Documentary Review: ‘Tigerland’

Review by James Lindorf

Academy Award-winning Director Ross Kauffman’s Tigerland is a look at preservation efforts in Russia and India, two of the big cats’ primary territories. Joining Kauffman as a producer is Oscar-winner Fisher Stevens (The Cove) who is no stranger to moving nature documentaries. After making its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Tigerland will be available in theaters March 22nd in Los Angeles and on the 29th in New York. If you don’t live in either of the two largest cities in the United States, you can Watch Tigerland on the Discovery Go app starting March 23rd or watch the global premiere on the network March 30th.

A century ago an estimated 100,000 tigers were roaming all across Asia, now, there are maybe 4,500. Tigers are the subject of legends, poetry, art and have always been a symbol of strength and virility. Leading to them being revered, hunted for displays of bravery, and being farmed for therapeutic treatments that still linger in the more rural parts of the continent. Half a century ago a young forest officer Kailash Sankhala “Tiger Man of India,” dedicated his life to tigers and rallied the world to his cause. Today the effort is being led Pavel Fomenko, as well as Amit Sankhala and Jai Bhati, the grandson, and great-grandson of Sankhala.

The film is a beautiful blend of contemporary and archival footage and as well as a few animated sequences. The three forms come together to share two parallel stories. The dominant narrative is that of Fomenko and the work his team is doing in the Far East of Russia to save Siberian tigers. The interstitial story is about Sankhala and his descendants. While there is warmth to be found in the dream of Jai to be just like his great-grandfather, there is very little narrative meat on the bones of that story. Fomenko’s story, on the other hand, is full of emotion and agency.

Kauffman’s movie is more heavily focused on entertainment than information, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you can’t hold a viewer’s attention it doesn’t matter how noble your cause may be, they won’t hear the full message while on their phone or searching Netflix. The information that is presented focuses on the act of conservation and less on tigers. We’re shown the history of conservation and how the job is both scientific and physically demanding. Population estimates, necropsies, assessing ballistic information can take place one day, and the next day you could be chasing a tiger cub through the snow. While both stories are informative, all of the excitement belongs to Fomenko.

I’m assuming Discovery will trim the few instances of profanity from Tigerland, but some intense scenes of violence will likely remain. However, it’s nowhere near as distressing as Stevens’ The Cove, so if you made it through that film, you should be fine with this one. Even with the profanity and the violence Tigerland is a film for viewers of all ages that will bring on a range of emotions from anger to disappointment and maybe a little bit of hope.

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