Environmental causes have tended to be a tough sell to the public because our empathy extends more easily to stories to which human faces can be attached, but with 2019’s “The Wild,” documentarian Mark Titus succeeds in connecting the ecosystem he loves to the livelihoods and quality of life of an entire interconnected web of real-life people, himself included.
When Titus made “The Breach” in 2014, his tale of the decline of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest ended on a hopeful note of reprieve, as the Obama administration granted a “preemptive veto” on a Canadian mining company’s plans to extract a significant copper and gold deposit in the basin of Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the largest, healthiest red salmon run on Earth.
As we learn in “The Wild,” the aftermath of “The Breach” dealt Titus a series of blows, as the Trump administration removed the “preemptive veto” protecting the salmon from the development of the proposed mine, Titus’ grandmother passed away, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer, all of which sent him into a depression that he dealt with by plunging into alcoholism.
We catch up with Titus, 50 days sober, departing his home in Seattle to head on up to Bristol Bay, as he strives to find out what, if anything, he can do to fix this reversal to the wild salmon’s fortunes.
Titus’ initial findings are not hopeful. He’s granted interviews with the mining executives pressing for the development of the proposed “Pebble Mine,” who express both confidence regarding their prospects and polished reassurances clearly tailored to assuage any concerns the general public might have about the mine’s environmental implications.
Titus makes no bones about his documentary’s advocacy against the mine, but to his credit, he features extended interview segments with the mining executives, affording them the opportunity to respond to his concerns by saying their respective pieces, even as he presents highly constructed counter-arguments later on in the film.
More importantly, as personal as this crusade is for Titus, he recognizes that his is not the primary story, as he goes on to interview not only the Native Americans who have traditionally harvested the salmon, but also the commercial fishing industry workers, the sport fishing entrepreneurs and the professional chefs who all rely on Bristol Bay’s salmon to make a living.
Titus even explores what he admits might initially seem like a paradox: each of the representatives of those aforementioned groups professes their love for the wild salmon, yet all of them rely on killing those same fish. To hear the salmon fishers tell it, the key is the balance they’ve learned to strike with nature, so as to avoid over-harvesting their stock in trade, while still being able to sustain livable careers in their field.
Titus likens his quest to rescue the salmon to his ongoing struggles with alcoholism, and finds solace in the advice of artists and celebrities who have lent their creative energy and star power to supporting similar environmental causes. As Titus points out, starting with simple steps in pursuing goals, and connecting with others to build on each other’s efforts, helps avoid feeling overwhelmed, which he notes is vital for both constructive activism and staying sober.
If you’re looking for cheap reassurances that things will get better, you won’t find them in “The Wild,” but what you will find is a well-reasoned defense of wild salmon preservation, punctuated with humanizing personal accounts (among the more persuasive are two self-proclaimed Republicans who are visibly haunted by what they see as the lasting impact of the Pebble Mine) and rendered lovingly with lush, immersive cinematography of the salmon in the natural environment.
And with a post-credits tribute to Titus’ mother as a “cancer survivor,” it ends on at least a little bit of hope.
“The Wild” is streaming at The Rose Theatre at RoseTheatre.com.