The documentary Wildcat (now available on Prime Video) showcases just how deeply a wildlife film can make an impact, with the story of a British army veteran who found solace in Peru’s Amazonian rainforest with an orphaned baby ocelot.
In Wildcat, filmmakers Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh introduce us Harry Turner, struggling with chronic depression and PTSD. Following attempted suicide, Frost essentially sought to disappear in the rainforest, but it turned into a personal healing journey when he meets Samantha Zwicker, who runs a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre. Zwicker herself had a chaotic childhood with an alcoholic father.
When Turner meets Zwicker, they come together to rescue a one-month-old ocelot, who they name Keanu, and reintroduce him into the wild.
“One of the driving ideas at the beginning was this theme of the power of nature to heal,” Lesh told Yahoo Canada. “We've both been drawn to wild places for most of our lives, and it's where we feel at home and at peace, in nature and with wild animals.”
Turner's story, as personal and specific as it is, leads you through this emotional journey.
“[Harry] had a very clear narrative arc in terms of his experiences in war, going to essentially make his death look like an accident and then finding beauty, and a reason to keep living, quite frankly, once he got to the Amazon," Lesh said.
The process of working on this documentary actually began when filmmaker Trevor Frost was in Peru for a completely different project, looking for anacondas. When his search fell short, a friend pointed out Harry Turner, stressing that he had a “crazy story.” A few days later, Frost officially met Turner and Samantha Zwicker.
“They brought with them a hard drive and they shared with me a bunch of the footage,...and I was immediately blown away by the quality of the cinematography,” Frost said. ”Even the most difficult moments, they kept the camera rolling, which is unusual. It's not something that most people do.”
Frost told Melissa Lesh about them and a month later, he got a call from Zwicker who shared that she had rescued another ocelot, which started the four-person journey to tell this story.
There’s a real intimacy in Wildcat, largely impacted by the fact that they lived on a 20-by-30-foot platform, together at all times, with no real space for privacy, aside from walking off into the rainforest. Lesh highlighted that there was also intentionality behind having a particularly collaborative environment.
“That was something that we really embraced from the beginning was, let's work together," she said. "Let's bring them equipment, let's talk through how to use it and how to film scenes, and make this movie together. In the end, you see in the final cut, about half of it was filmed by Harry or Samantha.”
“We weren't able to have access to Keanu as a part of their reintroduction protocol, they wanted him to be as removed from people as possible, and so really it was just Harry that had access to him. Seeing the archive that they filmed with the first ocelot, we saw already that innate talent and ability to capture in a beautiful way, some of those behaviours and also those personal moments as well."
'Wildcat' documentary 'cracks people open'
One aspect of this story that was critically important for the filmmakers to work through with care and attention is how Wildcat deals with mental health and PTSD in a way that doesn’t come across as exploitative. This included having a team of mental health advisors present, particularly during the post-production process, in order to construct the narrative in a way that doesn’t cause harm to anyone watching the film.
“In some of those harder moments when you do see [Harry Turner] struggling deeply,...our advisors were saying that we don't often...see this kind of material, and so not shying away from it, in many ways, was as important to handling it delicately,” Melissa Lesh explained.
“I started therapy with my dad for the first time since making this movie and starting to kind of come to terms and grapple with the things that I experienced as a kid... [Wildcat] cracks people open to start talking about things that maybe they had never talked about.”
For Trevor Frost, who has personally struggled with depression and anxiety for a decade, he revealed that he has a “very different relationship” with anxiety and depression after working on Wildcat.
“What's so exciting is that this film [is] coming out at a time when, in general, we're starting to see a shift in the way that people sort of approach their thinking about conditions that we once viewed as just a net negative,” Frost said.
In terms of the personal moments to include in Wildcat, Frost said it wasn't a hard decision to decide when to stop filming.
“There's a lot of moments where I just felt like it was more important for me to focus on [Harry's] well-being and his health,...but then there were other moments where it felt like it was OK to be filming,” Frost explained. “Frankly, there were quite a few moments where we were intending to film something else and the camera was just set up and was recording, and we captured something that we didn't anticipate.”
“It wasn't a hard decision to decide when to stop filming because Harry is so clear. Some people that hide their emotions or hide their feelings, or hide their actions, it'd be a much more difficult decision. Harry was very, very open about everything. Even with his self-harming, he would get to a point where he was doing it without trying to hide it. It was very apparent that in those moments, it was more important to be there for him and focus on his well-being above everything else.”
The 'doomsday' approach to conservation storytelling isn't working
A significant focus in Wildcat is really showcasing the human story within the intersection between humans and wildlife.
“Our background is in conservation storytelling and has been for over a decade, and we often see a lot of the conservation storytellers kind of telling the same stories, or hitting people over the head with facts,” Melissa Lesh said. “The kind of pointing fingers or the doomsday approach, if you will, we don't think that's working."
"We're either preaching to the same choir, or not breaking outside that bubble. So with this film and with this story, in particular, it was so important and such a unique opportunity to be able to tell that love story, that human story within this wild space, and within the larger conservation themes.”
Trevor Frost added that humans are “hardwired to love nature.”
“We're actually taught to remove ourselves from nature throughout our childhood and in our adulthood, we're told that nature is scary and that there are dangerous things there,” he said. “We basically build our lives in a way to kind of put ourselves in a bubble.”
“But on a fundamental level, I think everybody has that deep connection to it somewhere inside them. So when people see a film like this, or story like this, they're so pulled into it because there is something deep within them that resonates… One of the ultimate goals of that, of course, is that if we get people better connected to nature, then there's a much higher likelihood that they're going to advocate to take better care of it.”