Q& A: International Wildlife Film Festival Director Mike Steinberg

August 7, 2014

Montana wildlife film festival “keeps the dialogue going.”

Q: What is the story behind the IWFF? How did it get its start?

A: It started with University of Montana scientist Chuck Jonkel in 1977. He thought there was a missing ingredient between filmmakers and scientists, so he established the festival and invited scientists and filmmakers.   IWFF is actually the first wildlife film festival in the world.

Q: With what films did the IWFF begin with in ’77? Were there documentaries that addressed wildlife and the environment or was the festival comprised of more featured films?

A: As for doc films, there were one or two sources that people turned to during that era. There was BBC and there were other sources — for example, Wild Kingdom, which was part of a television show. A lot of the work being seen was in television form. So organizers [of IWFF] showed a variety of films that didn’t have to be Montana centric, but would interest an audience. It really was a different world. There weren’t other festivals catering to this content. There wasn’t cable or the Internet. There wasn’t really an industry that focused on these issues

Photo courtesy of The Missoulian.Q: What films or festivals inspired you to get involved in this industry?

A: I went to film school and had aspirations for fiction filmmaking. It wasn’t as appealing to me, so I started making documentaries and then started teaching films. I was the director of the Webster film series for 10 years. Then I was the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival director and programmer.

Q: Is the University of Montana still an integral part of the festival?

A: Yes, the University is a major sponsor. They host events [on campus] at the UC Theater. This year we showcased the Showtime series, Years of Living Dangerously, on campus. There are many interns and volunteers that come out of the environmental studies and media arts programs at the university too.

Q: What is something bizarre about yourself?

A: I have two different colored eyes. It’s called heterochromia. I saw a nun that had two different colored eyes as a kid, and David Bowie has it too. So there’s me, David Bowie and that nun.

Q: How has the venue of the Roxy Theatre contributed to the film festival?

A: In the past, IWFF held most of its screenings at the Wilma for daytime matinees. Showing at the Roxy saved us some money, plus it’s a great venue. The Roxy has also helped us grow our volunteer base: last year, we had 300 people volunteer, which is really helpful since we have three to five screenings a day for the week-long festival

Q: How has the IWFF helped create change surrounding issues of conservation and protecting endangered species?

A: Well, people keep killing elephants, and we’ve had lots of films about the devastation of the species. But I see people engaged and activists who are bringing their films. It keeps the dialogue going, and keeps these issues in peoples’ consciousness. One film from this year that was supported by Patagonia, DamNation, had two great filmmakers who made it into a really good and strong documentary, which was sponsored by our local Clark Fork Coalition. Activists were involved with it, as well. DamNation was a huge sell-out event and we brought it back for a longer run after the festival.

Q: What are some of your favorites films from this year’s film festival?

A: BBC did a film on killer whales, called Killer Whales: Beneath the Surface. It is a powerful film that looked at a different side of the animal. Then there was a widely-spread documentary on Sea World called Blackfish. On a River in Ireland explored ecosystems in this Irish river. It was really beautifully shot and won our cinematography award.   Pride was another great film made by a Montana State University student about lions in a small village in India.

Q: What is the most fulfilling part of your job with the IWFF?

A: Being able to see pepole leaving the theater and look like they’ve been enjoying themselves. It is also great to get the audience into the theater and know that they’re not wasting their time. I often leave films disappointed and empt, but I can tell people coming to the Roxy leave fulfilled.

Q: Any last words to leave with our audience?

A: I think it’s fantastic what you guys are doing. The reason some festivals exist is because people want something different— a variet.  The way that the Audience Awards provide content is great. It’s always there.

Learn more about the International Wildlife Film Festival here.

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