IDFA is going wild for Wildcat.
The documentary from Amazon Studios screened a couple of times over the weekend at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, to resounding effect, filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost tell Deadline. Screenings on Friday and Sunday took place at the Pathé Tuschinski Theatre, a glorious old movie palace that rivals Mann’s Chinese in splendor.
“To have two standing ovations in a theater like that,” Lesh commented at a party after Sunday’s event, “on the biggest screen we’ve screened on yet, and to have the audience so engaged and moved, I feel like it’s been our best screenings yet.”
Frost added, “When we were standing in the lobby as people were going into the movie theater, I just couldn’t believe how many people were around me. They said they had well over 450 people in the theater for our screening [Sunday].”
The film centers on the charismatic Harry Turner, a young Briton who enlisted in the military at age 18 and was quickly dispatched to Afghanistan to fight as part of the international coalition led by the U.S. There, he developed mental health issues and “returned from the war a broken man,” as the IDFA program notes. “Struggling with PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts, he travels deep into the Peruvian rainforest, where he meets the U.S. scientist Samantha. Together, they take care of an orphaned ocelot, a small spotted wildcat.”
In a very, very remote section of the rainforest, Turner filmed the efforts that he and Ph.D candidate Samantha Zwicker undertook to rewild the ocelot. Through a chance encounter, they met up with documentary filmmakers Frost and Lesh, who eventually joined them at their Peruvian outpost.
“We became a family because of where we were… We ate together, we bathed together,” Frost recalls. “We were together all the time.”
Audiences have responded to the intimacy fostered by the remarkable filming conditions – imagine the fictional Swiss Family Robinson, in a sense, but real. While we don’t see the directors on camera, the activities of Harry and Sam are documented in detail, including a growing romance between them. At times Harry seemed to thrive in the rainforest, but at other times depression would grip him.
“We began to see that Harry was still struggling, as is so often the case with mental health,” Frost said during an earlier interview with Deadline, noting that he could identify with Turner’s internal conflict. “Being somebody that has struggled with depression and anxiety for more than 10 years, it’s a constant journey. It’s not a thing where you ever reach a destination. It’s something that I struggle with usually every day. And the same is true for Harry.”
Creating greater openness about discussing mental health issues is one of the goals of the directors.
“I remember in the edit we were always talking about, ‘If we make a movie and people are okay to just leave the theater and don’t have to talk about it, then we’ve failed,’” Lesh said. “’How can we make it so it kind of cracks open everyone that’s seen it?’”
Wildcat premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September. It opens in limited theatrical release on December 21, then debuts on Prime Video on December 30. Compared to some other Oscar-contending documentaries, it’s a late comer to the party.
“Amazon can obviously reach so many people and can do it in a very targeted way. So that is something that I’m holding on to,” Frost said, referring to the Oscar hopes of the Wildcat team. “In terms of kind of being late, premiering at Telluride, it almost feels like we’re doing a whisper campaign [for the film]… It’s anxiety inducing a little bit because everybody gets a little bit caught up in the awards thing. No one’s immune to it.”
The film got a boost last week by earning two nominations for the IDA Documentary Awards – one for editing (recognizing the work of editors Lesh, Joshua Altman, David Zieff, and Ben Gold), and another for Best Music Score, recognizing composer Patrick Jonsson. Coming to IDFA in the Best of Fests category gives a huge platform for the film, because of IDFA’s prestige and its stature as the world’s biggest documentary film festival. It also puts Lesh and Frost in elite company, rubbing shoulders with Steve James (A Compassionate Spy), Tia Lessin (The Janes), Gianfranco Rosi (In viaggio), Margaret Brown (Descendant) and other major figures in documentary attending this year’s IDFA.
“For us, this is our first feature. So we’re able to kind of for the first time connect with this community of filmmakers that has been really, really special,” Lesh said. “So many people come to IDFA from all around the world. It’s probably the biggest festival we’ve been to from like a sheer numbers standpoint. I’m enjoying getting to meet new faces and names that I’ve admired or known their work for a long time.”
As they do events for Wildcat, the film team benefits from two great assets to supplement their promotional efforts – the compelling, attractive and articulate Harry Turner and Samantha Zwicker. Sam sat down for a lunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week with an influential crowd, and Harry has traveled the world with the film. He next heads to his native U.K. for a screening this week, where he will be joined by his family, as well as by Frost, Lesh, and producer Alysa Nahmias.
The comforts of Amsterdam, London, Beverly Hills and elsewhere are a far cry from the comparative deprivations of the Peruvian rainforsest. But Nahmias noted, “It’s been awesome having them on the circuit with us and going to festivals.”