National Geographic The channel has acquired elizabeth ungerThe wildlife crime documentary feature “Tigre Gente” in Latin America, where the film will premiere on April 22 as part of the channel’s Earth Day lineup. Limonero Films has acquired the film for distribution outside of Latin America. “Tiger People,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, is produced by Unger along with joanna natasegarawho won an Oscar for “The White Helmets,” and was nominated for Oscars for “On the Edge of Democracy” and “Virunga.”
When Unger set out to make a documentary about the battle to protect the jaguar in Bolivia, his mission was to break new ground in the wildlife crime genre by “exploring the root of the mindset that drives the lawsuit,” he says.
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She hopes the film will “help combat misconceptions and give Western audiences a better understanding of Chinese culture and tradition when it comes to wildlife consumerism.”
She adds: “We can do better, and we should do better, to understand the other side. Only then can we make a real impact and stop the illegal wildlife trade industry together.”
Unger first became interested in wildlife protection in Bolivia as a biology student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She was just 19 years old when she first visited the country in 2009 as a volunteer working to rehabilitate animals that were victims of the illegal wildlife trade.
“[The experience] just stayed with me. She stayed with me for a few years. And back then, when he was more focused on photojournalism and writing, he had never made a documentary yet. I thought the story would be fascinating, you know, a story about wildlife trafficking in Latin America, just because no one was talking about it in the press. I mean, everyone was focused on the elephants and rhinos in Africa. I just wasn’t sure what exactly the story would be.”
Years later, in 2015, when he was in graduate school at New York University, the path forward came to him after a daytime nap. “I wasn’t going to go to graduate school for conservation. In fact, I was going there to study food. I was really interested in the hot topics of food sustainability. But I found myself really missing my roots in wildlife conservation and biology. So, I woke up from this nap and thought: I should make a documentary about wildlife trafficking in Bolivia. I’ve already been there. I have contacts. I just need to find out what the story is. And I thought the movie was going to take me six months, because I had never made a movie before. And it ended up taking six years, now seven. That’s how I got into this.”
At the heart of the documentary there are two great protagonists. The first is Marcos Uzquiano, ranger and director of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. A Bolivian government staffer had recommended Unger contact Uzquiano while he was doing research and development in Bolivia in 2015. She then scheduled a Zoom interview with him when he was back in the US. “We had a great meeting together, and Marcos said: “As long as your film is something that shows Madidi National Park and inspires people to protect that place, I would love to be a part of it.”
She adds: “We couldn’t believe how lucky we were. He was so emotional, and just a great leading man, a great human being.”
The second major protagonist is Laurel Chor, an investigative reporter from Hong Kong.
“I met Laurel from the National Geographic community. We were both interns. National Geographic Explorers is the title, but essentially, we are just beneficiaries. The National Geographic Society gives us money for projects,” explains Unger.
“I had seen her speak at an event in Washington DC at the NatGeo headquarters, and I was blown away. I was really impressed by Laurel, and I finally went up to her and said, ‘I’m working on this story about wildlife trafficking, this new trade in jaguar body parts for the Chinese black market. But in all the wildlife crime movies I’ve seen, I’ve never seen a Chinese protagonist really examine or investigate why the demand by the Chinese community exists in the first place. I have never seen a movie like that ever. Would you be interested in exploring that with me? And she said, ‘Yes, a lot.’ And finally, she not only was the protagonist, but she became an executive producer, because she developed the story of her with our team ”.
Unger was thinking of adding a third protagonist: the American zoologist Alan Rabinowitz. “He was a leading expert on jaguars. He was called ‘the Indiana Jones of wildlife’ and he was on, you know, the Stephen Colbert show. He was this fascinating figure. He was looking at jaguar trafficking in Suriname and was interested in looking at a different country. And we were thinking of bringing him in as the third lead to complement Marcos and Laurel, but he actually passed away from cancer, so we dedicated the film to him at the end of the credits.”
In addition to including the Chinese perspective in the story, the film also pays attention to the culture of Bolivians and the reasons why some facilitate the illegal trade in jaguar body parts, mainly teeth, and others fight hard to preserve. extinction cats
Unger explains the reason for his particular approach.
“I love genre-bending work, and I felt that wildlife crime movies are traditionally done in a very masculine way. It’s: ‘Catch the bad guy’; ‘Who’s the bad guy?’; Who is responsible for this? And you see the heroes going out and doing their thing. And that’s great. But I wanted to throw myself into the arena as a director, with a mostly female team, making a film in a more poetic, raw and visceral way.
“And you can’t do that by just focusing on commerce, you have to go deep into communities. And luckily, we have a really global team that made this movie. So we felt that with our strength as a team, we could continue to dig into aspects of the community in Bolivia, Hong Kong, and China, to better understand our characters, what drives them, and that would make the audience care. on the subject more too.
“We can no longer just focus on trade and animals, the storytelling has to be more nuanced, more sophisticated, more complete. And so, by delving into that mysticism of the Bolivian lowlands, you get this kind of genre that doubles down on the wildlife crime thriller element, and I think makes it more interesting. I think he throws a curveball. I think it makes him more human. And the movie really is a mixture of humans and animals. It does not focus only on the jaguar. To be honest, a jaguar could be any commodity, any animal. We hope our storytelling will be seen as something that other filmmakers can use to inspire other people.”
The intention was that the Chinese were not portrayed as the archetypal villains, but rather in an empathetic way.
“Oh yeah. These are long discussions I had with Laurel, who really understood, you know. I didn’t think the Chinese community had been well represented in this genre. So, we worked together to develop a story that asked deeper questions.
“While Marcos was figuring out who and how in Bolivia with the local Bolivians who are supplying these parts, for whatever reason, you can tell it’s a cycle of poverty and they just need money to feed their children. That was his world. But with Laurel, we really wanted to examine why, which I don’t think has been done. At least not on a large scale.”
“So for us, this was a really beautiful way, through Laurel’s world with her family, with experts and friends, to walk through and understand that this is a gray topic. It is not black and white. And that is why it is so difficult to solve. At least with this film, we can go a step further and add to this conversation an important piece of humanism and empathy to drive solutions.”
Next up for Unger is another project with Natasegara, but she’s not ready to reveal any details. “It’s a really special project. So please stay tuned,” she says.
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