sun 29/01/2023

Wildcat review - damaged war veteran reborn in the Peruvian jungle | reviews, news & interviews

Wildcat review - damaged war veteran reborn in the Peruvian jungle

Wildcat review - damaged war veteran reborn in the Peruvian jungle

How a man found salvation in the love of a good cat

Harry Turner communes with Keanu the ocelot

The bond between humans and animals sometimes passeth all understanding. Wildcat is the story of 20-something British Army veteran Harry Turner, American ecologist Samantha Zwicker, and a young ocelot called Keanu, who becomes an almost mythic talisman of Harry’s battle with post-traumatic stress and suicidal urges.

Harry’s experience with the army in Afghanistan, where he’d served as an 18-year-old, had left him shattered and burned out. He was medically discharged suffering from recurrent depression and PTSD, his brain clanging with terrible images of violence and death. He recalled seeing a young child killed, and feeling that “I had no right to be here.” He felt his life “wasn’t worth living”, and developed a self-harming habit.

Fast-forward to the Peruvian rain forest, where Harry has joined the Hoja Nueva conservation organisation, which aims to combat such pernicious threats to the environment as illegal logging, poaching and deforestation. With his backwards baseball cap, streetwise banter and all-over tattoos, Harry looks more like a pirate DJ or a vagabond snowboarder than a dedicated eco-warrior. But as we follow him trekking through the jungle, rescuing an assortment of bewildered animals and preparing to square off against logging gangs, his inner turmoil gradually reveals itself.

His relationship with Samantha isn’t the least unlikely aspect of the story, either. Hailing from Seattle, where she’d suffered personal traumas of her own, she was planning to study for a PhD in wolf ecology, but was evidently frustrated by politics and bureaucracy and headed for the vast and mysterious Amazon instead. Somehow her seriousness and practical know-how formed a kind of alchemy with Harry’s unstable intensity, and they seemed made for each other… temporarily.

Wildcat (directed and produced by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost) proves to be a tale of two ocelots. The first one was dubbed Khan, found by Harry as a scared and lonely kitten which he painstakingly taught to hunt and find prey. An ocelot is a bit like a miniature jaguar, with luscious spots-and-stripes colourings, and cat-lovers might well feel tempted to try to keep one as a pet. This would be unwise, however, since for all its youthful kittenishness, the ocelot is a carnivorous predator whose teeth and claws grow steadily more menacing as it reaches maturity, uttering a fascinating vocabulary of growls, squawks and purrs in the process.

Yet the bond between Harry and Khan seemed mutually strong, and when Khan fell foul of a poacher’s rifle rigged up to fire by remote control, a distraught Harry was adamant that he could never love another being like he loved Khan. The subsequent arrival of another orphaned ocelot felt almost like divine intervention, and as it rolled on its back with its paws in the air, Harry was falling in love all over again. They called this one Keanu.

Quite how Samantha (pictured above) felt about this isn’t spelled out, but as Harry’s mission to mentor Keanu to adulthood so he could fulfil his destiny as a prowling denizen of the rainforest developed, his relationship with Sam seemed to disintegrate accordingly. A zero-sum game, if you will. When Harry began trying to drive Keanu out of the camp and force him to make his own way, it was if his inner rage had begun to manifest itself almost as a totally separate character inhabiting the same body. Yet when Keanu returned after five days of wandering, Harry experienced a virtually religious bliss. "I feel I've done something good," he gasped, tearfully. "I love you with everything I've got," he told Keanu.

The saga has been faithfully preserved on hand-held video, its slightly loose and ragged quality lending Wildcat a plausible air of verité, though how some of the most fraught and hostile scenes between Harry and Sam came to be recorded seems miraculous. Obviously it's not Harry & Meghan-style fake-umentary, but you suspect there’s been more shaping and massaging than anybody’s letting on. It makes for gripping and absorbing viewing all the same, and it’s impossible not to get dragged across the emotional reefs along with the protagonists.

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