We reached out to our festival filmmakers to ask them five questions about the experience of making their films.
What inspired this story?
Darcy Riggins-Schmidt, Wildlife Media: Ecologist Chris Morgan is on a life-long quest to bring the wonder of bears to the world. And it all started in a garbage dump! While working on a summer camp as an 18 year old in New Hampshire, he joined a local bear biologist capturing black bears one night and it altered his life path. Positively overwhelmed by the wild adventures and the heart-melting experiences he experienced during his work as an emerging conservationist to several international locations over the following years, Chris was determined to share them with the world. Chris believed that if he could transport audiences to the world he was experiencing he could win over people of all backgrounds to support bear conservation, and to understand the basic truth he had discovered: What’s good for bears is good for people and the planet.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film.
DS: We went to extremes of the bear world - from the ice-bound arctic to the rainforests of Borneo and the high Andes deserts of Peru (following cliff-climbing bears in 106 degree heat). Each place brought physical challenges, not to mention difficulties with camera equipment, and Chris’s motorcycle exploits! And finding a helicopter to spend our last $3000 on in Borneo in the days before drones was comical, but paid off! But what was a new challenge for this film was breaking new ground when we started out 10 years ago with the idea to fund it from donations. But that challenge became a blessing in so many ways - the journey of making the film surrounded by heartfelt support from over 200 donors became something that will stay with us all.
How do you approach storytelling?
DS: With BEARTREK we wanted a grand, but authentic feeling. A film that felt somewhere between a feature film and a documentary. Something as big and majestic as the bears themselves. But still something very personal to Chris and the other biologists involved. Allowing Chris’s backstory as an ecologist brings a level of authenticy, and we filmed over a number of years, we were able to return to the featured bear biologists to capture a moving update that becomes the final act of the film. Something we hadn’t actually planned for.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
DS: BEARTREK was born with impact in mind. Chris’s experiences around the world working with bear biologists on the frontline of conservation during his 20s and 30s was an emotional, and life-altering experience. He knew these people needed two things - exposure...and funding. He conceived of BEARTREK as a way of accomplishing both. And by joining forces with Joe Pontecorvo, John Taylor, and Annie Mize turned a simple film into a quest to support on the ground efforts. We've provided funding to three biologists on three continents, turning to our amazing donors for help when needed. We created a fundraising video from Borneo BEARTREK footage, which helped Siew Te Wong raise significant funding for his sun bear conservation center in Borneo. Robyn Appleton established a brand new national park in the bear country of Peru, with help from our footage to tell her amazing story. And we’ve raised over $100,000 for polar bear research in Hudson Bay for Dr. Nick Lunn's climate change work. BEARTREK has inspired half a dozen TV series, including ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’ for PBS Nature, and Chris’s ongoing role as host of that series. Bears of the Last Frontier became part of a larger effort to protect 11 million acres in the Western Arctic, reaching over 3 million people with conservation messaging.
We’re very proud of these initial accomplishments before the film has even been released, and we plan to continue this impact as BEARTREK is seen all over the world.
Were there any surprising or meaningful experiences you want to share?
DS: Wow! So many! Where to start!?
Anything else you would like people to know?
DS: BEARTREK became an important part of life for our small team. To the extent that the team has become more like a family. The film was made over a period of nine years, and it triggered so many good things that the story got better as we went along. We’re glad to jumped right in, but we had no idea what would become possible. The friends we’ve made, and the good things BEARTREK has been able to support. We would encourage anyone to dive in and start - even if you don’t have a fully fleshed out plan! You never know where it might lead you.
DS: Our mission continues to inspire new generations of conservationists and film makers. To become part of a movement that makes conservation a social norm. No small task. People are surprised to hear that if we were to protect the 8 bear species of the world, we’d protect around one third of the earth’s land surface! A powerful statement as a conservation tool to harness.
Using what we have learned through BEARTREK, and through our new, related efforts to create short form wildlife content for social media audiences, the potential to reach large audiences and push the needle is real. BEARTREK has always been more than a film, and that story will continue, we’re happy to say.