The impressive, impressionistic and incomplete ‘Tiger Tiger’ showcases the largely unknown habitat of one of the world’s best-known predators

April 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 10, 2015

George Butler’s new documentary about large wildcat conservation in India and Bangladesh, Tiger Tiger, is a beautifully shot film about a little-known ecosystem and the predator that rules it. Unfortunately, I think the film will likely leave the viewer with a number of questions.

Some of those queries run along sadly familiar lines: With only about 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild, will the species survive into the 22nd century? What kind of steps can nonprofit organizations and government agencies take to deter often poor and hungry villagers in tiger habitats from poaching the animal, given that tiger skin and bones are worth a literal fortune on the black market?

One can’t hold it against producer-director Butler for not answering these questions; after all, they’re ones that some of the finest minds in wildlife conservation have struggled to answer for decades.

But I did find myself somewhat baffled by a few smaller issues that could easily have been clarified with a handful of on-screen titles. At one point, conservationist Alan Rabinowitz visits a sick “sub-adult” female tiger that was caught after wandering into an Indian village. Was this the same animal that we later see being tranquilized and captured by a crowd of people in a frightening montage? And was that the same animal that we subsequently see being released from a government patrol boat?

I also wonder whether Rabinowitz, Butler and the other members of the expedition ever spotted a live tiger other than the sick female. One presumes they didn’t, as that’s the kind of encounter Rabinowitz would be liable to discuss enthusiastically for the documentarians.

And yet, the movie contains numerous shots of Bengal tigers (referred to here sometimes as royal Bengal tigers), including an adorable riverside romp involving three or four playful cubs. Were these filmed by Mike Herd, the wildlife photographer whose 2001 documentary “Swamp Tigers,” like Tiger Tiger, was made in the Sunderbans, a tidal mangrove forest on the border of India and Bangladesh? Were they filmed by Butler’s crew, or by someone else entirely? Without scrutinizing the credits or asking the filmmakers, I really can’t say.

Despite these considerable qualms, I found a lot to like about Tiger Tiger. As mentioned, it features beautiful cinematography. Throughout the main filming, Butler said in a post-screening question-and-answer session at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a two-man crew operated a camera drone. This resulted in some absolutely breathtaking aerial takes. After Rabinowitz’s trip, a crew spent 40 days living on a boat in the Sunderbans in order to capture Tiger Tiger’s beautiful interstitial footage of deer, wild hogs, crabs and other animals, co-producer Keero Birla said during the same Q-and-A.

Alas, the movie’s narrative is somewhat muddled. As Rabinowitz and company journey upriver from India to Bangladesh, they meet with forest rangers, villagers, scientists and local power brokers. (One retired Bangladeshi major cheerfully says that he “vanished” several large groups, adding that he might attract unwanted police interest by using different words.)

Tiger Tiger suggests that Indian authorities have done better than Bangladeshi ones at protecting the tiger; unfortunately, it’s not clear why India has been willing to spend resources on conservation while its neighbor has been relatively apathetic. And the filmmakers show little interest in exploring what seems to have been one of the Sunderbans’s great ecological catastrophes of the recent decades: The use of wholesale poisoning to catch fish. This disastrous tactic has apparently prompted tigers to venture into villages in search of food (goats, dogs and people) that, in the past, would have been supplied by healthy waterways.

We do learn that Sunderbans tigers are quite comfortable in this relatively unknown habitat’s numerous streams and swampy areas. And Rabinowitz and the villagers and experts he meets tell us that area tigers are considered more ferocious than their counterparts in other parts of Asia. Sadly, this is because elsewhere on the continent, tigers have been hunted so vigorously that they now fear humans.

Butler — who helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom with his 1977 documentary, Pumping Iron — was eminently justified in making Rabinowitz the center of his latest movie. The environmentalist is charismatic and voluble. He talks clearly and compellingly about his childhood struggles with stuttering and the necessity of getting buy-in from multiple constituencies in order to ensure the survival of tigers and other endangered predators.

Rabinowitz, the co-founder and CEO of Panthera, a wildcat preservation organization, has been diagnosed with leukemia. He tells Butler that he expects his journey to the Sunderbans to be his last such expedition. He talks like a noir detective, saying “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the game” and comparing one elusive tiger to a flirtatious but evasive woman. His workouts are similarly macho: Our first look at Rabinowitz shows him engaged in a vigorous fitness routine that involves a punching bag and throwing knives.

The beauty of Tiger Tiger comes from its magnificent visuals. Its poignancy, however, comes from the parallels between Rabinowitz and the tiger, who are both facing the prospect of extinction. We see this late in the movie when the environmentalist pauses at a Bangladeshi exhibit of a tiger skeleton. Rabinowitz is fascinated by this treasure, which is so valuable that it’s protected by metal bars that are even thicker than the ones which contained the ailing tigress.

There’s also a fabulous shot where a silent Rabinowitz yawns while waiting in a blind with Herd (the duo hope to catch a glimpse of wild tigers). Butler captures this shot in profile in close-up, allowing us to see one of the scientist’s eyes scanning the vista. This inescapably reminds us that most members of the animal kingdom, no matter how majestic or accomplished, share the same kinds of muscles and skin and hair. More, this one shot suggests that we all contend with the same biological imperatives; alertness, boredom, hunger and death are common to tiger and man alike.

I’m very glad to have seen Tiger Tiger, and I think many casual viewers will find it rewarding and even inspiring. It’s a pity, however, that the movie is so impressionistic that, at the end, I was completely unable to tell whether Rabinowitz considered his trip to Sunderbans a success. In fact, afterward, I couldn’t even say what he was trying to accomplish with the journey in the first place.

Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM

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