Image: Charlie Russell signing books
The 8th annual environmental film festival, Planet in Focus, riveted Toronto audiences on Wednesday night with two inaugural films. The first was a short, titled The Nature of Rebirth, with a beautiful reflection on the nature of life and death in Europe's oldest forest by first time Finnish director, Johanna Lampi.
We were then dazzled by Edge of Eden: Living with theGrizzlies, an 88 minute documentary about Canadian conservationist, Charlie Russell, who lived with grizzly bears in Russia and raised orphaned cubs for reintroduction into their natural habitat. This film was photographed, produced and directed by also Canadian filmmaking team, Jeff and Sue Turner who have made many documentaries for big names like the BBC and Discovery. Receiving a standing ovation from an utterly amazed audience, Charlie Russell stood up and answered questions after the showing of the film. He was touched by the response to the film and said that he has discontinued his work in Russia for various reasons. He also commented that he was offered $500,000 a year to try to find a way to save the bears that are threatened by illegal poaching in what ironically is a World Heritage Site. He sadly said he was unable to accomplish that task and that "poachers are king" in Kamchatka, the region "so far east in Russia that it is almost west." He said that $500,000 wouldn't be enough to pay what is needed to protect the bears from poaching.
Russell explained that bears are now poached as more of an after thought by people who enter the park to catch salmon for the highly-sought out salmon caviar or red caviar. Laws are in place to protect the animals from this type of illegal poaching, however they are apparently not enforced and Russell said that even some park officials are paid off.
The bears are paying the price and many of the cuddly guys that he actually raised and reintroduced have subsequently been killed. This is a sad chapter in an inspiring story of a man who lived in the wild with these animals and actually made a difference in their lives and their conservation. He is a true protector and defender of these massive animals that historically have been represented as monsters.
It was an honour to see Russell speak after watching his story on the big screen and he said that he is currently working to get people to "relax about bears and share the land a lot better than we do now." Russell reflected on our ability to save these animals and asked, "Are we sophisticated enough to do our part?"
If this opening night was any indication of the rest of the festival, spectators should race down to the various box office locations and get tickets before they sell out. We were utterly impressed by these two films and are looking forward to seeing more before the festival ends on Sunday, October 28.