Felines and feelings in Wildcat

Directors: Michelle Lesh & Trevor Frost Featuring: Harry Turner, Samantha Zwicker, Keanu the Ocelot Running Time: 105 minutes

An always enticing, potentially volatile feature of documentary filmmaking is the way that the story can run away from both the director and the subject. An elevator premise pitch never stays static when faced with the changeable ways of human nature, and many documentaries wrestle with handling subject matter beyond their initial brief, the story behind the story. 

Filming their efforts to restore an ocelot to the wilds of the Amazon rainforest, conservation activists turned to Wildcat’s directing team Michelle Lesh and Trevor Frost for expertise and exposure, skilled and steady hands to capture their groundbreaking work in rewilding carnivores. A cute cat on camera is an easy sell, who doesn’t love to see that? Seeing how personally Harry Turner takes his mission makes the film knottier as it rolls on though, and what’s aiming for an uplifting “one man and his cat” story finds itself in more emotionally complex territory that it doesn’t always know how to handle. Wildcat is engrossingly raw, sometimes uneasy viewing as a result.

A British veteran who served in Afghanistan, Turner is a young man struggling severely with PTSD and depression, unable to process the damage he was asked to endure and dole out to others. He’s travelled  to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in an attempt to find personal peace. That journey brought him to Samantha Zwicker, head of a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre that specialises in rewilding animals threatened by poachers; their focus on ocelots is an ambition to break new ground in the field, with the film’s focus on cub Keanu. Turner takes charge in caring for Keanu, raising him and readying him to return to the rainforest. Isolated and under pressure, Turner’s mental health is severely challenged, the more of himself he pours into protecting Keanu, the more precarious his work becomes, and the more we worry about if he can protect himself. 

Wildcat is starkly open about showing Harry’s trauma, with infrared footage of bleak confession cams and scenes that some viewers may find distressing. It’s not only revelations about Harry’s self-harm that are upsetting: the more repentant his actions begin to look, the more voyeuristic the footage can feel. Harry’s relationship with Samantha, a mix of professional and personal, and his conservation work – earnest but unqualified, are seemingly healing, but the poor lad is utterly reliant on them to load-bear his wellbeing. The directors seem caught on the hop, a section showing a visit from Harry’s adoring family is a respite that is overstretched to stay feel-good, a detour with Samantha fails to give her more focus in a satisfying way. 

We hear little from the locals, Peruvian employees of the rescue centre speak only to shade in info from/about Harry and Samantha, and while the film is honest and certainly seems sincere in its care for Harry’s health, it does not seem willing or able to question whether being in the Amazon is right for him at all. The footage we get of Keanu is endearing, adorable and emotional, the journey it takes us on with the cat is an unqualified success. The workaround to a happy ending for the humans seems rushed and less certain, but isn’t that always the way?

Fascinating but uneven, Wildcat has more going on than meets the eye on first glance, a clawed, flawed film with a harsh but honest look at nature, wild and human alike.

Wildcat is released at the IFI from Friday, December 23rd.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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