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Camilla Calamandrei

by on July 21, 2009
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Tiger 1

Camilla Calamandrei says she hopes to shine a spotlight on what she calls a horrible problem: people who collect and hoard exotic animals, creatures who were never meant to live in captivity.

Her film “The Tiger Next Door” does just that, telling the story of Flat Rock, Indiana native Dennis H, who, at the time of filming, owned 24 tigers and a variety of leopards, panthers, bears, chimpanzees, and other animals, without the proper means to care for them, and quarrelling over them with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (and some of his neighbors)

In this interview Calamandrei talks about Dennis, his story, and the reaction to the film by the animal-loving community.

The Yap: So how was the screening last night? I understand Dennis wanted to bring a tiger…

CC: Uh…yes, he wanted to bring a tiger cub. He didn’t do it.

The Yap: {laughs} Thankfully, though I guess a cub isn’t as big a deal.

Camilla insert 1CC: Well that gets to the heart of the problem with this. The cubs are adorable, they are charming, wonderful, and it’s just that it’s very stressful on the cubs being in that situation, and of course it grows up to be a large animal in a small cage.

The Yap: You sound like you’re really passionate about the topic.

CC: It’s funny, because I read your guys’ review of the film. Christopher Lloyd write it, and it was lovely, but it was funny because he was being very complimentary, but he said something like that I refused to take sides, and I love how he said I let the viewer decide, but I hate how he said I didn’t take sides, because I feel like I’m a wussy.  For me, the film is empathetic to the human condition, but it’s really a searing indictment of what’s going on. So yes, I feel really passionate about it. I made it a character-driven study, but ultimately I feel like you’re supposed to feel it doesn’t matter whether you like Dennis or feel for him, because we have a much bigger problem.

The Yap: I think what Chris meant is that in a lot of documentary today, they very early on make it clear which side they’re on in the discussion, and paint that person as the good guy, and paint the other guy as the villain. In your film, the setup starts with Dennis, and you’re starting to feel sorry for him, then the guy from the preserve comes in and starts letting out these details.

CC: Oh, no, I am thrilled, and I love that he gets it. But I get a fair amount of grief from some of the animal community, who are nervous that I gave Dennis all that airtime. But I feel that it’s important to let people know what is going on in these people’s minds. And that’s what a film is, is someone’s journey and if you know from the outset what you’re supposed to think, how interesting is that?

The Yap: Where did you first get the idea to make this film?

CC: I live in New York, and there was a case of this woman in New Jersey who had 24 tigers, and the state was going to confiscate them and move them to a sanctuary in Texas. So I started following that case, and some subsequent cases, and I thought that was a pretty unique story. And turns out it wasn’t. There’s a relatively large case like this in America every few months. After working on the film for about 2 1/2 years, I came upon Dennis’ story, and he was still in the middle of his dealings with the state, so his story became the narrative arc for the film, and the other situations became the backdrop.

The Yap: What were your initial thoughts on Dennis? At first glance he seems to be an odd guy, but he seemed very friendly.

CC: It’s very interesting. I actually spoke on the phone, and made Photo by John Roca, Daily Newsplans to go see him, and he had 5 days left in his deadline with the state of Indiana to clean up this place. He said we could come down, we raced down, and I made all of those arrangements not knowing what he looked like. So he sent me this picture and I thought “okay! We’ve struck gold!” I knew he had 24 tigers and 3 bears and 6 leopards, and following all of these cases, I kind of knew the profile, and he fit. I knew he wasn’t an outlier. I knew he was a representative. Then I saw his picture and had someone representative of the phenomena, and he’s someone you’re interested in finding something about. That’s the thing about film: you know people who are a great story if you’re doing a book, but Dennis has sort of an intrigue, and has a certain kind of appeal. Really the first time we met him his place was in quite a state of disrepair, and he was frantically working. In a way I did feel bad for him, because it could almost not be worst, but you can’t deny this person was working his butt off to really clean up the place. I don’t mean he’s virtuous, but when you make a documentary, part of it is putting yourself inside someone else’s life, and you try to see the world like they see it, right or wrong. And the man was working all the time, pulling out all the stops trying to make it work. And he made a bunch of bad choices, and I think it’s wrong to begin with, but he’s single-minded. This is it for him. That doesn’t really help the tigers, unfortunately.

The Yap: There seemed to be some question as to whether he was engaging in that practice of selling off the cubs. He seemed to look down on it, but the other guy was saying he definitely sold them.

CC: He admits to selling cubs. He’s under the impression, or he tells himself he sells them to “good home,” and the problem with that is he really has no idea. Ultimately someone comes to him, hands over money, he hands over the cub, and he doesn’t really know. That’s actually the core of the problem around the country. Because they’re cute and appealing, people buy them, think they’ll have photo ops with them. Then they grow up, and even if people love them and think they’re sending them to a good home, the people have no idea where the tigers are going to end up.

The Yap: And it’s sort of a childhood fantasy, like the dalmation thing, when “101 Dalmations” came out, people bought up dalmatians as pets not knowing they’re high strung, and they all end up at animal shelters. But you can’t really do that with tigers.

CC: No, and the film actually really could have been made about bears, or cougars, leopards or any number of big cats. Or monkeys or exotic birds. There’s a huge number of exotic animals that are being kept and bred by private individuals, and mostly it’s a miserable situation. Sometimes it’s dangerous for the people, but mostly for the animals, because they’re just not domesticated.

The Yap: He did point out how docile they are when they’re raised in captivity as well. Did you guys have any issues during filming?

Dennis tigerCC: There’s two parts to that. First, yes, they’re bottle-fed by a human being when they’re babies, so they do bond with their person. There’s nothing else going on in their life. But that idea that they’re docile, yes they’re brought up with people, but they’re still incredibly dangerous, and they’ve got to be bored out of their mind. But it’s interesting, I made the film over 6 years, and when I was with the other people, yes, they were relatively calm. But the last day, we were at a sanctuary in Wisconsin, and we were done filming, and I had left something down with the tigers and had to go get it. Now I wasn’t inside a cage with a tiger or anything. but I walked down there alone, in the dark, and I could just feel every set of eyes on me. And they’re predators. Nothing has to happen. All you have to do is be standing there.

The Yap: Yes, and you know in the wild they’re hunting and killing things larger than a human being…

CC: Yes, and everybody reports that young children, maybe 10 years old or younger, getting them in the area of a captive-born tiger, they immediately start stalking, because of the size of the child, their instinct just kicks in.

The Yap: So ultimately what would you like to see happen with this issue? Should there be some regulation? Or is there a solution?

CC: Well, ultimately I hope this film gets as much exposure as possible, because this really is a problem. And this really has nothing to do with whether you’re a nice guy or not a nice guy. It’s just a wrong choice. There’s really nobody who does it well. The reason is I don’t think large wild animals can be held in captivity well. I wasn’t always necessarily that extreme in my views, but after 6 years of seeing and hearing and reading about it, it does. And I think that goes for most zoos as well. How do you take an animal that roams hundreds of miles in the wild, and say you’re going to build a cage that will give it a good life?

The Yap: So what does Dennis think about the movie? Of course, you see him absorbing some pretty rough criticism in the film, but how does he view the movie?

CC: Dennis and I have a pretty respectful relationship with each other. When he first saw it he really liked the movie. He said, ” I love it. Don’t change a thing.” And now he sees that people have mixed feelings about what he’s doing. I just talked to him now, and he was enthusiastic about the screening last night, but he told someone he thought the movie villainized him somewhat, but he did tell me again that he liked it. I think he feels I was fair to him as a filmmaker.

The Yap: What is the reaction from the larger animal person community?

CC: In general, without exception, animals lovers and animal welfare people are thrilled there’s a film out there exposing what’s happening. Some of those people are not comfortable with how much air time Dennis has in the film, and they say there’s too much love in the room for him. The reason that happens in the film is because those people are supporting him, not because they care about what happens to the tigers, they’re supporting him. They feel like it distracts the issue of whether this is good for the cats. Ultimately I feel like it has a big message, but his story is really that of one man. And it’s been a little disappointing to me, because I feel like the more sophisticated animal activist gets that this is a powerful way to tell this story. By not just invading this guy, but letting the viewer decide is the more powerful way. Some animal welfare people fear that people will take the wrong message from the film.

The Yap: And I kind of disagree with those people. It’s almost like from a filmmaking perspective, you turn the movie on its head. You build this, then you slowly come to realize he’s not doing these things. It was when you show the news footage, and they show the tiger sloshing through ankle-deep water in the cage, and he kind of shrugged. And later the cage is falling apart. I don’t know that it villainizes him…

CC: Well, it exposes the reality. He says what he says, you hear what other people say, then you see the reality. You can pretty much figure it out yourself. It’s not too hard.

The Yap: I always say the problem with humanity in general is they don’t look at themselves when they do something wrong. They’re always concerned about what people are doing to them. This movie was a perfect illustration of how no matter how nice you are, if you’re doing something destructive, it’s going to cause harm.

CC: I think that’s great, and I wish you would write that. We don’t examine our own behaviors. I said in some other interview that I brought my son to the zoo and I see the single most miserable polar bear in the world, and I wonder what we’re doing. I give my money, and we see this miserable bear. And that’s the Bronx Zoo. That’s the best zoo, right? So I feel like he’s not alone in his blindness to the harm.

*Lead image by Diane Zander