Tim Phillips is standing under a tree somewhere in Peru, helping to anesthetize a lion. It's not an uncommon work day for the animal-rights activist and director of the feature documentary Lion Ark, which screens at the Boulder International Film Festival on Saturday, March 7.
“We’re doing some dental surgery,” he explains. Some of the 21 lions, rescued from South American circuses and due to be flown from Peru to the Wild Animal Sanctuary near Denver on March 31, need immediate medical attention to enable them to make the 4,000-mile flight. Phillips wipes the sweat from his face as thinks out loud how nice it will be to come to cooler Colorado soon.
It sounds impossible to move dozens of lions from one continent to another all at once, but Phillips has the experience on his resume already. He and his wife, Animal Defense International president Jan Creamer, have been traveling the world since 1990, raising awareness concerning abused exotic animals, pushing for legislation to free and protect them, and rescuing those that have been abused and kept in horrifying conditions.
In 2009, ADI helped Bolivia pass the first law banning the use of wild and domestic animals in circuses. But then ADI faced a new challenge: Someone had to collect the creatures and relocate them to a safe, protected place (animals raised in captivity do not possess the skills needed to integrate with their wild cousins).
In stepped Pat Craig. He’s run the Wild Animal Sanctuary, now located in Keenesburg, forty miles northeast of Denver, since 1980. Colorado’s high plains may seem an odd locale for tigers, lions, leopards and such, but its reputation as a refuge made TWAS a natural choice.
What follows forms the spine of Lion Ark, as the activists comb the country, tracking down 25 African lions, employing everything from cajolery to bribery to placate circus owners into relinquishing them and improvising safe and compassionate traveling solutions for the traumatized felines. Oh, and just to make it interesting, they can only afford to fly all the lions together in one plane.
“The filmmaking definitely stemmed from the activism,” says Phillips, who earned his stripes collecting thousands of hours' worth of covert video of animal abuse in circuses, zoos and other dubious entertainments. Phillips boiled eighty hours of raw Lion Ark footage down to a swiftly paced, engaging 93-minute film that shows the viewer the nuts and bolts, and many complex challenges, of animal welfare work.
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“If I had a tip for any new filmmaker, it’s just film, film, film,” Phillips says. “It was a big gamble, but it really paid off.”
The film’s first screening of the day, 10 a.m. March 7 in the Boulder High School auditorium, will be followed by a talkback that features Phillips, Creamer and Craig in person. This is one of a dozen audience/filmmaker/activist encounters that are part of BIFF’s Call2Action program, which allows viewers to question and debate issues raised in BIFF selections, and empowers them to take action themselves.
Part of Lion Ark’s strength is Phillips’s ability to capture the personalities of the individual lions, and to show the transformation that decent treatment brings to their lives. “We just wanted to tell their stories,” Phillips says of his four-legged charges. “We didn’t want to bludgeon the viewer with suffering, either. As their conditions improve, they become relaxed and happy. You can just see as the film progresses how their faces change.”
The Boulder International Film Festival starts March 6. Lion Ark will screen at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 7 at 10 a.m. in the Boulder High School auditorium, 1604 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, and at 4:30 p.m. in eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce Street, Boulder. For tickets and information, visit www.biff1.com.