Friday, September 30, 2022


The role of wildlife photography and, by extension, cinematography as a conservation initiative had its meager beginnings in the early 1900s when George Shiras (nicknamed “Grandfather Flash”) published a photo in National Geographic magazine of spooked deer bounding away from the camera. Shutter speeds were slow then, and the cameras cumbersome, and it wasn’t until the technological advances of the 1970s, coupled with the burgeoning public awareness of environmental issues, that the art form of wildlife photography gained its political edge. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 had alerted the public to the number of species being brought to the edge of extinction, largely through human influence on their dwindling habitats, and wildlife photography—advanced by cameras whose shutter speeds were well suited to snapping fast photography with limited disturbance to the subject being photographed—allowed wildlife photographers to give those endangered animals a face. The strategy had always been that—if the public could see the beauty of these animals and witness them in their habitat—then a plea for their protection could be heard and effected. But even with more capable cameras, tracking animals in the wild and catching photos of them proved arduous, time-consuming and problematic. 

In the 1990s, wildlife photographer James Balog inverted that difficult task by choosing to photograph 62 endangered animals either in captivity (such as zoos) or controlled studio settings. By doing so, he underscored how inappropriate these conditions were—past limited biological interest—in saving these animals. Included in his survey was a photograph of a descendant of the endangered Florida panther, a three-year-old mixed breed male (panther mixed with mountain lion) kept in a private Tampa wildlife sanctuary. His photograph was published in the April 1990 issue of National Geographic, and likewise served as the cover to his 1990 collection of photographs entitled Survivors. At the time biologists believed that only 30-50 pure-blooded panthers remained alive in the wild. Offering his portrait of the panther, albeit admixed, was part of a continuing effort to familiarizing this endangered feline—one of the largest cats in the Americas—to the public. Already by 1982, the panther (Felis concolor coryi)—largely because of its endangered status—had been chosen by a vote of students throughout the state to be Florida’s state animal. 

For the piece Balog wrote for National Geographic, he lamented the role humankind played in the decimation of animal species through development’s relentless destruction of their natural habitats. “Humankind does not stand removed from animals and nature,” he argued, “we are an integral part of the vast network of life forces. Because of certain aspects of our cultural heritage we have exiled ourselves mentally from that network at a terrible cost to the animals and to ourselves. Their endangerment and their alienation from their habitat mirror our own; we too are adrift in the ether of alienation. [¶] We are, after all, the descendants of animals and our identity stems not from our experience with animals, but rather from our experience as animals.” 

Balog’s negotiation of photographing animals in human-controlled environments set the precedent for similar efforts, such as Joel Sartore’s stunning Photo Ark project, which included a heartwarming “photograph of the day” for National Geographic in October 2013 of a Florida panther resident in Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. By 2013 the number of panthers in the wild had increased to 165. 

The narrative plight of Florida’s wild panther has been taken up by Erik Bendick whose Path of the Panther (2022) is having its California premiere at the 44th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Bendick’s documentary launches by profiling the impassioned work of National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. who we’re introduced to as he chronicles the vehicular death of a Florida panther. Being hit by cars is the number one cause of death for the endangered Florida panther and—at the time of shooting—18 deaths by vehicular collision had happened in one year alone; devastating for an animal whose numbers have reduced to little more than 100. In the spirit of James Balog’s comment quoted earlier, Ward addresses the “wild spaces that we need to help save ourselves.” 

At present the Florida Everglades are “ditched, and diked, and dammed” by roadways cutting across them. His method of placing “camera traps” whose shutters are triggered by animal footfall are producing some of the most vivid images of the Florida panther to date. It’s a way, he explains, of having an animal take its own picture. He started caring about Florida’s panthers when he began caring about wildlife corridors, which I was exposed to (and began caring about) when my friend Sharon Matola, founder and former director of The Belize Zoo, detailed for me the efforts endeavored to create a wildlife corridor for the Central American jaguar. Without such a corridor for the Florida panther, there is no hope for revival of the species. 

Betty Osceola, herself of the panther clan, voices the indigenous wisdom borne from the Miccosukee tribal lands situated in the southern everglades, which the Miccosukee Nation call “the shimmering waters.” They thought of the panther as being the nurturer and protector of all things. It takes care of the land and watches over other wildlife. With its capacity to walk on land, swim rivers, and climb trees, it mirrors the jaguar of Central American mythology as a shamanic animal governing the three levels of creation: the underworld (water), the middle world (earth) and the upper world (sky). The melding of conservation efforts with indigenous wisdom speaks to solidarity of purpose and vision. Another unlikely bedfellow to the cause are the remaining ranchers in Florida who originally killed off panthers as being a threat to their cattle, much like they are now the threat to urban development. The Florida cowboy is a dying breed, just like the panther. 

Ward’s ancestors moved to Florida in the early to mid-1800s, homesteading in Hardee County in the 1850s. Eighth generation of a family of ranchers, Ward began his wildlife photography work in Africa, where he would be on assignment for months at a time, and which afforded him the troubling perspective each time he returned home of seeing how much was changing in Florida. He now envisions the remaining ranchlands as being the possible hope of creating a wildlife corridor for the endangered panther. 

Choosing the core range of the Fakahatchee Strand as a potential for the wildest most representative panther habitat, Ward’s engagement with his panther project began. This is where he set up his camera traps. At first emotionally frustrated because—by his own admission—the chances of seeing a panther by daylight in the wild is next to nothing, Ward’s frustration is further aggravated by his cameras being disturbed by inquisitive bears or blundering cattle, reducing his chances for capturing images of the panther within his limited time frames; but, eventually, Ward’s frustration blooms into fulfillment when he captures some of his first images of a female panther (nicknamed “Babs”, since they secured footage of her on the Babcock Ranch). Babs is the first female panther in 43 years to set up new territory and seek breeding grounds north of the Caloosahatchee River, which effectively divides the southern Everglades from the northern Everglades. In pursuit is a muscular male panther of unimaginable strength, also captured by Ward’s cameras; evidence that the system is being brought back into balance. 

It's to the documentary’s credit that viewers are allowed to participate in Ward’s excitation in recognizing that the photographs he is capturing of these panthers north of the river can serve to spark public interest in preserving the wildlife corridor. But it isn’t until his flight with David Onarato of the Panther Recovery Team that Ward catches his first airborne glimpse of a panther running on a trail below him. The Panther Recovery Team originated when there were less than 20 panthers in existence as an effort to curtail their extinction. Injured panthers brought to the Zootampa facility are given a chance to survive by, first, healing their wounds, then being released back into the wild; a truly triumphant experience also captured by Ward. 

Cleverly using camera dissolves to simulate the disappearance of the panther, Path of the Panther segues to footage from Ward’s camera traps that show panthers utilizing the wildlife underpasses beneath Florida’s interstate highways, a project endeavored by Brent Setchell, an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation. Setchell helped design and implement these underpasses, which have become a priority for new roads or roads undergoing construction. Since 1990, more than 50 wildlife underpasses have been added to the area of the panther’s current range, which has helped to reduce road mortalities and allowed passage past fenced ranch lands and the treacherous roadways into the northern territories necessary for the panther’s increased chances for survival. Without these consciously and conscientiously engineered underpasses a wildlife corridor would not even be possible. 

Lovely home movie footage of Ward as a child harvesting wild oranges with his grandfather poignantly provides a continuity of image that accentuates how Ward’s childhood belief that his family’s ranch would always be there could actually be lost should a proposed development of three new toll roads gain traction in the legislature. One of the toll roads would cut right through his family’s ranch. Elton Langford, himself a rancher, as well as a Desoto County commissioner, joins forces with Ward to protest the toll road proposal. Within eight months of the proposal going public, land goes from $2,500 an acre to $20,000 an acre as investors began speculating on real estate development. Once again echoing Balog, Langford states that “We’ve got to protect them [wild panthers] as much as we can, because if we have habitat for them, that leaves habitat for us.” 

The documentary then veers into efforts to convince the powers-that-be not to go forward with the toll road proposal. But it’s not just political forces that pose a danger, it’s also elemental ones as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida and—with Hurricane Ian wreaking havoc and destruction in just the past few days—the repeated hazard of hurricane damage threatens the habitat of the wild panther, necessitating their passage north away from southern Florida’s rising water levels. It poses the questions whether panthers can sense such meteorological disturbances and have a means of seeking shelter? The damage to conservation equipment and research is insurmountable. 

It's in the Big Cypress Basin that Ward’s lifelong dream of coming face to face with a wild panther materializes and, once again, the documentary thrillingly takes us into the heart of the moment, which he has anticipated for 20 years. His exhilaration at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity transitions into heartbreak when he realizes that the only reason that the panther is moving slow enough for Ward to photograph her is because she is waiting for her kitten to catch up. The kitten, whose painfully faltering steps Ward records, has fallen victim to feline leukomyelopathy, a mysterious neurological disease afflicting panthers and bobcats

The balance between setbacks and breakthroughs continues to define the plight and fate of the endangered Florida panther. It’s gratifying to see that the combined efforts of indigenous people, ranchers and conservationists have effectively blocked the proposal for the toll roads and strengthened political resolve to implement the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act

In summation, Ward asserts: “The panther is showing us that it’s not too late. It’s showing us that these remnants of nature can still be reconnected. And if we do that, there’s no limit to the scale of life and balance that we can bring back across this entire continent. To see the way that this story can unify and bring people together, I have tremendous hope that what wildlife corridors can do to bring people together across the entirety of this country.”

Friday, September 23, 2022


Described as a “cinematic quilt”, award-winning cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg’s Gratitude Revealed (2022) stitches together finessed medallions of color, texture and rhythm into a resounding syncretic whole redolent with inspiration and sage guidance, often from the mouths of children and the bright expressive eyes of the elderly. Gratitude Revealed solicits repeated viewings to appreciate the depth of its complexity and the value of its cohesion. 

I’ve seen Schwartzberg’s work in several films over the past few decades but it was his 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi, a Netflix darling, that won me over completely. I have recommended Fantastic Fungi to dozens of people and am grateful that I can do the same for Gratitude Revealed with equal assurance. 

For me gratitude is a spiritual discipline, much like Norman Lear’s definition of the two journeys each human being is offered: one is horizontal—what I would call the soul’s trajectory, the longbody of life from cradle to tomb—and the other is vertical, the conduit through which the soul’s trajectory is informed by spirit. The act, the grace, of inspiration. 

For over 30 years Schwartzberg has been the patient master of timelapse cinematography and, again, I am grateful for his patience and his trust in what the world will offer and reveal to him. He literally allows his viewers to comprehend the beauty of the longbody in condensed form. A flower, ensorcelled by tropism, wiggles up from the earth, sprouts two leaves, then four, then more, then buds and bursts or bolts into bloom, which seduces the courtship of pollinators. One can use the metaphor of the flower to represent the whole of a human life and when one captures that growth in timelapse photography it provides the wondrous sense of the cycle of being. It’s truly wonderful to behold. Timelapse allows you not only to witness the passing of time but to feel it, to identify with it, to recognize and align oneself with it. 

When Catholic Benedictine monk and scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast speaks to the beauty of clouds in the sky, Schwartzberg is able to ramp up the visual shapeshifting of clouds to address the power of breath, for after all isn’t that what clouds tells us? That the earth is breathing, as we are breathing upon it? When he shifts into slow motion when filming urban congestion and metropolitan patterns, it is also a way to measure breath, reminding us to slow breath down so that we can accept beauty in all its forms: both natural and urban. A scenic waterfall is, in essence, the same as the flow of people riding up and down an escalator. 

To return to the analogy of the cinematic quilt and the art of stitching medallions together to create a composite image, I’m surprised that Schwartzberg hasn’t employed timelapse photography to capture, let’s say, the variant stitchings of a crazy quilt being assembled by a quilting bee. I’ve always loved that term—“quilting bee”—as it engenders the creative activity of communal effort by honoring the industry of the insect that gives it its name. Attributed to colonial America when people were dependent on communal work to accomplish certain tasks such as barn raising, harvesting, and the finishing of quilts, the analogy is a relevant and contemporary reference to the necessity of communal work if humankind is to advance and survive. Gratitude has as much to do with recognizing the value of communal activity as it is about the joy of accomplished tasks, of building community. 

Schwartzberg achieves that communal recognition through a developed and articulate mode of interviewing technique, or rather through honest conversation and authentic communication. I have often said that my world is made up of conversations and Gratitude Revealed creates such a world cinematically. Schwartzberg has chosen his dozens of luminaries well. His approach has been much like mine in balancing the celebrity voices of the well-known with the articulations of the lesser known or fully unknown. He champions the cultural inflections of ethnicities, honors those finding their voices in recovery, and melds the wisdom of children near to source and the wisdom of elders returning to source. 

So much is said in Gratitude Revealed that so much can be said about what is said, which (again) can more aptly be described as praise, if not prayer, if not song. All I can do is pick out a few of the stitchings that caught my eye in this cinematic quilt, or a few of the phrases that I hear most clearly in this communal conversation; but, I certainly encourage each viewer to appreciate their own. This is a film that makes you grateful to have eyes to see and ears to listen and I am certain each viewer will—as the film attests—appreciate what they feel in each moment and become grateful for what they remember of what has touched their hearts. 

What touched my heart the most, I will admit, is the animated sequence wherein In-Q reads his poem “85”. As someone who has witnessed the deaths of many loved ones, who has been broken and restored by hospital bedside vigils, I am grateful that the love that conquers sorrow can be so eloquently expressed and so magnificently represented. 

Norman Lear is such a great talking head in this community of teachers because he has had such a vibrant cultural impact through the redemptive hope of humor, which he admittedly developed to honor the uncles who raised him after he lost his parents. By seeking out what he could give back to them for helping him through grief, he recognized the gift of laughter, strengthened it, and ended up giving laughter to the world, irrevocably changing perspectives and effecting socio-cultural change. I also appreciated his deep respect for everyday interaction with the people who populate one’s daily life—from the barrista who serves you coffee, the server who brings you food, workmates, the cashier at the till who checks out your groceries, to strangers on the street practicing random acts of kindness. Myself, I always stop to talk to old dogs, to scratch their battered ears and look into the eyes that understand my own frosty snout. 

 Like my motivational favorite Brené Brown, sociologist and author Christine Carter impressed me with her attention to how important it is to have distinct meanings to specific words like “happiness”—distinguishing it from the pursuit of pleasure and gratification, which only leaves us wanting more, or the fallacious pursuit of busy-ness as a mark of character—and to understand that these words we have for emotions are physiologically based, which might allow us to physically practice the skill of experiencing emotions such as happiness. 

 Jason Silva’s riprap incant on craving the connective ecstasy of intersubjectivity is a seductive spoken poem and his definition of cinema as an “engine of empathy” encapsulates Schwartzberg’s purpose in creating films like Gratitude Revealed. His praise of the digital power of the internet as a “technologically mediated Buddhism” had me squirming around in my seat with joyful agreement. 

And I must call out to the presence of Schwartzberg in his own film, recounting the tenacity of his parents to survive the holocaust, to be grateful to have children, whose resiliency inspired him to tell stories of survival, of optimism, of “participating joyfully”—as Joseph Campbell once penned—“in the sorrows of the world.” 

Gratitude Revealed’s presence in theaters has been far too brief, but like Fantastic Fungi, I anticipate it will achieve its greatest impact through the technologically mediated Buddhism of streaming platforms. Catch it now, catch it then, catch it again and again. 

Be grateful.