National Geographic Channel has acquired Elizabeth Unger’s wildlife crime documentary “Tigre Gente” in Latin America, where the film will premiere April 22 as part of the channel’s Earth Day lineup. Limonero Films acquired the film for distribution outside of Latin America. ‘Tigre Gente’, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, is produced by Unger alongside Joanna Natasegara, who won an Oscar for ‘The White Helmets’ and received an Oscar nomination for ‘The Edge of Democracy’ and Virunga.
When Unger set out to make a documentary about the fight to protect the jaguar in Bolivia, her mission was to break new ground in the wildlife crime genre “by exploring the root cause of the mindset that drives demand,” she says .
She hopes the film will “help dispel misconceptions and give Western audiences a better understanding of Chinese culture and tradition regarding wildlife consumerism.”
She adds: “We can do better, and we should do better, to understand the other side. Only then can we really make an impact and end the illegal wildlife trade together.”
Unger first became interested in protecting wildlife in Bolivia when she was a biology student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She was just 19 when she first visited the country in 2009 as a volunteer to rehabilitate animals victims of the illegal wildlife trade.
“[The experience] just stuck with me. It stuck with me for a few years. And at that time, when I was more focused on photojournalism and writing, I had never really done a documentary. I thought the story would be fascinating, you know, a story about the wildlife trade in Latin America, just because nobody talked about it in the press. I mean everyone was focused on elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa. I just wasn’t sure what the story would be exactly.”
Years later, in 2015, when she was in high school at NYU, the way forward came to her after a daytime nap. “I didn’t go to high school for conservation. I actually went there for nutritional studies. I was really interested in hot button food sustainability issues. But I found myself really missing my roots in conservation and biology. So I woke up from this nap and I thought, I should make a documentary about the wildlife trade in Bolivia. I’ve already been there. I have contacts. I just need to figure out what the story is. And I thought the movie would take me six months because I’d never done a movie before. And in the end it took six years, now seven. So that’s how I got into it.”
At the heart of the documentary are two protagonists. The first is Marcos Uzquiano, a forest ranger and the director of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. A Bolivian government official had recommended that Unger contact Uzquiano while she was doing research and development in Bolivia in 2015. She then arranged a Zoom interview with him when she was back in the US. “We had a great meeting together and Marcos said, ‘As long as your film is something that shows Madidi National Park and inspires people to protect that place, I’d love to be a part of this.’”
She adds: “We couldn’t believe how lucky we were. He was just so emotional, and just a great lead actor, a great human being.
The second protagonist is Laurel Chor, an investigative journalist from Hong Kong.
“I knew Laurel from the National Geographic community. We were both beneficiaries. National Geographic Explorers is the title, but essentially we are just beneficiaries. National Geographic Society gives us money for projects,” explains Unger.
“I had seen her speak at an event in Washington DC at NatGeo headquarters, and I was just blown away. I was just so impressed with Laurel, and I finally approached her and said, ‘I’m working on this wildlife trade story—on this new trade in jaguar body parts for the Chinese black market. But in every wildlife crime movie I’ve ever seen, I never see a Chinese protagonist actually investigating or investigating why the question exists in the first place from within the Chinese community. I’ve never seen such a movie. Would you like to investigate that with me?’ And she said, “Yes, very much.” And in the end, she wasn’t just a lead actor, she acted as an executive producer, because she developed her story with our team.
Unger thought about adding a third protagonist: American zoologist Alan Rabinowitz. “He was a prominent jaguar expert. Dubbed “the Indiana Jones of wildlife,” he went on to star on Stephen Colbert’s show. He was this fascinating figure. He looked at the jaguar trade in Suriname and was interested in another country. And we thought about bringing him in as the third lead to complement Marcos and Laurel, but he actually died of cancer, so we dedicated the movie to him at the end of the credits.
In addition to the Chinese perspective in the story, the film also pays attention to the culture of the Bolivians, and the reasons why some of them facilitate the illegal trade in jaguar body parts, mainly the teeth, and others fight hard to preserve the cats for become extinct.
Unger explains the reason for her special approach.
“I like genre-bending work, and I felt like wildlife crime movies are traditionally made in a very masculine way. It’s: ‘Get the bad guy’; ‘Who’s the bad guy?’; “Who is responsible for this?” And you see the heroes come out and do their thing. And that’s great. But I wanted to throw my hat in the ring as a female director, with a majority female team, to make a film that is in a more poetic, raw, visceral way.
“And you don’t do that by just focusing on trade, you have to dig deeper into the communities. And luckily, you know, we have a really global team that made this movie. And so we felt that with our strength as a team, we could continue to dig into the community aspects in Bolivia, and in Hong Kong and China, to better understand our characters, what makes them tick, and that would push an audience to also learn more about the matter.
“We can’t just focus more on the trade and the animals, the stories need to be more nuanced, refined and complete. And so by digging into that mystique of the Bolivian lowlands, you get these kind of genre-bending elements in the wildlife crime thriller, and I think it makes it more interesting. I think it throws a curveball. I think it makes it more human. And the film is really a mix of human and animal. It’s not just aimed at the jaguar. To be honest, a jaguar can be any commodity, any animal. We hope our stories are seen as something other filmmakers can use to inspire other people.”
The intention was that the Chinese are not portrayed as the archetypal villains, but in an empathetic way.
“Oh yeah. These are long discussions I had with Laurel, who really got it, you know. She felt that the Chinese community was not well represented at all in this genre. So we worked together to develop a story that had deeper asked questions.
“While Marcos was figuring out the who and how in Bolivia with the local Bolivians who supply these parts, for whatever reason, you could say it’s a cycle of poverty, and just need money to feed their kids . That was his world. But with Laurel, we really wanted to explore the why, which I don’t think happened. At least not on a large scale.”
“So for us, this was a really beautiful way – through Laurel’s world with her family, with experts and friends – to walk through it and understand that this is a gray matter. It’s not black and white. And that’s why it’s so hard to fix. With this film, we can at least go a step further and add an important piece of humanism and empathy to this conversation to move solutions forward.”
The next project for Unger is another project with Natasegara, but she’s not ready to reveal any details. “It is a very special project. So please stay tuned,” she says.