Tribeca 2021 Interview: Elizabeth Unger on Following the Long Tail of Poaching in “Tigre Gente”

Elizabeth Unger was about as deep into filming “Tigre Gente” as she was in the river that runs through Madidi National Park in Bolivia when she was out on a usual patrol with the park’s Chief Protection Officer Marcos Uzquiano on a small pontoon boat when a group of poachers could be seen from afar in another boat.

“It just happened to be at the right place at the right time, spending a lot of boring days down in the Amazon waiting for something to happen,” recalls Unger, who was alone with her camera on the boat with Uzquiano as he gave chase to the trespassers. “I think the last time they had a chase like that was maybe a year before, and I just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, which is very hard to do on those very small [boats] with the rangers trying to go around you as you’re shooting, but you saw how it went in the film. Their boat did not have the capacity to chase after these poachers in the park, which makes you realize these rangers are underfunded, they need better resources to do their jobs and that’s part of the reason we’re doing this film is to help people in the movie actually make a difference.”

Although the men got away that day, Unger could take comfort in what she had captured for her debut documentary, an often harrowing look into the illicit trade supply chain between Bolivia and China for jaguar teeth, prized in both South America and Asia when believed in the latter to have health benefits while in the former it comes from a sacred animal in the region. The poaching of jaguars hasn’t only threatened extinction for the creatures but thrown Bolivia’s natural ecosystem out of whack, with Unger finding Uzquiano doing his damnedest to weed out any potential hunters, with locals claiming they kill them in self-defense though a bit of digging uncovers sophisticated backchannels where they can get their ill-gotten goods across the Pacific for what may seem like a fortune for them until you see the price they actually fetch on the ground. On the other side of the world, the film follows Laurel Chor, a journalist who sifts through night markets and jewelry stores in Guangzhou and Hong Kong to try and connect the dots from where she stands, an investigation that involves some soul searching when as adamant as she is against poaching she can come to respect the time-honored cultural traditions that have fostered demand as she talks to family and friends.

Although it has one, “Tigre Gente” doesn’t need a speedboat chase to grab your attention, pulling the curtain back on a black market with extraordinary tentacles which Unger explores the far-reaching effects of in full. With the film’s premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, and available online anywhere in the U.S. for its duration through June 23rd, the director spoke about how she was able to get her arms around a story unfolding on a global scale, being conscious of cultural sensitivities and making her first feature.

How did this come about?

I was actually in grad school at NYU and I was more into photojournalism and writing, but for whatever reason I just had this really strong feeling that I should do a documentary about wildlife conservation. I had volunteered years at a wildlife refuge in Bolivia when I was studying undergrad and I really felt passionate and really personally affected by these victims of legal wildlife trade, like jaguars and other big cats, so I wanted to do a documentary about that world. I didn’t quite know [what] but we did some research and development and we found this story about jaguar trafficking for the Chinese black market that was taking place in Bolivia. After we started getting funding, it just snowballed and a film that I thought was going to take six months ended up taking six years and I ended up dropping out of grad school to do the film.

Was going to both Bolivia and China always a part of this?

Yeah, these are two investigations happening on two sides of the world and on the Bolivia side with Marcos, we weren’t sure what he was going to find. Once I found out about jaguar trafficking taking place in Bolivia, because I had contacts there, they told me, “Hey, this is circulating around the domestic news networks here” but from my background in wildlife conservation, I knew that nobody else in the conservation world was really talking about this. I heard what was happening in Africa, but I had never heard of jaguar parts being trafficked for the Chinese black market, and I asked my contacts in Bolivia, “Hey, who is concentrating on this?” I was pointed to Marcos Uzquiano, the Chief Protection Officer of Madidi at the time and he agreed to let us film him when he learned that we really wanted show people what it was like for the rangers out there to do their jobs and protect the wildlife that was in the park, particularly jaguars, and we followed him for three years

With Laurel, she was doing an investigation of her own in Asia and I actually know her because we’re both National Geographic Explorers, so I know her from that community and I knew that I wanted not just a story that took place in South America, but I really desperately wanted to see a young female protagonist that was chasing after this issue as well. So I approached her and we really just had to figure out who was connecting with who, where should we go, how far in should we go, and are we interfering as a film team with their investigation. It was very complicated and took a lot of coordination. Really only in the edit, did is start to materialize in what you saw, so it was a complicated, very intense, but very high-reward [few] years.

With Joanna Natasegara involved, I was reminded of “Virunga,” which she produced and had this thriller element to it that really makes the subject compelling to an audience that might not typically be interested in wildlife conservation. Was that tone actually in mind from the start?

That’s so funny, because I saw [“Virunga”] in 2015 and there were no films out there like that, not even close, and I [thought] this is a type of film where I want to do something in my own way, but I really want to pay tribute in a way to what they did because they really laid the groundwork for a film like mine — imagine a documentary that could be a wildlife crime thriller, but it could still be really emotional and passionate. Even though I started this film back in 2015, it wasn’t for a few years [I could make it] and then deep into filming, [Joanna] eventually came onboard later on when we were in post-production and then she really helped with her experience and the experience of her other executive producers who are from the regions where this film was based, we were really able to [get it to a place] we all felt good about. I will say I was kind of fangirling [about] the Virunga team from far away years ago, and now they’re working with me and we’re making something that has its own identity.

It’s interesting you mention executive producers from the regions where the film unfolds because I imagine this must involve great cultural sensitivities, particularly in this time where anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise. Was it difficult to respect certain traditions while being critical of their impact on the environment?

Yeah, that’s something I’ve had to grapple with for years and that I wanted to make sure that as a caucasian filmmaker from America that I was representing the communities in these films properly, so we brought on people that had lived in these countries before. We have an amazing former CNN En Espanol journalist named Magdalena Cabral, who’s on our team who did a full analysis and sweep, and we have Laurel as an executive producer on the film and she was giving great insight to us throughout our process as well. Another EP on our film [Violet Feng] is a lauded Chinese filmmaker who’s been doing tons on documentaries for Sundance and with Joanna included, this team together has diverse experience to work [from] and really have amazing feedback for our team to do this properly.

We [also] just wanted to show the why behind everything, not the who and the how. Marcos was [already] doing that on his side, but with Laurel, it was really important to showcase to an audience why this was happening in the first place because most wildlife crime thrillers, they don’t do that and we really wanted to show a western audience, whether in North America or Latin America [the cultural reasons] behind the demand, which often gets forgotten in so many of these types of films. I learned more about that personally and I didn’t know we were going to be hyper-focusing on [Laurel’s personal] journey so much, just her friends and family that she speaks to, but the film is so much better for it.

What’s it like getting to the finish line?

It’s really crazy. I like to tell people, it’s like a Ph.D dissertation where I started when I was 25 and I’m 31 now, and it’s the biggest accomplishment of my life for sure and a massive team effort, but it’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears. So to have this come out in the world, it’s my first film and everything is my first time — an interview with you and everything from production to post to the delivery [of the film], it’s all brand new for me. It’s been a very interesting experience, learning all of that over the last six years and it’s the most challenging [experience] I’ve ever had, but I really like creative, challenging projects that push me further than I ever thought I could go. I hope to continue these projects that are really grand scale and emotionally hard-hitting, something that an audience can really connect with. With the world this way, some people put [their feelings] on social media or they write articles, and I feel like I put it in my work and that’s what you saw in this film.

“Tigre Gente” is available to stream online through the Tribeca Film Festival until June 23rd.