'Tigerland': TV Review | Sundance 2019

Beautiful animals and a worthy message.

The director of 'Born Into Brothels' and the producer of 'The Cove' deliver a decent Discovery Channel-bound documentary about the past and present of the battle to protect tigers from extinction.

Tigerland, the new Sundance-premiering documentary from Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) and Oscar-winning producer Fisher Stevens (The Cove), is two different, and not equal, movies bound together by a persuasive message of respect and concern for endangered tiger populations.

One of the movies is a character-rich preservation adventure set against the frozen rural reaches of Russia. The other is a sweet, hagiographic story about an Indian tiger activist whose family has followed in his footsteps. The first is thrilling, funny and occasionally terrifying, well worth a full 90 minutes on its own. The second is nicely shot and includes playful footage of monkeys, but it is narratively thin and barely able to sustain the time given to it here. Other than "save the tigers," they aren't all that compatible in terms of style or pacing, and I wish it were possible to watch one without the other, but Tigerland exists only in its imperfect, intercut totality, set to air in March on Discovery.

The more successful part of Tigerland focuses on Pavel Fomenko, director of rare species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Russia. He is working to save the Siberian tiger, battling a scourge of illegal poaching that dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. Fomenko is gregarious and sarcastic, and his job seems to dovetail with several gripping genres. One minute he's engaging in wild animal forensics, using complex ballistic analysis to debunk that most frequent poaching excuse of, "Oh, the tiger attacked me and I was just defending myself." Later, Pavel and his team are sent to recover a tigress and two cubs who have been attacking domesticated dogs at a rural community on the edge of a preserve. Armed with tranquilizer guns and tracking tools, often searching the wilderness on horseback, they're like cowboys trying to retrieve straggling calves, except these calves have a bloody, fearsome instinct for self-protection.

The other half of the documentary is the story of Kailash Sankhala, who helped track dwindling tiger populations in India and used his skills as a writer and his dogged persistence to help start a strict and legally enforced preservation tradition in a country that had previously had hundreds of years of traditional tiger hunting. Sankhala died more than 20 years ago and his family shares stories, pictures and chapters from his unfinished memoir, visualized in kaleidoscopic animated memories by Daniel Sousa.

Woven throughout are statistics reflecting on tiger populations a century ago and today, the declining tiger habitats globally.

I can approach Tigerland in theory and identify that Fomenko's story is meant as one of present-tense conservation, a dangerous and adventurous pursuit, and Sankhala's is the historical approach, one of scholarly research and governmental cooperation. The mistake is in thinking that both stories have equal meat on their bones and deserve to move at a comparable side-by-side pace. There's some charm in Sankhala's great-grandson's desire to follow in his ancestor's footsteps and various talking heads spell out Sankhala's methodology and his unlikely partnership with Indira Gandhi. There's just very little urgency, whereas Fomenko's story practically has a ticking clock. Maybe if the Russian segment was lacking in zoological detail and call-to-action conservation strategy, I'd say one was compensating for the other? That's not the case.

The Fomenko story has a full narrative arc, and it's so good it seems ready for a sequel. The other part is just informative, not that that's the worst thing in the world.

Tigerland wisely avoids the anthropomorphizing and over-empathizing that docs of this type can fall prey to. Kauffman begins the documentary by showing representations of tigers in traditional art of many cultures, their beauty and almost divine bearing, and continues with more affectionate recent portrayals like Tony the Tiger and Tigger. Nobody confuses tigers, though, with house cats, and nobody thinks they understand tigers because they love frosted flakes or fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. (If you think about it, how is it the most wonderful thing about Tiggers that he's the only one? That sounds like the least wonderful thing about Tiggers. He's nearly extinct, people!)

Any time somebody in the documentary makes the mistake of thinking they understand tigers in human terms or domesticated terms, there are consequences. There's no danger in treating tigers as beautiful or powerful. There's no harm in honoring their scarcity and their place in the ecosystem. Tigers are also predators and Kauffman, who shot the film with Matt Porwoll, fixates on rippling muscles, abrupt and deadly movement and growls that have been pushed so prominently in the soundscape that it's almost tooth-rattling. Respect the tiger. Protect the tiger. Don't fetishize the tiger.

That leads to the obligatory warning that while I'm assuming Discovery will trim the few instances of profanity from Tigerland, some intense violence inflicted both by and upon tigers will likely remain. It's nowhere near as consistently harrowing as Stevens' The Cove, and one could argue that the Sankhala half of the documentary might be intended as a periodic respite from intensity, one that still includes the now-familiar reminders of how many endangered species are being wiped out because of long-held beliefs that their bodies contain magical medicinal properties.

If it works, and it often does, Tigerland should jar the way you look at tigers in zoos and in wilderness preserves, as well as at the role humans must play in making sure the next generation of tigers exists at all.

Production company: Radical Media
Distributor: Discovery
Director: Ross Kauffman
Producers: Xan Parker, Zara Duffy, Fisher Stevens, Ross Kauffman
Executive producers: Dave Sirulnick, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes, John Hoffman, Jon Bardin
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
Cinematography: Matt Porwoll, Ross Kauffman
Music: Nathan Halpern
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

91 minutes