Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Fest might be coming to a close, but there’s still time to catch some virtual screenings on the festival’s 43rd year. Here are some of our recs.
“The Science of an Extreme Animal Athlete”
“Are you a man, or a mouse?” the old question goes. After watching “The Science of an Extreme Animal Athlete,” I’m thinking life as a mouse wouldn’t be so bad.
The film by science-centered studio Day’s Edge Productions follows three biologists as they research the secret of how the deer mouse managed to adapt to life on mountain peaks without hibernating in the winter.
One of those scientists is University of Montana associate professor Zachary Cheviron.
Cheviron teaches in UM’s ecology and evolution program and helps run the Cheviron Lab. He worked alongside Shane Campbell-Stanton of UCLA and Nate Senner of the University of South Carolina — evolutionary biologists completing their post-doctorates in his lab — to study the evolutionary adaptations of deer mice native to low and high elevations.
Shot in 2018 and 2019, Cheviron said filming was a ton of fun, but condensing scientific jargon to something any viewer could understand was no easy task.
“It [making a movie] is not a typical part of a professor’s job,” he said.
That distillation of research was excellently done. I left “The Science of an Extreme Animal Athlete” with more than just cute mouse imagery to remember. Rather, I learned a bit more about how animals process fats and sugars using different amounts of oxygen for each.
The best part? It came off as three passionate scientists sharing what they love, rather than a straight-laced biology lesson.
That was part of the inspiration, said Cheviron, an avid distance runner. Part of his fascination with deer mice came from their ability to use energy efficiently.
“Scientists have interests outside of science,” Cheviron said. “Their science can be influenced by their hobbies and the other things they do.”
Clocking in at a breezy 10 minutes, “The Science of an Extreme Animal Athlete” is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be. Sweeping shots of desert vistas and snow-packed mountaintops are sprinkled in with plenty of adorable deer mouse action and some scientific pearls to boot.
What more can you ask for?
Despite the title, “Chasing Ghosts” is not, in fact, about ghosts.
Rather, it’s about the elusive ghost orchid: a plant whose pollination is still a mystery to scientists. Theories can be traced back to Charles Darwin, but no one has ever proven that the orchid is pollinated by a mysterious moth that flutters through one of the last wild places in America.
Our story takes place in a Florida swamp, where a team of scientific photojournalists wade through knee-deep water among alligators, panthers and bears. And that’s before they start scaling massive cypress trees. Oh, and they paddleboard to get there. Just a normal day in the office, right?
This is a film festival, so it’s not a surprise that the cinematography on this film is a marvel. The greenness of the swamp pulls viewers in as they find themselves looking for orchids and moths everywhere. The expanse of the water causes viewers to lean in, looking closely as they wearily try to see if there’s an alligator floating below our team of scientists.
Who knew Florida could be so beautiful?
The film’s story is ultimately one of obsession. After all, what else could convince three scientists to devote their lives to capturing a phenomenon that might not even exist? These characters, endearing in their botanical passion, are easy to root for.
They set out on their mission to photograph, and therefore prove, how these ancient flowers are pollinated.
The scientists lead audiences through a documentary that encapsulates scientific theory. We are shown the fall of hypotheses, and the joy that comes when the scientists create new ones.
Even if audiences only know the middle school equivalent of plant biology, they’ll want to know the answer to the question the scientists pose: “How does this happen?”
Remember that stuffed polar bear you paid $20 for at your trip to SeaWorld and haven’t touched in 10 some years?
Real versions of those expensive toys face extinction. And you’ve got to help save them.
So is the rallying cry from director Max Lowe in his documentary short, “Bare Existence.”
The film follows Polar Bears International, a polar bear conservationist organization, as they race to save the creatures from an icy world that’s literally crumbling under their feet. The culprit? Global warming.
And what an effect it’s had. I was not emotionally ready to witness the death of not one, but two cubs.
I was ready, however, to gawk at the masterful cinematography. Abandoning the down-and-dirty approach of some documentaries, director of photography Clair Popkin creates shots so artistically composited and so grand in scale that it’s a wonder they weren’t staged.
Lowe makes his film more than just a pretty face by focusing intimately on the team at Polar Bears International, led by Steven Amstrup. They are clearly passionate about helping their furry friends (Amstrup chokes up during one soundbite), and viewers can’t help but get passionate too.
And these viewers will certainly include the kiddies. As “Bare Existence” explains, one of Polar Bears International’s biggest goals is taking education about the bears’ endangerment to schools.
We even see a high school student, Jurnee Bignell-Blair, get in on the action. Not only does she describe how much polar bears mean to the culture and tourism of her home town of Churchill, Manitoba, but she also gets to help them as a student intern for Polar Bears International.
In a world where millennials are blamed for everything, it’s comforting to see a film telling younger viewers that they have the power to make a positive difference in the world.
“Bare Existence” is a short, sweet movie that encourages us all to join the fight against climate change. Cuddle up with your stuffed polar bear and enjoy it.
In “#naturenow,” combating climate change is as simple as “you can do this too in three easy steps.”
The short film earns the name short, clocking in at 3:38. It features adolescent activist Greta Thunberg and environmental writer George Monbiot, whose quick and easy explanation of climate change leads to a simple solution: planting trees.
The visuals are snappy and appealing, and it is an added delight to discover at the end of the film that the footage has been recycled, meaning no additional carbon in flight or travel was added to the earth’s atmosphere in order to make this piece.
The film features a model for the future that I am fond of: do what you can on your own but understand we also need our world leaders to change their ways. Greta is a good choice for delivering this message, as she is instantly recognizable as well as respected by a large number of people.
As much as I agree with this message, however, I can’t help to feel as though I’ve just watched a commercial. It is admittedly well put together, but it’s the type of video I’d share on Facebook or Twitter when I’m feeling like annoying my conservative aunt. In fact, in the video itself, Greta urges people to share the video on social media. The title “PSA” suits better.
If you are looking for a film to spread awareness on Twitter, this one is certainly a pretty one to look at, though. Raising awareness about climate change is always a worthy endeavor.