Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 23, 2022 5:16 pm 
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Conservation photog Ward tracks and protects the Florida panther

In Path of the Panther Carlton Ward Jr., a wildlife photographer from a family many generations in Florida who has published a cover story on this subject in National Geographic that previews a coming fifty dollar National Geographic book, describes how veterinarians, ranchers, conservationists, and indigenous people of the southern Everglades are joining forces to track and protect the endangered Florida panther, the last surviving subspecies of puma in the US, and the the Florida Wildlife Corridor in which he can survive. It's an interesting film about the last big cat surviving in the eastern United States, partly because it's so much from the point of view of Ward himself. He works with remote "camera traps" set up to take hundreds, even thousands, of photos, hoping to show the movement of the panthers. The most emotional moments in the film are those of his bitter disappointment when a camera trap has been sabotaged and a month-long setting has borne no fruit, or it has been destroyed by a storm; or his joy when his has captured a female panther with young cubs or a vigorous male leaping high in the air. They are wonderful creatures, and to look into their dyes close up is a hypnotic experience. It is looking into the heart of the wild, the nature we are losing.

Ward is good at showing the involvement of different factions. There is a longtime local ranch family man called Elton Langford who speaks with a deep local patois, a strong ally: his enemy is the same as the panther's, real estate developers, who are both destroying panther habitat and wiping out ranches. Ranchers are as much an endangered species as the elusive, beautiful cats. A Native American speaker woven into this film expresses a similar viewpoint, as well as speaking the language of closeness with the wild, in which the panther was seen by ancestors as an important teacher. In fact as I watched I was reminded of Ale Pritz's excellent documentary The Territory: The

There is an excellent 2019 article by Eric Seeger, one of several in The Nature Conservatory magazine, about the recent history of the Florida panther, his place in US wildlife, and action to protect habitat, which may provide a more complete picture than Ward does in this film. Or at least reading the text made the picture come through more clearly. The advantage of Ward's film is that it's not a dry talking-heads documentary. The good looking Ward is like a movie star of his own film, and when Path of the Panther begins it feels like a feature and not a documentary at all.

The story begins with panthers run down on highways, and one of the threads is of a female with multiple injuries whom a group dedicated to the panther nurse back to health and eventually release back into the wild.

The Nature Conservancy piece mentions that 900 people move into Florida a day, and it shows, as the film does, the sight of suburban developments, masses of close-nested little - or big - houses built by developers on newly acquired former ranch land. Along with this, there are state plans to build new toll roads. A recent plan Ward follows to build three such roads was blocked because the public opposed it. The roads run across panther range territory and cut it into pieces. They also enable the developers to extend their tentacles and continue the paving over of the land. Why these suburban developments work this way, what these people do, the film doesn't go into. One can't help wishing they didn't build sky scraper apartment buildings in cities concentrating people in urban centers and leaving natural and ranch land to nature and the ranchers.

There is much more in Ward's film. A complicated story is of the specifics of the everglades. The Nature Conservatory article explains how the panthers moved into this territory to survive. Now it is becoming filled up with water. Nature is complicated. Path of the Panther is a taste of that which may inspire some viewers to want to know more.

Path of the Panther, 88 mins., is a film from Grizzly Creek Films. It was screened for this review as part of the Oct. 6-16, 2022 Mill Valley Film Festival.


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