Wild Guide – Looking at the big wide world

Celebrating the past and looking forward at Jackson Hole
September 1, 2009

This year’s edition of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is set to celebrate both the old (the work of Charles Darwin and its own 10th anniversary) and the new (3D filmmaking and a new United Nations partnership) at its biennial event. The five-day conference, beginning on September 28, has much to keep wildlife filmmakers busy, says executive director Lisa Samford.

The first day of programming will focus on simultaneously marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of the Species, with a screening of National Geographic and NOVA/WGBH’s drama Darwin’s Greatest Challenge. The second night sees the U.S. premiere screening of Disneynature’s The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingo, which also nabbed a record five nominations for JHWFF’s film competition.

Speaking of the film competition, Samford says that she’s seen a dramatic increase in film submissions. Almost 400 films are competing for more than 750 categories. ‘I think it reflects the fact that more theatrical documentaries are being made and distributed on a very high level,’ she says. ‘It reflects that people love seeing nature on a larger screen. The big wide world doesn’t really lend itself to a box in your house.’

A panel of preliminary judges selected three productions for the Outstanding Achievement award: Earth, Gorilla Murders and Whale Wars: Nothing’s Ideal. Regarding Earth, the JHWFF jury said, ‘To have the vision and dedication to document the Earth on this scale, and to execute that vision with such excellence is extraordinary.’ As for Whale Wars, ‘It is bold programming which brings the ethics and politics of activist conservation into the living room and to much wider debate’; and regarding Gorilla Murders, ‘In what is effectively a volatile war zone, the filmmakers gained access to key characters [and] made sensitive decisions about very politically charged and potentially life-threatening situations to bring a powerfully shot, compelling and truthful portrait of the desperate dilemmas of conservation.’

The festival also marks its first partnership with the United Nations with a two-day series of forums on sustainability dealing with four subject areas: water, forests, ice sheets and desertification. ‘We always try to have really solid content strands from the position of the conservation and environment issues. For a lot of filmmakers who attend it helps give them story ideas and a sense of what’s happening on the ground of places they haven’t visited,’ says Samford.

Samford is also very excited for the 3D workshops. ‘It’s going to be an end to end, ‘Here’s how it works, here’s where we’ve come, this is why it’s so great now’ [presentation],’ she enthuses. ‘The technological changes over the last few years have really taken 3D into a whole new realm. It’s no longer a gimmick, it’s an immersive storytelling medium now that’s going to do nothing but grow.’ And it’s already growing, since three films in competition for different categories are 3D films.

The event caps off with a keynote speech from Lifetime Award Winner, Dr. Richard Leakey, the famed paleoanthropologist, politician, political activist and environmentalist. ‘Richard Leakey is a phenomenon in terms of what he’s accomplished in his life as a paleoanthropologist and as a conservationist, and he’s really doing important work on the ground,’ says Samford.

Samford also reports that delegate numbers are slightly ahead of last time, which delights her. ‘The fact is, in a time where things are tight and people are cutting back, it’s a good time to make the investment to come out and be at an event like this because it’s a very solid time to go after the future.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.