
He later adds that the goat, as a subject, is an “animal you have to deserve.” The quiet finale proves his point.
‘The Year Earth Changed’
Director: Tom Beard, narration by David Attenborough.
Showing with “Summer of Bees” on Sunday, April 24, 8:30 p.m., the Roxy Garden and Thursday, April 28, 6:15 p.m., in the theater.
While the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic was startling for humans, to animals it was a sudden increase in silence. To scientists, it was a “a global experiment of epic proportions,” as one person describes it in “The Year Earth Changed.”
The movie, with David Attenborough as narrative guide, shows viewers the effects of the sudden drop in human activity on five continents over the course of a year, from March 2020 to March 2021.
The examples range from handsome drone shots to up-close footage of animals behaving as though no one was around, and hasn’t been in some time.
A BBC Natural History Unit production, “The Year” is gorgeously filmed. Drone flyovers of a cityscape are standard scene-setting in all manner of films now, but seeing these places abandoned and silent in broad daylight is eerie. (Along with professional footage, they include bystander footage of, say, hippos at a gas station.)
Tone-wise, along with the lush visuals, the information is smartly conveyed and they avoid any climate nihilism. Whales on the southeast coast of Alaska were recorded communicating more frequently and in different ways than before, since the hold on cruise ship traffic emptied out the waters physically and audibly. A researcher compares it to moving from a crowded bar to a quiet coffee shop.
At a resort in Mpumalanga, South Africa, the wildlife overtakes the grounds, and eventually a predator (leopard) follows the prey and is filmed hunting in broad daylight, which normally isn’t their time of day. (In one scene it walks past the camera operator, who’s seen filming away and breathing rather loudly.) Elsewhere in that country, jackass penguins, as they are called, were more easily able to feed their chicks.
In normal times, the crowded beaches mean they’d wait till after dark to return with their kill. Now they’re able to feed their young twice a day, leading to healthier offspring. Footage of a pack, or whatever the correct term for a multitude of penguins in a tourism district, is charming.
An important point is made there — humans thought they were coexisting well with the birds, but in fact “we were making their life difficult,” Attenborough said.
By the end, they revisit the specific scenarios and check off practical ways that humans could alter their behavior and aid the animals’ newfound progress. The filmmakers seek to leverage the rising interest in the natural world since March 2020 to encourage efforts to protect it and emerge from the pandemic with more caution and care for the world.