The countdown begins: 41st annual wildlife film festival looks to challenge and inspire

As a proud sponsor of this year’s International Wildlife Film Festival, the Missoula Current, in partnership with the festival’s organizers, will run a trailer a day until the festival’s opening night next Saturday, starting with “The Last Rhino.”

After months of preparation and hours screening several hundred submissions, the International Wildlife Film Festival is counting down to opening night, with “The Last Animals” leading the way.

Now in its 41st season, the Missoula-based documentary film festival focused on wildlife and conservation settled on 145 films this year, including several international headliners and some locally produced productions.

“We have a team of programmers who helped select the films, and we engaged in community judging, which not a lot of other festivals do,” said Jeri Rafter, a filmmaker and producer of the annual festival. “We’re looking for films that tell great stories, but most importantly, films that have told them ethically.”

Rafter, a filmmaker in her own right, believes the genre has made a comeback, aided in part by short-form content and new threats facing both wildlife and the environment – not to mention the conservation work being done by nonprofits.

The festival’s timing this year comes as the Interior Department pushes the White House to rescind most protections for hundreds of species of wildlife listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

And while the festival isn’t political, it does look to generate conversation around pressing issues, as well as filmmaking and conservation.

“I would love for it to be a place where a variety of stakeholders come to share information,” Rafter said earlier this year. “I want it to have a feel, like this buzzing hive of people who’ve come together to discuss how we talk about wildlife, how we talk about species, and how we communicate that through all sorts of mediums.”

The festival’s opening film next Saturday night explores those issues and more. “The Last Animals,” produced by Kate Brooks, follows the conservationists and scientists who battle poachers and traffickers as they race to protect the last of a species from extinction.

Other films explore wolves, grizzly bears and other species closer to home, including a presentation on the great pronghorn migration across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – another threatened landscape.

“It’s taken hundreds of hours of volunteer and staff time, and lots of help from the community to put this together,” said Rafter. “This year is the first year we’ve brought all our sponsorship and programming in house. We’ve really been connecting with local businesses, conservation groups and partners on the University of Montana campus. We really maxed that out this year.”

The IWFF is now a satellite festival of Imagine Science Films – an international organization that looks to challenge and expand the role of science. This year’s events also include a “Dressed (NOT) To Kill” sustainable fashion show.

For a full lineup of films and events, visit the festivals website.