You’ll have to wait a while before “Tigerland” introduces its eponymous stars, but like many elements of Ross Kauffman’s emotional, often harrowing new documentary, the eventual reveal will be worth it. The “E-Team” and “Born Into Brothels” filmmaker has always been concerned with shining a light on those in need of help (or common decency), and for his third feature, Kauffman turns his interest toward a threatened animal population and the humans trying to save them. While “Tigerland” takes some time to find its footing, kicking off with an odd kid-voiced monologue that attempts to spell out the historical meaning of the tiger (sample line: “the holiest of all the animals, and they controlled the destiny of all mankind”) and then looping together two seemingly different stories, Kauffman eventually finds connections that go far beyond the superficial.
Still, it’s the tigers that bind everything, and when Kauffman finally reveals one out in the wild — after plenty of gazing at dusty paw prints, squinting through brush, building anticipation — it’s a majestic event. Even on film, the introduction of the big cat is awe-inspiring (and, frankly, even a bit tear-jerking). That all may take some time to get to, but it’s also a fine place to start when considering the film, because “Tigerland” is steeped in reverence for its subjects. Kauffman’s not the only one approaching the story with that same kind of grace, as “Tigerland” also focuses on two different men who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of the tiger, often at great personal cost.
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The film follows both Pavel Fomenko (the director of rare species conservation for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund) and Amit Sankhala (grandson of noted Indian tiger conservationist Kailash Sankhala, whose work and history informs the film). Slingshotting between their respective Russian and Indian bases, these two men came to love tigers from different perspectives and a shared desire to save the creatures. Literally shrinking maps show how the so-called “tigerland,” which used to encompass great chunks of Asia, has diminished over the centuries, leaving behind only small pockets in India, Bangladesh, and Russia where tigers can still roam.
“Tigerland” ticks through the current population numbers of various tiger species (including some that are simply listed as “extinct”), providing crushing context. However, Kauffman resists being heavy handed. He doesn’t need to be; the situation is dire enough (and, yes, there are many shots of dead and dying tigers). While the first act of the film can be a bit prosaic, peppered with footage of the normally informal Fomenko delivering a straight-laced TED talk, immediately followed by him citing all the threats to tigers via voiceover, it eventually settles into a rhythm that switches easily through time and place.
Kauffman ably weaves together hand-painted animation from Daniel Sousa (best-known for his Oscar-nominated short “Feral”), archival footage, and new interviews to tell both the history of the tiger and the current state of its fight for survival. Alongside notes on the complicated history of tiger hunting (sometimes for safety, often for sport or to hack off parts believed to have magical properties), “Tigerland” explores what’s happening now to save the shrinking population. While Sankhala and his family continue to work on his grandfather’s legacy through the continued creation of tiger reserves, Fomenko and his team often put themselves in the literal wild to save tigers in precarious situations.
That kind of danger forms the center of the film, which initially seems concerned with showing how threatened tigers are moving into human spaces, before turning into a thriller that Kauffman stretches to unnerving ends. “Tigerland” unspools a story about Kailash Sankhala adopting a young tiger cub during his heyday, which Kauffman compellingly contrasts with Fomenko and his team attempting to save their own pair of cubs. The situations could not be more different, but the ends are the same: Save the tiger, save the world (if just a little bit). As Fomenko’s quest takes a horrifying turn, he remains dedicated to where his love for tigers has brought him, a steadfast reminder of how hard changing the world can be, but how necessary it remains.
“Tigerland” will be released via RadicalMedia March 22 in Los Angeles and March 29 in New York. It will be available on Discovery Go on Saturday, March 23, with a global premiere to follow on Discovery on Saturday, March 30.