Mountainfilm

John Vaillant: The Story behind the Tiger

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In John Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce (2005)—a story about human intrigue and conflict—the environment of the Pacific Northwest is an integral and compelling character. Similarly, in his upcoming book, The Tiger, the main character is the Siberian tiger, a force of nature that is both beautiful and chilling. This tiger can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.

In The Tiger, a hardscrabble poacher in a remote forest in Russia’s Far East sets out to snare one of the world’s most extraordinary animals. Instead, the poacher is savagely killed, and an entire village is terrorized as the tiger takes its revenge.
John will give us a preview of The Tiger—which won’t be released until August, 2010—in his presentation at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday at the Palm.
The Story Behind The Tiger

John Vaillant was inspired to write The Tiger after he saw a film called Conflict Tiger, which screened at Mountainfilm in 2006 and was directed by Sasha Snow. In an interesting turn of events, Sasha is now making a documentary about the riveting story of murder and ecology that Vailliant tells in The Golden Spruce.
Mountainfilm’s Emily Long spoke to the author and the filmmaker about the two subjects that inspired them.

Emily: You must think highly of each other to share stories so closely.

John: The feeling I had watching Conflict Tiger was one of startling recognition: In it, I saw a filmmaker who successfully portrays his subjects with the same intensity and sensitivity that I aspire to in my books. The idea that Sasha might make a film about The Golden Spruce is, in addition to being a huge honor, very reassuring: I know he gets it, and I have complete faith that he will do what it takes to bring it across. Having now done fieldwork in the Russian Far East myself, I am even more impressed that Sasha was able to make a film there.

Sasha: Yes, it’s very peculiar how the felling of a sacred tree and the slaying of a wounded tiger on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean within a few weeks of each other, could result in the collaboration of an author and filmmaker living on opposite sides of the planet. In this creative exchange, John will be a very tough act to follow.

Emily: Sasha, can you explain how you came across the story that turned into your film Conflict Tiger?

Sasha: I was trying to make a film on the Russia/Chinese border about the biggest illegal black market in the world, and I found out that film was already being made. By chance, I bumped into someone working for the World Wildlife Foundation, who asked if I knew about the work being done with tigers out at the Chinese border. A lightbulb went off in my head, and I began doing research, just trying to find out more about the Siberian tiger. By luck, I came across an English translation of a biologist’s field report of the incident. I read the account and thought, well, that’s the film.

Emily: Can you tell me more about the original story that inspired you?

Sasha: It’s a story I’ve lived with for 10 years now. It involves a gentleman called Yuri Trush, the head of the Conflict Tiger unit, who was called in by the authorities when an incident of a tiger behaving unnaturally was reported. One of the worst cases was this particular incident, which involved a tiger killing two people and nearly killing Yuri himself. What made it fascinating was the tiger’s desire for revenge, that it actually targeted a particular person and stalked him over a period of time.

Emily: John, how did you come across Yuri and the Conflict Tiger unit?

John: Really by total accident. I’d been invited to present on The Golden Spruce at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and I got free tickets to this film I’d never heard of about tigers and Russia and poachers. I went in with no expectations or even understanding of what I was seeing. I just sat there, riveted, and I remember one moment particularly; about 15 minutes into it, there was just this lightning bolt—through the lens of this one tiger, and this one man who was the tiger’s first victim, we are introduced to a much larger context and a much larger series of portraits that all coalesce. These stories are like hubs around which a panoply of issues revolve. Every now and then, a story comes along that draws many related issues together in a sort of crystalline and dynamic way. The tiger that Sasha made the film about does that as few other stories I’ve ever encountered have done. It’s irresistible.

Emily: At their core, the stories speak about the rare nature of certain elements of the environment. Can you speak a bit about extinction and how both stories play into that?

John: What you have, in both stories, are systems that were, until really quite recently, intact, stable and functional. In the case of The Tiger, several forces—Perestroika, the opening of the Chinese border and the collapse of the nationalized logging industry—led to a complete disruption of the environment. What you see is a very ugly, violent and destructive response to this destabilization as tremendous impacts are visited upon these environments. In both stories, people are as much victims as causes.

Sasha: We often think about extinction as extinction of other species, about animals other than us; whereas, I think both stories point toward the extinction of human communities and particular types of people that are as much a par