Ross Kauffman, one of the filmmakers behind The E-Team and the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels, tends to focus on the struggles of those in need of help. With Tigerland (aka Taken by the Tiger), he’s less interested in the struggles of humans (though humanity is involved) and more with the struggle of animals. The documentary is deeply concerned with the human cost of animal preservation, honing in on men in Russia and India who have dedicated their lives — with personal costs abound — to saving wild tigers.
The beginning of the film is admittedly a slog to get through, as the film tests the viewer’s patience while introducing the core cast of characters and opening with an odd sing-songy monologue explaining the history and mystic importance of the tiger that feels deeply out of place. Fortunately, Kauffman eventually reigns his motifs and ideas in, and then Tigerland soars. The film comes to feel so insular yet so immensely important and at times even delves into thriller territory.
The main subjects are Pavel Fomenko and Amit Sankhala, both of them important figures in their profession. Fomenko is the director of rare species conservation for Russia’s body of the World Wildlife Fund, and Sankhala is the grandson of Kailash Sankhala, a famous tiger conservationist whose body of work adds a lot to Tigerland. These preservationists view tigers through perspectives as different as the countries they call home, but they’re united in just how much they want to save their nation’s — and the world’s — tigers from extinction.
The two men go about saving tigers in very different ways. Sankhala is passionate about opening tiger reserves and takes a more analytical and governmental approach to his conservation works. Fomenko and his team are more concerned with directly helping distressed tigers in dangerous situations in the wild. However, their similar passion is what drives the film onward.
The personal cost of the task is especially noticeable in Fomenko’s arc, as his story takes a gasp-inducing turn during the film’s final act. During an encounter in which he and his cohorts are attempting to rescue a tiger that is attacking a village’s dogs, Fomenko himself is brutally mauled. His shoulder is mutilated and his head is clawed to the bone. After the attack, he is a changed man in both body and spirit. He is forever physically scarred. He is shaken, scared, and his eyes tell a story rife with anguish and deep sadness. Where he was once a boisterous man, he is now broken, but not beaten. He ventures back into being in the company of the species that almost killed him, and these moments find the film at its most unnerving and emotionally affecting. He may be traumatized, but his love of tigers is unwavering. Or seems to be, at least.
Kauffman plays the tiger-in-the-wild card close to his chest. The documentary is built through the formal use of archival footage, new interviews that shed a light on the current state of tiger conservation, striking hand-drawn animations, and haunting displays of maps decreasing in size in order to show how the wilds in which tigers once roamed are shrinking at an alarming rate.
Kauffman juggles all of these styles into an engaging and alarming narrative, and it is quite commendable that his film does not fall prey to temporal confusion. Time and place are both important to Tigerland, and Kauffman uses this importance to imbue the film with an immediate sense of urgency. This helps to keep its jumps from place to place and around in time from ever feeling too jarring or muddied.
Yet, what of the tigers? Well, they’re there. We see their paw prints in old pictures, graphic images of them when they’ve been poached and hunted for sport, and they are seen in the confines of cages. But when Kauffman finally shows these giant, powerful, and beautiful cats in the wild, everything just clicks into place. Of course these men would dedicate their lives to ensuring safety for these animals! They are breathtaking beasts of legend that somehow walk the same Earth that we do.
The question is, how much longer will they be walking and living in the wild? Tigerland offers no concrete answer to that question, but when conservation rests in the hands of such passionate and complex human beings as Fomenko and Sankhala, all we can do is reassure ourselves that all is, in fact, not lost.