Outside magazine, June 1996
When 50 filmmakers settled into missoula, Montana, last March for the 19th annual International Wildlife Film Festival, the hot topic was not animals, technical matters, or money. Rather, it was Marty Stouffer, a 47-year-old producer and director from Aspen, Colorado, who'd recently lost a $300,000 judgment in a civil suit brought by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. (To gain easier access to an elk migration path, Stouffer illegally gouged a trail through protected land belonging to the Center.) Besides denting Stouffer's pocketbook, the charges prompted a general trashing of his style, including allegations that he has staged scenes and mistreated animals while producing his films. Stouffer dismissed the criticism as "character assassination" before he stopped giving interviews, but it could cause him serious problems in the future.
Soon after the courtroom setback, the Public Broadcasting Service, which for 13 seasons has broadcast Stouffer's Wild America series, began its own review of his techniques. In December, PBS will decide whether to renew its distribution contract with Stouffer for 1997. "At this point," says a network spokesman, "it's unclear whether the program will continue on PBS."
For its part, the IWFF jumped into the fray with a workshop on "the Marty Stouffer affair," an afternoon roundelay that among other things touched on the accusations that Stouffer has faked scenes and harmed animals. In a sequence showing a deer under attack by mountain lions, for example, Stouffer allegedly set two tame cats loose on a tame mule deer, a bit of stagecraft that resulted in the deer being chased off a cliff.
Discussion also focused on what many consider the controversy's broader significance: The growing schism between wildlife filmmakers who answer to the public's desire for racier, bloodier entertainments and those who place naturalism before commercialism. "It's a choice you have to make early on: Do I fake stuff or not?" says Ray Paunovich, a filmmaker who has produced work for the PBS television series Nova. "I choose not to, but you can see how those decisions get harder when Stouffer is making millions and there are months when I can't pay my electric bill."
Wild America has earned Stouffer an estimated $18 million during its run, a figure that will increase with the release later this year of the Warner film Wild America: The Movie. Stouffer also profits from the sale of videos, including sensational offerings such as his successful Dangerous Encounters documentary.
To some, the moralizing over Stouffer is overblown. "This is really a controversy over labeling," suggests Paunovich. "If Stouffer acknowledged in his films that some manipulation was occurring, I don't think there would be an outcry."
Charles Jonkel, a biologist and filmmaker who founded the IWFF, takes a harder line, especially since the rap on Stouffer involves alleged animal abuse. "When people watch his films, they're being misled," he says. "We'll lose the confidence of all viewers if things like this continue."