SIFF Film Review – True Wolf
Extensions of the natural world, or thoughtless killing machines? Beautiful or scary? Creatures of myth and fairy tales, or simply misunderstood wild dogs? These debates and misconceptions about wolves have been bandied about for many years. The new documentary True Wolf seeks to dispel people’s preconceived notions about these often majestic creatures. True Wolf premiered locally at the Seattle International Film Festival and has now returned for a regular theatrical run.
Directed by Rob Whitehair, True Wolf tells the story of Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker. They were approached by a filmmaker with a wolf pup, Koani, that they were asked to care for when it was born to make an educational film. When that film was done, the couple were left with the dilemma of either having to destroy the animal, since it was born in captivity without the ability to survive in the wild, or to raise the wolf themselves. They opted for the latter. They rearranged their whole lives, creating an outdoor tunnel from their fenced acreage into their living room so that Koani could come and go. They took Koani on leashed walks for miles a day to keep the wolf happy. They brought another dog into the house as a playmate for the animal. And, most importantly, they used Koani as an educational ambassador to teach the public about the realities of wolves. Bringing him on school tours and talk shows, they show that this is more than just a mindless animal. These are creatures that deserve respect and their own place in the world.
Most of their 16-year life with Koani they covered using home video footage. This is the material that works the best in the film. The logistics of humans living with a naturally untameable animal like this are inherently interesting. How they keep Koani from getting lonely or bored, how much they have to feed him, and seeing his mood and behavior around people make for some compelling stories.
However, True Wolf as a film is almost completely sabotaged by two elements. Firstly, early in the film there is an over-reliance on very amateurish reenactments of events. The film opens with child actors playing two boys out hunting who consider shooting a wolf. It’s heavy-handed and unbelievable. Even worse is the reenactment of an anti-wolf town meeting and protest, where actors playing irate townsfolk call for the destruction of all wolf populations. This scene is so clumsy that you end up waiting to see angry villagers with pitchforks chasing a wolf as a surrogate for Frankenstein up into a flaming windmill. These scenes are unnecessary and obvious.
Also, when showing the real footage of those who hate the wolf population, the people chosen to speak and the score playing underneath their footage is cartoonishly malevolent. Farmers who are afraid for their livestock and well-being are shown shouting, quoting the Bible, and generally acting like complete whack jobs. It’s quite possible that is how these folks come across. But with ominous minor chords and foreboding music playing underneath their shouting matches, it makes the wolf opposition out to be reactionary rednecks.
This message about how we treat the wolf population is an important one. Are we responsible stewards of the planet? In the life of Koani, was it fair that he be raised in captivity? Bruce and Pat are left wondering that themselves. These questions are worth examining. While True Wolf raises some of these issues, a more nuanced approach to the debate itself would have been stronger. These are interesting people and an interesting subject, though.
Final Grade: C