Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Buffalo Wolves: Canadian TV At Its Best

There may yet be hope for Canadian TV.
Take a look at the perfectly realized new Canadian TV documentary The Buffalo Wolves by famed documentary maker Jeff Turner and you'll see what can be accomplished.
The Buffalo Wolves premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thurs. Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.
While other "Canadian" TV networks are engaged in orgies of simulcasting American imports CBC with The Nature Of Things shows what Canadian TV truly is capable of.
And Jeff Turner's work is as good as it gets in the field of nature documentaries.
And this time he chose to concentrate on a specific pack of wolves in Wood Buffalo National Park --the only wolves in the world who concentrate on bringing down bison.
The photography is splendid particularly in long shots done from helicopters where images zoom right in and we watch the pack mentality as the wolves hone in on an attempt to bring down one of the great buffalos.
"No doubt about it, this is an uneven struggle," says Turner."And it really can only be done in the winter snow. The wolves must try to stampede the buffalo and then isolate one and bring it down when they act as a team. The buffalo are so great in size and weight over a tonne --they are 20 times larger than a wolf so they can certainly defend themselves."
And as we see one inexperienced member of the wold pack gets too close and is gorged and dies.
In summer it's not as easy and that's when the mortality of the wolves is threatened. They need the meat to feed their young who often starve to death. In one amazing shot we see the young wolves near their den threatened by an equally hungry black bear.
Turner shot his film in two stages --both summer and winter. After 25 years of shooting he knew where to go and what he'd find. Yet, some shots are clearly serendipitous --he catches scenes of a veteran wolf following an aged bison --the wolf seemed to know the buffalo was in trouble. When Turner returned the next day he caught remarkable scenes of the wolves feasting on this bison corpse --it appears the animal died a natural death.
Although Turner tells me he shot "from some distance" he gets scenes that seem completely intimate. "In the air we could approach the pack and they didn't seem to mind --sometimes a wind shift would help.  I've been doing this a long time and much is simply experience. Wolves are very cautious but during a hunt they can be preoccupied. It's just a feeling, how close can I get."
Turner says he also wanted to show how the wolves can only survive by acting as a unit --led by a remarkable dominant father and mother. Without their leadership the pack would be lost. In one amazing scene the father leads his part of the pack across a lake in search of prey while the mother and her group decline to follow. The mother's instincts are correct in this case.
Turner works often for BBC --on such acclaimed series as Frozen Planet, The Natural World, Planet Earth. He says for PBS and BBC he'll be delivering a longer version of Buffalo Wolves. "The BBC hour is exactly that whereas CBC's is now 42 minutes."
Turner and wife Sue Turner have made more than 25 documentary films for their River Road Films and won numerous awards.
And the end of Buffalo Wolves is indeed poignant because the Alberta Tar Sands project is not so very far away and threatens to change if not destroy the delicate wilderness setting that permits both both wolves and buffalo herds to survive.
"I'm worried about it. The climate is changing --I now see deer and caribou and that's only recently. So I'm ending it with some words of caution."
MY RATING: ****.

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