Docu-maker George Butler to shoot Sundarbans

Subhro Niyogi, TNN KOLKATA| May 23, 2012

English photographer and documentary filmmaker George Butler, who is credited with launching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career with his first docu feature ‘Pumping Iron’ in 1977, is preparing to shoot a large-format film on the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and one of the endangered tiger species’ last strongholds.

Butler has just returned to Washington DC after a fortnight’s reconnaissance of the Sundarbans in India and Bangladesh and is preparing the final production plans before shooting on ‘Tiger, Tiger’ commences later this year. The 3D Imax adventure-cum-conservation film is expected to spark interest of a global audience, giving eco-tourism in the Sundarbans a much-needed fillip. The documentary will be made under the banner of Butler’s production company White Mountain Films (WMF).

Butler, who has directed other large-format docu features, including the highly-acclaimed 97-minute documentary ‘The Endurance’ about Ernest Shackleton’s failed Antarctic expedition in 1914, first visited the Sunderbans in 2006 and was so struck by the adaptability of Bengal Tigers to the unique ecology that he decided to make a large-format movie on it. However, the high cost of Imax production (2-D Imax film costs $3-8 million and 3-D $8-15 million) meant a longish wait to organize funds.

In the interim period, Butler and writer Caroline Alexander conceived and developed ‘Tiger, Tiger’. The duo spent months researching the Sundarbans, its tigers and the crucial work being done to save them. In the article ‘Tigerland’ for The New Yorker, Alexander discussed her experience of the Sundarbans and shed important light on its tigers, forest dwellers who depend on the mangrove to survive and the modern problems facing their relationship today. Incidentally, Alexander is the author of a forthcoming National Geographic article on the state of the tiger worldwide.

“This unique ecological setting is also known as one of the most dangerous places on earth. Here, tigers are famous not only for their remarkable ability to hunt and skillfully navigate through the network of tidal rivers, channels, mudflats, creeks and an archipelago of islands, but most of all, for reasons still not understood, for being habitual man-eaters. In the Sundarbans, the essence of wildlife conservation everywhere is experienced on dramatically large scale every day – how can man co-exist with nature?” recounted Alexander.

The film will follow Dr Alan Rabinowitz, one of the top big cat biologists in the world and the man responsible for saving the jaguar in South America, as he tracks the tigers of the Sundarbans. Dr Rabinowitz is the co-founder and CEO of Panthera, the non-profit organization devoted to saving the world’s wild cat species. This epic journey, will take the tiger expert deep into the mangrove forest for the first time. From the villagers who stray into the protected forest, the people working tirelessly on the ground to protect both man and tiger, to the ancient tiger legends that pervade the forest, Alan’s journey will guide viewers through a mystical and stunning landscape rarely seen on the big screen.

To be filmed in the tradition of WMF’s ‘Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure’ and ‘Roving Mars’ productions, the film promises to take audiences into the ancient, threatened kingdom of the Bengal Tiger of the Sundarbans. “Tiger, Tiger aims to communicate the desperate state of tigers and the vital work being done to save them to audiences around the world. WMF looks forward to mobilizing awareness of tiger conservation initiatives in the Sundarbans and generating support throughout and beyond project Tiger, Tiger,” said Butler, who met Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve director Pradeep Vyas in Washington DC last month prior to learn more about the Sundarbans from a forester who had spent nearly a decade in the region.

Vyas, who convinced Butler to shoot in the Indian section of the Sundarbans along with the original setting in Bangladesh, has assured cooperation of the state forest department. “I have asked forest officials to ensure that there is no red tapism. So long as the team complies with rules, we should provide all help. This is a huge opportunity to take the mysticism of the Sundarbans to the world. Once in the spotlight, tiger conservation as well as eco-tourism in the region will get a huge fillip,” Vyas explained.