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The Wild Ones 

Local filmmakers explore PTSD and the healing power of nature in acclaimed new documentary “Wildcat.”

click to enlarge Melissa Lesh films in the English countryside where Harry Turner spent time with his family after returning home from the Amazon.

Melissa Lesh films in the English countryside where Harry Turner spent time with his family after returning home from the Amazon.

Trigger warning: This story includes discussion of suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Peru, the overall feeling Trevor Beck Frost had was one of failure.

He’d traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to spend 60 days photographing anacondas, the world’s largest snakes. It was only in the last ten days of his trip that he managed to locate two anacondas, far from the number that he’d hoped to document.

It was then that the protagonist of his next big project walked through the hotel lobby: Harry Turner, a British Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.

“He’s covered in tattoos, so he’s quite noticeable,” says Frost. A friend sitting next to him on the lobby’s couch leaned over. “His name is Harry,” the friend said, “and he’s got this remarkable story.”

That story is the backbone of “Wildcat,” a new documentary by Frost and his partner Melissa Lesh that tells how Turner, suffering from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service, came to the Amazon to end his life. Instead, he met Samantha Zwicker, a scientist and founder of a conservation organization dedicated to confronting threats to the biodiversity of the Peruvian Amazon. Through their work to rehabilitate ocelots and return them to the wild, Turner finds an uneasy way to cope with the horrors he’s witnessed.

The film opens in theaters across the country Wednesday and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on Dec. 30. Acquired for nearly $20 million by Amazon Studios, “Wildcat” has racked up accolades and generated Oscar buzz; at the time of this writing, it holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

To get the project started, Turner and Zwicker handed Frost a hard drive with all the footage they’d shot in the interest of documenting their attempts to rewild ocelots to further the practice; it hadn’t been their aim to create a documentary about themselves.

“The footage was just remarkable. Not only was the cinematography really, really good, but they also filmed a lot of incredibly difficult moments that you wouldn’t expect someone to film,” says Frost who previously published photo essays in National Geographic as a photojournalist.

The local filmmakers initially envisioned “Wildcat” as a short film encompassing Turner’s heartbreaking first unsuccessful attempt to rewild an ocelot named Khan. When they heard that Turner was going attempt to rewild a second ocelot named Keanu, Lesh and Frost decided the documentary should be feature length.

“This is a story about redemption and second chances,” says Lesh, who previously created short wildlife and conservation films and collaborated with Frost on filmed National Geographic projects.

Starting in fall 2018, the couple made 13 trips to Peru over the next year and a half to document Zwicker and Turner. Staying on a remote platform together for roughly the equivalent of half a year, the two conservationists and the two filmmakers became close.

“It really allowed us to bond in a way that, I think, had we been somewhere else, we wouldn’t have had that same intimacy and friendship and trust,” Lesh says.

In the initial phase of filmmaking, Frost and Lesh didn’t have much in the way of funding.

“We put everything on credit cards,” Lesh says. “We started this film really with nothing, with debt and some airline miles.”

The documentary is hard to watch at times. As Turner’s mental health spirals and he discusses his desire to kill himself and cuts his arms to ease his emotional pain, you see the toll it takes on both him and his relationship with Zwicker. Frost and Lesh did their best to assist, including aiding Zwicker in getting outside help.

click to enlarge Trevor Beck Frost (right) talks with Harry Turner (middle) about his concerns for his mental health while Samantha Zwicker (left) listens on the platform that was their home in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Trevor Beck Frost (right) talks with Harry Turner (middle) about his concerns for his mental health while Samantha Zwicker (left) listens on the platform that was their home in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon.

“There were moments when we either had to put the camera down, or sometimes I just needed to walk away,” says Frost. “More than anything, the sentiment was ‘We love these people, and we are all friends now, really, really, really close friends. How can we be there for them? How can we not contribute to the problem, but help be a part of easing the tension or the emotion?’”

Adding to the complications of the documentary, at the height of production in fall 2019, Lesh underwent brain surgery for a cyst that was about the size of an egg.

In putting the film together, Lesh and Frost got an assist from Mallory Bracken, a local photographer and aspiring filmmaker that they refer to as their “secret weapon.”

“She came on quite early and was really, really critical in helping us start to assemble the edit and log footage,” says Lesh, adding that Bracken is the only one who has seen all 1,000-plus hours of footage that eventually became the documentary.

“Harry would walk around the jungle every day filming, hoping something would happen,” says Bracken, who’s always desired to tell stories about animals and wildlife with her work. “In so much of it, nothing happens, but every now and then there’s this little gem, which is what the movie is built with. It was definitely very tedious, but I’m really proud of it.”

The filmmakers say that the success of “Wildcat,” which debuted this year at the Telluride Film Festival, has been “surreal.” As Zwicker and Turner are partners in the film, they’ve received an equal split of the proceeds.

“We’re all pretty excited about it. I remember when we told them, they were like, ‘You’ve got to be joking,’” Lesh says.

click to enlarge The new production studio, 7 South Studio on First Street, that the filmmakers launched with proceeds from their documentary.
  • The new production studio, 7 South Studio on First Street, that the filmmakers launched with proceeds from their documentary.

The filmmakers aren’t going far. With some of the proceeds from the film they’ve launched 7 South Studio, a production studio on First Street that endeavors to create environmentally focused documentaries and assist storytellers by giving them the resources they need.

While the response to their film has been overwhelming for all of them, Lesh says it’s been especially meaningful for Turner to see how audiences respond at screenings.

“He’s seen that people resonate with him and respect him, and also recognize that he is struggling and are concerned for him,” Lesh says. “That’s been really powerful.”

“Wildcat” premieres in theaters on Wednesday, Dec. 21 and will be streamed on Amazon Prime beginning Dec. 30. Locally, the documentary will be screened at Movieland at Boulevard Square.

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