Sundance film: Passion to save tigers comes through in ‘Tigerland’
Tigers invoke different feelings in people around the world. Some see them as a symbol of power and strength while others fear them. Then there are the ones who have seen both the fierce and the gentle sides of tigers, and they have learned to respect and love the animals.
“Tigerland,” a film in the U.S. Documentary Competition for the Sundance Film Festival, follows two people a world away from each other who dedicated their lives to saving the tiger. The film is directed by Ross Kauffman, an Academy Award-winning director of the documentary “Born into Brothels,” and portrays the dangers tigers face in a world of poaching and shrinking forests.
The television network Discovery Channel and the film production company Radical Media reached out to Kauffman about the idea of creating a film about tigers. Two years ago, Discovery launched an initiative called Project Cat, and the goal is to double the amount of tigers in the wild by 2022.
Kauffman agreed, and he knew from the start he wanted to tell the story in a unique way. He chose to focus on the beauty and majesty of the tigers rather than poaching. He figured the best way to do that was to find people who care about tigers.
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He started reaching out to conservation groups working with tigers, and he met Pavel Fomenko, a Russian scientist working with the World Wildlife Fund in the Russian Far East. On Kauffman’s first night in Russia, Fomenko casually mentioned that he and his team would be searching for two tiger cubs whose mother was at the World Wildlife Fund center after attacking a dog.
“We thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. We are coming,’” Kauffman said.
Kauffman follows Fomenko’s work with tigers through a close-up lens, showing the range of raw emotions Fomenko feels while working with the animals he loves.
Kauffman then flew to India to tell the story of Kailash Sankhala, a deceased conservationist who helped prevent the tigers from vanishing from the country in the mid to late 1900s.
“We found them and we just thought, ‘These are two great stories — one in the past, one in the present — and how better to show the progression of not only saving the tigers, but conservation in general,” Kauffman said.
The film flips between the stories of Fomenko and the Sankhala’s descendents, who are keeping Sankhala’s legacy alive by educating visitors about tigers, including tours through a reserve to see the big cats. Kauffman said it was a challenge to tie the stories together, and he mixed elements of the documentary filmmaking style cinéma vérité and a historic story using narration and animation to do so. The feeling throughout, though, is the beauty of the tiger.
“From the beginning of this project, my whole desire was to try to fall in love with the people who love tigers,” he said. “For me, it’s all about showing the humanity of people and showing the passion.”
He hopes the documentary will inspire people to learn more about tigers and to find ways they can save the animals from extinction.
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