A wild new chapter: Wildlife Film Festival looks to build “science communicators”

Jeri Rafter, a filmmaker and the producer of the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, looks to evolve the program into a scientific collaboration of filmmakers, environmental nonprofits and stakeholders who believe in ethical film making, conservation and science. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the International Wildlife Film Festival launched at the University of Montana back in 1977, the program’s founder, Chuck Jonkel, was looking to change the way filmmakers depicted wildlife.

More than four decades later, as the festival celebrates its 41st season, its new producer is again looking to raise the bar, elevating the way science is communicated among the audience, the stakeholders and filmmakers.

“That’s where we can really be of the most value to people in the community and, in general, trying to get to a national level to advocate for good, ethical science communication,” said Jeri Rafter. “We’re not going to lose our focus on filmmaking, but we’re increasing the scope to where we’re really talking with science communicators – pairing filmmakers and nonprofits who are doing a lot of video communication now.”

Now in her second year as the program’s producer, Rafter is deep into the details of organizing this year’s event. Community judging for borderline films is only two weeks away, though efforts to elevate the program’s audience and reach will continue beyond that.

Seated at the Roxy Theater on Thursday, Rafter noted the festival’s long history and its evolution over the years. The program’s popularity has ebbed and flowed at times, soaring in the 1990s while enduring other lean years.

Yet Rafter, a filmmaker in her own right, believes the genre has made a comeback, aided in part by short-form content and new threats facing both wildlife and the environment, not to mention the conservation work being done by nonprofits to address those threats.

Pairing those assets tops Rafter’s list of goals.

“The short-form content is taking off, and everything from the Ecology Project to the Clark Fork Coalition to the Sierra Club all have video now,” she said. “I’m trying to create a market here, where stakeholders and nonprofits will come to meet filmmakers who will help them message their mission. That’s where we could be of value to both filmmakers and environmental advocates.”

Jonkel, a bear biologist, created the program in 1977 to counter what Rafter described as the “Disneyfication” of wildlife. Back then, she said, wildlife was portrayed in questionable ways that often failed to depict the “nature of the beast.”

That principle will continue to hold center stage, even as the program looks to expand upon its mission and tap new ways to consume – and discuss – conservation filmmaking. After all, Rafter notes, there were no tablets or smartphones back in 1977. Apple was only 1 at the time, and the technology giant was 30 years away from introducing its first-generation iPhone.

Rafter believes it’s time for the festival to fully embrace digital technology while it continues its environmental theme and elevates the communication of science and the environment.

“It’s been very narrow in focus where we’re just talking about films meant for broadcast or theater,” she said. “I want to increase the breadth. I want to talk about how we cut through the clutter. There’s so many people talking about wildlife online.”

Rafter cites the success of “Chasing Coral,” which screened at last year’s event. The film, produced by Jeff Orlowski, did more than record warming oceans and coral bleaching. It succeeded in elevating conversations around the issue.

“We hear a lot of about the oceans warming up, but Chasing Coral showed visually what that actually means for coral in the ocean,” Rafter said. “We had the filmmakers here at the festival, and they talked to hundreds of kids and had a special screening at Hellgate. That’s where the rubber meets the road, when these filmmakers talk to the youth and the kids hold on to that.”

As the festival evolves, Rafter said, it will become more than just sitting down to watch a visually stunning film.

“I would love for it to be a place where a variety of stakeholders come to share information,” she said. “I want it to have a feel, like this buzzing hive of people come together to discuss how we talk about wildlife, how we talk about species, and how we communicate that through all sorts of mediums.”