Introducing Wilderland Festival

Josh Wright

08 Oct 2019

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Find out about an exciting new wildlife film festival

On Saturday the 5th of October, the 26-date tour of Wilderland Festival officially got under way at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge. The UK & Ireland’s first ever touring wildlife film festival, Wilderland is the brainchild of zoologist filmmakers Dan O’Neill and Isaac Rice, who have curated nine fantastic short films that grant audiences a unique perspective on a number of species and the conservation challenges they face.

Natural World Safaris are proud to be headline sponsors of Wilderland. We believe that film can be a powerful tool for stimulating public discourse around conservation, and Wilderland's support of independent filmmakers deserves to be championed. We join Dan and Isaac in hoping that these films "will inspire everyone to think more about the natural world in our daily lives."

Recently, the NWS team were lucky enough to be in attendance at the Wilderland premiere to see these stellar short films on the big screen for the first time. From the depths of the ocean to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, Wilderland’s films transported us across the globe to observe the beauty and fragility of the natural world. The exact cinematic selection has been chosen by industry-leading judges, such as BBC Natural History Unit producer Stephen Moss and multi-award-winning cameraman Doug Allan, from an initial intake of over 50 entries.

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The first work to be shown was Tom Parry’s A Place for Penguins, a film shot not on the frozen continent of Antarctica, but the sunny shores of Cape Town, South Africa. As an animal that shares this country with such iconic creatures as the lion, leopard, rhino and elephant, it is no surprise that African penguins don’t get quite as much press as their larger counterparts – animals that most of us are more than familiar with, having seen them in picturebooks and television documentaries growing up. But just like many other African animals, the African penguin is an endangered species; with their plight not often popularised in the media, these charismatic little birds need all the help they can get. With the lack of connectivity between two penguin colonies threatening the long-term survival of the species, A Place for Penguins follows an unlikely duo as they team up to take on an ambitious, novel and entirely unique project: creating the world’s first artificially induced African penguin colony. What Parry’s film shows is how important creativity and collaboration are becoming to conservation in the 21st century.

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National Geographic photographer Tim Laman and director Melissa Lesh are at the helm of Wilderland’s second film, Person of the Forest, a title derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang, meaning "person", and hutan, meaning "forest". Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo is home to some of the world’s last remaining Bornean orangutans, Asia’s only great ape, whose fascinating culture – at once so recognisably human, and yet utterly unique – is under threat. Also starring researcher Cheryl Knott and National Geographic Young Explorer Robert Suro, Person of the Forest is an eye-opening exploration of just what it takes to gain an insight into the private lives of orangutans in the wild. Hearing Laman’s account of passing an orangutan wading through a river, or watching footage of the apes constructing nests in trees, is truly fascinating. In the space of just 15 minutes, it is difficult not to become very much immersed and invested in the orangutan’s world. One gets the sense that if the orangutan is not saved, we will have lost a part of the human story that we will never be able to reclaim.

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Next up was Flamboyant, a film narrated by Wilderland co-founder Dan O’Neill. Director Gail Kukula has crafted her own miniature Blue Planet episode here, which is sure to delight all fans of marine life. The film’s subject is the flamboyant cuttlefish – and yes, that is its official title – a species of poisonous cephalopod that must master the art of camouflage and subterfuge if it is to successfully hunt its prey. A resident of the warm waters surrounding the Philippines, this particular cuttlefish must learn to hunt in a new home after a life-changing encounter with a scuba diver. Will she learn the right skills to compete with a top and established predator? This dramatic and engaging piece will be sure to capture the attention of Wilderland attendees, as we follow the remarkable alien-looking creature and its struggle for survival. Following on from two films that are largely filmed above the waves, Flamboyant offers a fascinating perspective on the underwater world and one of its most bizarre denizens.

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As you’d expect from a film with a title as harrowing as Blood Island, Lindsey Parietti’s contribution to Wilderland is not for the faint of heart. The story begins in the 1970s, when a medical experiment in Liberia leads to a group of chimpanzees being captured, bred, and infected with hepatitis. Taking deeper and darker turns through the decades, Blood Island tells the tale of the chimps, their captors and their saviours. It was the New York Blood Centre who facilitated the research, but after 30 years the organisation withdrew its funding and left the chimps to roam free on a series of estuary islands, while the research facility fell into disrepair. Thankfully, the story did not end there – the locals who worked at the facility did not follow the NYBC in abandoning the chimps. Led by Joseph Thomas, the men who were once complicit in the apes’ imprisonment now care for them out of their own pocket, ferrying much-needed food to the chimp colony by motorboat. Once consigned to cages, there is now hope for these animals that once had none.

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Just before the interval, we were treated to Marat Narimanov’s Big Booom, a stunning claymation short that shows the history of humanity and our planet in four minutes. Designed as an eco-friendly statement that urges the viewer to consider who we are and where we come from, Big Booom is one single shot that has it all: humour, action and tragedy. By examining how it is that we came to be where we are today, this thought-provoking film couldn’t be more relevant amid the global climate protests that took place towards the end of September, and that are continuing this week with events led by Extinction Rebellion. One cannot fail to see how dire the reality is: that humanity is currently engaged in throwing away the natural miracle of life and evolution, due to our continued unsustainable exploitation of the Earth. Narimanov has employed his artistry in an attempt to arrest this slide into oblivion. The Earth is home to us all, and we only have one home.

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Keeper of the Call was next on the schedule, a film directed by Billy Clapham. Although this entry may not boast the most exotic setting in the Wilderland line-up, it does show that the need for conservation is not restricted solely to the African savannah and the Amazon Rainforest. Set in a patch of picturesque countryside somewhere in the Welsh Borders, this film struck home for the Natural World Safaris team, with many of being native Brits ourselves. The passion of a local farmer, Wynford, provides a remarkably personal and poignant touch to a story that is ostensibly about the Eurasian curlew, a slender-billed bird whose call is the first thing we hear in the film. Described as one of Britain’s most iconic sounds, Wynford believes “there’s nothing else like it,” but it is a sound that is in danger of falling silent. Anyone who watches Keeper of the Call will surely end up rooting for the plucky Welshman and his feathered friends, as well as the conservationists working to ensure that Eurasian curlews maintain a foothold in the landscape. Wynford’s drive to save the handful of curlews that nest on his land should inspire all of us to protect the local wildlife that we live alongside.

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From farmland to ocean, we were then transported to Icelandic waters to learn about humpback whale vocalisations. Utilising cymatics – a type of visual representation of soundwaves – A Voice Above Nature provides a very interesting look at an underwater world that humans are only ever visitors to. Director Annie Moir first introduces the vocalisations and echolocations that the world’s cetaceans use to communicate, hunt, and find their way around the seven seas. Regretfully, this remarkable evolutionary development is threatened by a modern anthropogenic threat, one that we do not always associate with things like poaching and climate change: noise pollution. However, if all human activity in the seas ceased, it would take just 18 hours for the world’s waters to return to a natural state. Although this outcome is all but a fantasy, A Voice Above Nature does encourage the viewer to consider what actions can be taken to protect our cetacean cousins from the threats posed by noise pollution. Some studies point to it playing a role in cetacean stranding events, gruesome footage of which helps to drive home the need for change.

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The final two films of the festival both follow a particular species, the snow leopard, which occupies a special place in the folklore of Central Asia and the Himalayas. Gayle Podrabsky’s Living with Snow Leopards examines the tenuous relationship between the people of these regions and the predator known as the “Grey Ghost of the Mountains”. In the film, we see how cashmere goat herder Tashi has his livelihood threatened by snow leopard predation. This spells bad news both for herders and for snow leopards: some herders try to protect their flock by engaging in retaliatory killings. For an endangered species with just a few thousand individuals remaining, this is not a sustainable future. Thankfully, Podrabsky’s film examines what can be done to help people and snow leopards coexist peacefully. We see that a community fund, paid into by villagers and the Snow Leopard Trust, provides insurance should anyone lose any livestock to a snow leopard attack. This is a great example of how conservation is reacting to the unique pressures faced in different ecosystems around the world. With a steadily growing population, in the future humans will need to increasingly adapt to provide safe passage for all species.

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Closing out Wilderland is Spirit of the Mountains, a work of fiction that provides a change of pace from the rest of the festival. The film tells the story of a young man who risks everything to save a snow leopard from the hands of an insatiable and cruel collector. Shot in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan by Kyrgyz director Nurmat Sakebaev, this film may depict a fictional story, yet it is one that has surely played out in the wilds before. Although snow leopards have avoided the kind of mass-scale poaching endured by other animals by virtue of their elusive nature and residence in remote, high-altitude habitats, the species is still threatened to this day by illegal poaching. In 2016, for example, the WWF reported that hundreds of snow leopards are poached every year. Although rarely reported, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that these iconic animals remain under threat from the poacher’s rifle. Unfortunately, the thrill of the hunt is not restricted solely to the animal kingdom.

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It was fantastic to see both the quality and variety of the films on show at Wilderland Festival. Events like this don’t just provide entertainment; they also serve to inspire and effect real change in the field of conservation. In addition to the films, the Wilderland team will also be conducting a vote on each date of the tour, where attendees can choose one of five endangered species: the gharial, coconut octopus, pygmy hippo, grey shanked douc and araripe manakin. After the conclusion of the festival, 10% of ticket sales will go towards producing a film based around the species that ultimately wins the vote. Wilderland will then travel directly to the home of the animal to make a short film to raise awareness for its plight. If you want to do your part for your endangered species of choice, and see these fantastic films in person, you can buy tickets for Wilderland Festival here.

If you'd like to follow in the footsteps of the Wilderland filmmakers, speak to one of our Destination Specialists to start designing your own wildlife safari.

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