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New film looks at Minnesota wolf hunt with the freshness of an outsider’s eye

The documentary film has its world premiere on Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

“Medicine of the Wolf” has its world premiere on Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

If you think there’s nothing new to be said or shown about Minnesota’s tangled relationship with the gray wolf, you may be surprised by a new documentary film that has its world premiere on Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

“Medicine of the Wolf” is modest in its scope, just over an hour long. It’s the second independent documentary made by Julia Huffman, a 46-year-old actor and acting coach in Los Angeles who also trained and worked as a broadcast journalist earlier in her career.

Huffman has had a lifelong interest in wild creatures, environmental health and Native American spirituality, she told me in a phone interview on Wednesday, and she has family in Minnesota.

So when she heard the news that federal protections for wolves were being lifted at the end of 2011 – followed instantly by establishment of sport trapping and hunting seasons in the one state among the lower 48 where wolves had managed to survive extermination campaigns – she began to see the outline of her story and make her travel plans.

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“Medicine of the Wolf” isn’t the whole story of wolf delisting and its consequences, of course. Huffman wouldn’t claim it’s an objective story, either. But neither is it nearly as disparaging, and relentlessly discouraging, as it easily could be.

Parts of it are extraordinarily beautiful, presenting fresh footage made by Huffman and crew alongside significant contributions from Jim Brandenburg, who becomes the film’s central human character.

In other places it is revolting. There are clips from online videos posted by “sportsmen” celebrating their wolf kills, faces obscured for legal reasons with black bars applied in the production process.

A handful of Minnesota legislators, orating on the bogus notion that wolves are a threat to human safety in the north woods, should wish they could get the black-bar treatment, too.

But in many more places it is uplifting: the Ojibwe view of wolves through the comments of the late Larry Stillday of Red Lake; the extraordinary, instantaneous contribution that wolf reintroduction has made to the Yellowstone ecosystem; the uses of rescued wolves in the rehabilitation of former street-gang members in L.A.

Unfortunately, at least for that majority of Minnesotans who oppose legalized killing of wolves by trophy seekers, the good news tends to come from faraway places, and the bad news from closer to home.

Jim Brandenburg’s heartbreak

If ours were a culture that designated certain artisans as “living treasures” in the Japanese tradition, Jim Brandenburg would be among them, and chiefly for his photographs of wolves, which are known to people all over the world.

Some who know his work well and see this film may be newly impressed by the breadth and depth of his scientific knowledge about what he calls “the most persecuted animal in the world.”

Brandenburg’s relationship with wolves spans many decades and a few continents, and his stories of close personal encounters in the woods around his Ely home and studio are invariably respectful,  often remarkable, and occasionally heartbreaking, like the one I’ll excerpt here, about an incident shortly before lawless wolf-killing became state-licensed sport:

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I was very familiar with 19 wolves here around Ravenwood one year, when they were really doing well, lots of deer around. I photographed each one, gave each one a name, had a little portrait of each one with a name underneath.

The alpha male was killed by a hunter, less than a mile from here. I know who did it. I asked them to be careful, I talked to them before the hunt. They were setting up their hunting camp, I said please be careful, there are lot of wolves here, I know it’s tempting. …

It’s hard to talk about this.

This is about three years ago. The alpha male, Blackie, was killed, with his pack – the wolf I’d been photographing, watching, for three, four years. Biggest footprint I’ve ever seen of a wolf – an interesting-looking wolf, he was pure black. And I watched him turn grey.

He’d been radio-collared. The hunter didn’t want anyone to find out where he’d killed a wolf, so he snipped off the radio collar and dropped it off near Ely, to throw off the signal.

The wolf pack was totally different after that. They seemed to disperse. They disappeared. Everything changed. I changed.

I have not really photographed wolves since then. It broke my heart. It really destroyed me in some sense. I have not been the same.

Ojibwe legend and youth rehab

From Stillday, an elder whose Ojibwe name was Chi-maiingan, which translates as Big Wolf:

The creator told the animals, you know, to take care of their brother, the human being, otherwise the human being would not have survived. The animal people [said] yes, we will watch our brother.

We will give him our hide, we’ll give him our flesh, we’ll give him our bones so that he can live. So we owe that to the animal people.

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 And today, we’re going to pay the animal people, especially the wolf, we are going to pay him back by killing him.  

Stillday is not the only speaker in the film who sees the wolf as a vessel of medicine in the spiritual sense. So does Galeo Saintz, the South African founder of the Wild Peace conservation initiative. So does Paula Ficara of Wolf Connection in Acton, California, where injured wolves and wolf-dog crosses are rehabilitated along alongside people who have been traumatized, too, in a variety of ways:

The kids are coming from all different backgrounds. Most of them are at-risk youth, coming from inner city situations, from gang violence … and they come in with their walls up. Always needing to protect themselves.

They’ve got their attitude, they’ve got their swagger going on, they’re coming in going, whatever, what have you got to teach me?

 … [We tell them to] take your earphones out, hand ‘em over, you’re going to stand here, sit here, we’re gonna make a circle, and we’re just going to get really present. And the minute they all truly drop in, and let go of that stuff, and center themselves, the pack will actually begin to howl. …

And for the rest of the program, the kids are putty in our hands.

A range of Minnesota voices

But most of the story takes place in Minnesota and is told by Minnesotans, including the Ely outfitter Steve Piragis, Dan Stark of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Maureen Hackett of Howling for Wolves, Howard Goldman of the Humane Society of the United States, and state Sens. Tom Bakk, Bill Ingebrigtsen and Carrie Ruud.

At this writing, Saturday’s premiere of “Medicine of the Wolf” was sold out, but there is a second showing at 1 p.m. Sunday; the festival’s tickets page showed that seats were still available.

Plans for future releases are still taking shape. At the moment, Huffman told me, she is planning a few months of promotional screenings at film festivals around the country, after which she expects to self-distribute the film on DVD while also seeking arrangements with Netflix and similar distributors, as well as possible broadcast arrangements.

You can keep an eye out for updates on the film’s website, which also has a trailer and other material about the film and filmmaker, and I’ve told Huffman that I’ll be pleased to update Earth Journal readers in this space as the film becomes more widely available.