Conflict Tiger

I spent a blog post last week raving about a book I had just finished, The Tiger — A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. After finishing the book, I got on the website and did some digging around, read a couple interviews with Vaillant, and learned that his inspiration for researching and writing the book was a documentary he saw in Banff called Conflict Tiger, by British filmmaker Sasha Snow, in 2005. You can read about that genesis for the book on a blog he did for the mighty Powell’s Books right HERE. In fact, I recommend you read the entire series of five or so blogs he did for them right HERE. It’s interesting stuff.

I immediately set about finding a copy of Conflict Tiger for myself, discovered its availability via PayPal on the website, and less than a week later I had it in my hand. I didn’t hesitate and watched it that very night. It was fantastic. This is the synopsis from the movie’s website:

In the forests of the Russian Far East, an inexperienced and foolhardy poacher triggers an infamous series of tiger attacks on people.

The authorities call upon the services of Yuri Trush, a specialist in tracking and eliminating tigers that have lost their fear of man.

‘Conflict Tiger’ takes Yuri’s most notorious pursuit of a ‘man-eating’ tiger as the basis for a documentary thriller.

From the aftermath of this epic confrontation, the film emerges as a parable which challenges the cosy illusions of the traditional ‘big cat’ natural history by setting the animal’s precarious situation against the pressing needs of human survival.

Because it came first, I hesitate to call this movie a perfect side companion for the book. The two certainly stand on their own merits, and do an excellent job of telling a similar story through the lenses of different mediums. But experienced together, that is where the two really shine. As a film, Conflict Tiger is an interesting blend; part documentary, part re-creation of events, and part a statement on the need for conservation, it does an outstanding job of letting the images and the voices tell the story without the filmmakers getting in the way. We don’t need a dramatic voiceover to tell us these people are poor — we see it in how and where they live. The landscape is immense, and it looks absolutely frigid. There is a scene where some men are walking along a trail, and the snow underfoot is squeaking loudly like two balloons being rubbed together. I turned to Julia and said, “That is when you know it’s freakin’ cold, when the snow sounds like that!”

It’s difficult to talk about the film without giving things away, because I truly hope interested people will order copies for themselves (at less than the cost of seeing a movie in the theater, I should point out). I will say though that one of the things I like best about the film, as it relates to the book, is getting to actually see the people and locales that populate Vaillant’s book. For example, Vaillant does an excellent job describing the bleakness of the settlements, particularly around the Russian village of Sobolonye and the fading industrial mining town of Luchegorsk.

The movie is in Russian, and my copy came with English subtitles. I preferred that to a film that would have been done in English. I love listening to these Russian voices, telling their stories in their own tongue. It is more powerful that way. Principal characters like Ivan Dunkai and Yuri Trush, ostensibly the “hero” of the story, come to life on film.

Particularly interesting, and frightening, is some of the video footage. Director Snow came up with footage somewhere of a tiger on the hunt, which is cut into some of the re-creations throughout, and its baleful glare is chilling. Equally frightening is the footage provided by Trush himself. In the book, we learn that Yuri Trush was careful about documenting on video much of what he and his men encountered while investigating these tiger attacks. Some of this footage, described in such excellent detail in the book by Vaillant, is in the Conflict Tiger film. Some of it is not for the squeamish, certainly, but it is powerful stuff. Whether it is the excitement in the voices of Trush and his companionsShibnev, Gorborukov and Pionka in the immediate aftermath of the penultimate encounter with the tiger, or the sobs of the camera holder as he films the discovery of a pair of frozen, emaciated tiger cubs, it is as powerful as anything I’ve seen.

Watching this movie, it saddens me that more people don’t see this kind of thing. While Hollywood continues to offer us nothing but garbage, with a rare film of watchable quality popping up here and there, small filmmakers struggle to tell their fantastic stories, let alone have them seen. As much a bomb as a piece of dreck like Sucker Punch may be, what could the equivalent of its opening weekend revenue do for a small filmmaker like Sasha Snow? I’m reminded of a couple other independent releases I’ve seen and enjoyed in the past year or so — 180 Degrees South and Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison, for example — and I am pleased that people are out there struggling to get the funding to make these movies. They need our support.

Conflict Tiger is a fascinating film. I urge you to check it out, and the book too.

Note: all photos swiped from the Conflict Tiger website. I hope Sasha doesn’t mind!

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