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‘Wildcat’ Review: A Wildlife Doc Full of Human Feeling



Telluride saw the world premiere of a new wildlife documentary called Wildcat that has unmistakable appeal to animal lovers as well as admirers of astonishing true-life stories. Amazon will screen the movie this fall. The South American ocelot that is at the center of this tale of animal rescue and liberation will attract audiences, but the human characters in this saga hold at least as much appeal.

Harry Turner had enlisted in the British army in Afghanistan when he was only 18, and the horrors that he observed there traumatized him and led to suicidal behavior. When he traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, he found a new purpose. While he was there, he met a woman named Samantha Zwicker who was involved in a project to rescue wild animals threatened by poachers. The two of them eventually established a personal as well as professional relationship that centered on a young ocelot cub that probably would not have survived without their aid.


The Bottom Line

A riveting journey into the wild.

They began filming their encounters with the ocelot, and eventually they teamed up with professional filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost to chronicle the arduous steps involved in raising the wild cat and training it to return to the jungle and survive on its own. The film strikes a satisfying balance between wildlife photography and more intimate, often disturbing human drama.

The filmmakers get remarkably close to the animals — not just to the ocelot but the birds and reptiles that the young cat must learn to trap in order to live in the wild. One encounter with a dangerous caiman (a South American cousin of a crocodile) that lives in the Amazon is one of the most startling survival battles ever caught on camera.

But the dangers encountered by the two characters go beyond the perils of the natural world. Harry’s wounds are deep and enduring. He has cut himself in the past, and moments of depression lead him to more dangerous suicidal behavior. The relationship with Samantha is partially healing, but it is insufficient to counter the deep wounds brought on by his devastating wartime experiences.

We gradually come to learn that Samantha has her own traumatic personal history, especially a relationship with her abusive father. Harry’s family history is less problematic, as we learn during an especially poignant sequence when his parents and younger brother visit him in Peru and express their love and support. His trauma definitely grows from his time in the military, and without belaboring the point, this film underscores the danger of placing such young people in harm’s way.

The complicated relationship of Harry and Samantha is treated a bit too sketchily to be completely satisfying. No doubt the filmmakers did not want to be accused of invading their privacy, but we are left with a few unanswered questions about their bond, which overlaps between the personal and the professional. Eventually both of them moved on to other relationships.

But there is no arguing with the film’s remarkable animal footage and the potent emotion that accompanies the inevitable moment when they must separate from the animal they have raised. Moviegoers with long memories will see a connection to a big hit from the 1960s, Born Free, which focused on a couple raising a lion cub and eventually recognizing that their only victory would come in separating from the animal and sending it back to its natural habitat. That was a pure Hollywood production of course, but no one who saw it as a child is likely to forget its impact. Wildcat is a less sanitized, harsher production, but it generates some of the same emotional power.

At a Q&A after one of the Telluride screenings, Zwicker and Turner reported that they had seen glimpses of the ocelot (which they named Keanu) roaming free in the jungle. Perhaps even more importantly, Turner demonstrated a newfound calm and maturity in his reflective comments. That only goes to demonstrate that the healing may be (nearly) complete for both man and beast.

Full credits

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Amazon
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

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