Wildcat (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A troubled vet and his ocelots in Amazonian jungle

Documentary film “Wildcat”, which is currently available on Amazon Prime, left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it is supposed to be about how one troubled vet reached for his mental healing via fostering ocelots in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, and it certainly interests us as presenting a series of intimate moments observed from its main human subject’s solitary efforts in the jungle forest. On the other hand, it also tries to be the direct and honest presentation of mental illness, and there are a number of very uncomfortable moments which do not mix well with the gentler (and cuter) part of the documentary.

The documentary mainly revolves around Harry Turner, a young British vet who has struggled a lot with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental issues caused by his battle experiences in Afghanistan. After coming back to UK, Turner had a pretty hard time as often failing to adjust himself to normal life, and that was the main reason why he subsequently volunteered to go to a certain remote spot in the Peruvian Amazon. Quite comfortable with being totally isolated from the outside world, he worked as a member of one non-profit organization, and, what do you know, it turned out that he is very good at handling those rescued wild animals.

Along with his girlfriend Samantha Zwicker, a young American ecologist who is incidentally a founder of the organization, Turner began to work on an ocelot named Khan, and the early part of the documentary focuses on how eagerly Turner took care of Khan in many aspects. At first, we see him simply treating Khan like a little pet cat, but then we observe how he helped Khan adjusting more to the jungle environment outside their shelter. For example, there is one interesting moment showing him teaching Khan a bit on how to hunt for itself, and he certainly looks proud as Khan seems ready to be released several months later.

However, something unfortunate occurred on one day. Khan happened to be injured seriously by a booby trap installed by somebody, and, despite Turner and Zwicker’s efforts, Khan eventually died. Understandably devastated by this tragic incident, Turner became quite morose and depressed for a while, and that certainly made Zwicker concerned a lot about her boyfriend’s mental health – especially when she had to leave for her academic works in US.

Some time later, Turner came to handle another ocelot to take care of, and, what do you know, this ocelot, which is incidentally named Keanu, came to enliven Turner much more than expected. Based on what he experienced and then learned from handling Khan, he handled Keanu with more care and attention, and Keanu showed considerable progress besides growing up a lot during next several months.

Eventually, there came an inevitable point where Turner had to make Keanu more separated from him than before, and that was where Turner became very conflicted about what would happen next. While he surely felt much better than before as spending lots of time with Keanu, he was also well aware that he must let Keanu go as soon as possible, and it seemed that Keanu also sensed his growing hesitation. For example, it did not leave the shelter as much as Turner wanted, and that certainly made Turner frustrated more and more.

This ongoing conflict of his also affected not only his mental health but also his relationship with Zwicker. During one very disturbing moment, we indirectly observe how much she felt helpless and frustrated as he was showing usual signs of depression and suicidal impulse, and then we later get to know more about her toxic relationship with her frequently abusive alcoholic father, which is probably the main reason why she tried to stand by Turner as much as she could. Because she cared about him just like she cared about her father, she thought she could handle her boyfriend’s mental issues, but, not so surprisingly, she came to recognize that she must distance herself from him for herself.

The documentary does not hesitate at all as looking directly into Turner’s personal demons, but the result is rather blatant and heavy-handed at times while also lacking wider perspectives beyond Turner’s or Zwicker’s. They surely came into the jungle for their commendable cause, and they seem to find a vocation to which they may dedicate themselves for the rest of their life, but that does not change the fact that they are more or less than privileged white persons searching for the spiritual healing by the Mother Nature. As a matter of fact, we do not get to know much about any of the local members of their organization or any of those local residents living there, and the documentary actually seems to be more interested in what Turner’s family experienced during their brief visit.

Directed by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, “Wildcat” is a fairly solid documentary which will surely appeal to you as a story of personal healing just like Netflix Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher” (2020), but I am not sure about whether the documentary works as well as intended. Sure, you may be charmed and touched by many nice moments observed from those rescued wild animals, but I must tell you that, even at this point, my mind keeps coming back to what W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

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