Wildcat: A helpless creature, a traumatised young man, and too many unanswered questions

As is often the case with fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we are often left wondering who is the fly and where is the wall

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Director: Melissa Lesh, Trevor Beck Frost
Cert: None
Starring: Harry Turner, Samantha Zwicker
Running Time: 1 hr 46 mins

A couple in a remote part of the wilderness make friends with a young wildcat and seek to educate the beast towards a release back into its natural habitat. Sound familiar? That was essentially the plot of the hugely popular 1966 film Born Free. Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna played George and Joy Adamson, the real-life naturalists who raised the lioness Elsa.

Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost’s already acclaimed documentary – receiving a theatrical release on its way to Prime Video – deals with an eerily similar situation. But the human stories here are altogether grittier and less easy to process.

Harry Turner, an irrepressible young Englishman, returned from serving in Afghanistan beneath a cloud of unprocessed trauma. He made his way to the Peruvian Amazon and, now attached to an American named Samantha Zwicker, became involved in a project aimed at rescuing wild animals from the claws of poachers. His attention focused first on one young ocelot and then, after that beast didn’t make it, an animal of the same species he named Keanu.

The documentary shows Harry training the beast to hunt, walking him through the jungle and fretting when he gets bitten by a poisonous spider. As the film progresses, we begin to realise the depths of the young man’s traumas. He is driven to cutting himself. He flies off the handle when plans go awry. Samantha, who has family secrets of her own, becomes more and more concerned.


The film has a number of satisfyingly gnarly encounters with fauna at its least friendly. A clacking caiman will have you hiding behind the seat. Meetings with sloths are reliably charming. This is, however, a film with a split personality. The opening half promises real engagement with the jungle and its inhabitants, but the longer it goes on the more we retreat into the tensions between the couple. Keanu’s adventure takes on the quality of low-level metaphor as that human drama heads towards a crisis. Some relief comes when Harry’s family visit. But the film never quite gets back in touch with its ecological concerns.

There are too many unanswered questions. There may well be good reasons why it is so important for Keanu to fully abandon the settlement – rather than functioning as a semidomesticated beast – but they are never satisfactorily interrogated. Anyone with a house cat will know they can reproduce merrily while still paying occasional visits to a human habitation. (As I say, there may well be good reasons. I am not trying to contradict professional naturalists.) The shots of other beasts assisted by Samantha’s colleagues point towards a busier wildlife documentary dealing with more than just one ocelot.

As is often the case with fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we are too often left wondering who is the fly and where is the wall. A great many intimate conversations are caught at weirdly close range. One urgent phone call in particular feels like something that should have been carried out in unrecorded privacy.

For all that, Wildcat remains a tense, diverting study of a man struggling with internal demons while doing his best for an initially helpless creature. We don’t see quite enough of Keanu, but the footage makes the most of his sleek grace and stubborn, classically feline obstreperousness.

When the film premiered at Telluride Film Festival, Zwicker and Turner were on hand to confirm that Keanu had been sighted arpund the jungle months after the release had taken place. Again, one thinks of Elsa returning to nod at the Adamsons all those decades ago. How appropriate that this latter-day, Peruvian Born Free will shortly move to the service run by Amazon.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist