Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the biennial Wildscreen film festival gives filmmakers the opportunity to step outside their creative bubble and sample other projects. Since the fest launched in 1982, it’s allowed attendees the ability to monitor the work of their far-flung peers. ‘Wildscreen provided the first occasion where filmmakers from around the world could have a look at each others’ work and see the sort of competition they were facing,’ says Ivan Hattingh, who helped found the Bristol-based fest with Sir Peter Scott and Christopher Parsons. ‘I think that made an enormous difference in the quality of many films.’
And the overall festival has a high level of quality, says Dione Gilmour, head of the natural history unit at pubcaster ABC in Australia and a devoted Wildscreen attendee. Its filmmakers represent ‘so many different nationalities and different ways of doing things, and it has always had certain standards,’ states Gilmour, who has previously chaired Wildscreen’s preliminary film judging panel. ‘Some other festivals might find it difficult to keep up with that.’
Laying down roots
Wildscreen helped set the bar for quality in natural history programming – a genre that makes changes as quickly as a chameleon’s colors – and has been a mirror to the market as it cyclically waxes and wanes.
In reflecting on some of these shifts, Gilmour points out that after the 1970s came 20 years’ worth of preachy, ‘holier than thou-type programs.’ She’s admits she’s generalizing, but adds, ‘We had to find new ways of treating environmental films and getting a resurgence of people’s interest because we had absolutely bored people to death.’
During the mid to late ’80s, the public became more engaged in environmental issues, explains this year’s Wildscreen nomination panel chair Carol Haslam, who has been involved in the festival since it began, originally attending as a ce with Channel 4 (which launched at roughly the same time as the fest). The TV programs and films entered into Wildscreen reflected viewers’ blossoming environmental awareness, a cycle of public consciousness that Haslam says is currently repeating itself.
By the time the ’90s came around, she says the number of environmental films dropped considerably (she attributes this to a handful of key decision-makers in British TV), and at times the whole natural history genre suffered. Hattingh recounts an incident that took place in the middle of that decade as he pushed the green message. ‘A chap from National Geographic attacked me because of my interest in the environment,’ he recalls. ‘He said, ‘The sorts of films that the BBC and National Geographic are making are absolutely wonderful,’ and I said ‘Yes, I’ve never denied that. But, if you think bugs copulating to Mozart are going to change the attitudes of people to the environment, you’re mistaken.”
It certainly takes more than frisky insects to spread a message, but Haslam reports the little critters certainly created a loud buzz in this year’s Wildscreen submissions. She cites Insect Wars – a program from National Geographic Television & Film’s Natural History Unit that reveals insect power struggles and entered five categories at this year’s Wildscreen – as one example of the influx in bug themes. But this merely scratches the surface of topics covered – Haslam boasts that this year’s fest ‘has been the widest range for budget and content that I’ve ever seen here.’ That’s largely due to the new scope of programs invited for entry over the past few years: there are now categories for news and current affairs programs, earth sciences, and campaigning films, to name but a few.
It’s not easy finding green
Not that blue-chip films are being ignored – but as they remain expensive, much recognition is being given to more affordable fare at the other end of the scale. ‘We can’t separate what’s happened at Wildscreen with what’s happened in the television industry as a whole,’ Haslam explains, noting the correlation between dwindling budgets and the abundance of new satellite and cable channels. Pair thinly spread funding with intense ratings competition, and Haslam says the result is either archive-heavy programs or ‘new formats that won’t take months in the rainforest or Antarctic in order to get exclusive animal behavior.’
Representing the more realistic end of the budget spectrum is the popular series Meerkat Manor (Oxford Scientific Films), a finalist in this year’s Wildscreen in the animal behavior, innovation and popular broadcast programs categories. The docusoap follows the underground adventures of a lively family of meerkats, and Haslam uses it to illustrate that low-budget projects can be well made. ‘I don’t think there is a perfect correlation between budget and production value,’ she adds.
Coming in for the thrill
Some of today’s in-your-face storytelling approaches aren’t necessarily the norm for the genre. ‘Natural history filmmaking’s been slightly conservative for many years – very conservative,’ says ABC’s Gilmour. ‘It’s always pushed the envelope in terms of technology, but in terms of telling stories and how to use words, it’s been slower than most other areas. It’s sometimes very earnest and worthy, and that belongs back in the 19th century.’
Still, attempts at more modern storytelling techniques aren’t always received well. Haslam tells the story of two crocodile films that were debated at Wildscreen in 1990. One was an American film made by Dennis Kane for ABC called Crocodile’s Revenge. The film included dramatic re-enactments of people being eaten by crocs, and got big audiences. The other was Here Be Dragons, a more traditional, blue-chip British offering made by Alan Root for ITV.
At the time, Kane fielded a lot of criticism at Wildscreen about his film sensationalizing animal behavior. Kane and his supporters argued that American audiences wouldn’t watch slower, more traditional films, and that in order to get bigger audiences interested in the genre, the narrative format must be adapted.
It’s a debate that is still being argued, says Haslam. Take the provocatively titled Wild Sex: Deviants copro by Granada International (UK) and National Geographic Channels International as a recent example. A finalist in this year’s popular broadcast programs category, she says while some think the show is imaginative and makes good use of archive material, others argue that it’s ‘cheap and tatty and exploitative.’ Haslam’s own view is that ‘if you get men who’ve come home after the pub on a Friday night to watch a program about the natural world by calling it Wild Sex, maybe next time they’ll watch a serious program. You have to find ways of attracting different audiences with different styles.’
What goes around comes around
Targeting the lucrative youth demo is the Planet Action series, which was entered for this year’s One Planet award. Commissioned by Animal Planet International and Granada, and produced by api in partnership with the WWF, Action follows an international group of seven amateur environmentalists as they take on projects involving everything from planting trees in Borneo’s rainforest to saving Leatherback turtles in Panama. Haslam says the show engages young viewers in an adventure while delivering a conservation message.
Another show that has surprisingly engaged this group is the mammoth, globe-spanning series Planet Earth, coproduced by the BBC, Discovery Channel and NHK in association with the CBC. Breaking the popular notions about what younger audiences will watch (it has long shots rather than quick edits, and they’re wide rather than close-ups), it actually did well with the segment in the UK. ‘In terms of style, it goes back to something that is really quite old,’ says Gilmour. ‘[It's like] keeping your old clothes for long enough, and they come back into fashion again. But they always come back a bit different. If we go on making films like we used to in that slightly old fashioned way, it won’t work.’ That’s why knowledge of trends in the wildlife industry and of competitors’ offerings comes in handy – just what Wildscreen has been offering all along.