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East meets West in the delightful film ‘Pandas’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
East meets West in the delightful film ‘Pandas’
Photo: Drew Fellman The new film, “PANDAS,” an IMAX Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures release, is showing in Boston-area theaters.

The new IMAX film “Pandas,” is a connection between people, cultures and animals, says narrator Kristen Bell (“Frozen,” NBC’s “The Good Place”). Directed by David Douglas and Drew Fellman, the filmmakers behind the documentaries “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” (2014) and “Born to Be Wild” (2011) and captured with IMAX cameras, “Pandas” is a beautifully shot and visually stunning film that’s at once entertaining and educational.

The film tells the story of Qian Qian (pronounced “Chen Chen”), a cuddly and intelligent panda born in captivity at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Panda Base) in China. Selected to be released into the wild through a cross-cultural collaboration between American and Chinese scientists, Qian Qian embarks on an exciting new adventure as she experiences nature for the first time in the mountains of Sichuan and discovers the freedom — and perils — of being out in the wild.

Dr. Jake Owens, Ph.D. (wildlife conservation biologist) and a giant panda at Panda Valley in Dujiangyan, China as seen in the new film, “PANDAS,” an IMAX Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Dr. Jake Owens, Ph.D. (wildlife conservation biologist) and a giant panda at Panda Valley in Dujiangyan, China as seen in the new film, “PANDAS,” an IMAX Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Drew Fellman

Fellman, a lover of animals and wildlife since childhood, has been drawn to making films highlighting efforts by scientists to save endangered species and animals around the globe. Both he and Douglas, “feel really passionately that they need to make more room for wildlife in this world,” Fellman says, speaking recently while in Boston promoting the film. “The biodiversity of earth, the richness of life, is the most incredible thing. I think it’s no exaggeration to say it’s really at a breaking point. It certainly feels like it, where a lot of very key species all over the planet are on the verge.”

Revered in China and beloved around the world, the giant panda, or simply panda as it’s commonly known, is one of the world’s most endangered species of living bears. It is one of a few in the world whose natural habitat was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. To date, there are 300 pandas in captivity in facilities around the globe and there are only about 2,000 pandas in the wild.

At the Chengdu Panda Base, whose goal is to reintroduce pandas to the wild to increase the panda population, the work is led by Director of Research Hou Rong. Affectionately known as “Panda Mom,” she has dedicated her life to saving pandas from extinction.

Rong’s work with the innovative program led her to Ben Kilham, Ph.D., an author and licensed wildlife rehabilitator. A well-known black bear rehabilitator in Lyme, New Hampshire, Kilham has been raising orphaned black bear cubs and later releasing them back into the forest for the past 20 years.

Kilham, who also was in Boston to talk about the film, says, “I grew up with wild animals before I was born.” His father, Lawrence, was a virologist at Dartmouth Medical School, and when Ben was just two years old, his father went to Africa on a sabbatical and brought back a half-grown leopard into the house. From that experience he learned very quickly, he says, “that you can have a relationship with animals.”

Kilham and his sister Phoebe, who were granted two special licenses by New Hampshire, have been rehabilitating orphaned black bears since 1992, as well as conducting research on black bear behavior. They’ve successfully reintegrated and returned more than 160 bear cubs to the wild. One of the most successful cases involves the black bear Squirty, who is seen in the film. Kilham began raising Squirty when she was just a three-pound, seven-week-old cub. Today, the 22-year-old bear has had 11 sets of cubs in the wild.

If you go
“Pandas” is playing now at Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Jordan’s Sunbrella IMAX Theatre in Reading.

Kilham’s method is based on providing an opportunity for the bears to explore and on building trust. To this day, Squirty still comes to greet him when he visits her in the forest in New Hampshire. 

After observing his methodology, Rong applies it to the program at Chengdu Panda Base. Joining her is American conservation biologist Jake Owens and Bi Wen Lei, a young assistant researcher from Inner Mongolia. These three make up Qian Qian’s core team and will help lead the panda to life in the wild.

In 40 minutes, the film takes viewers on an incredible journey with Qian Qian, and Owens shows how their unique relationship is forged on trust and respect. The IMAX format helps to make their journey more real and more alive. It’s as if the viewer can step right into their world, which is one of the reasons director and producer Fellman uses IMAX to tell his stories. “I love the grand canvas and I love the way that the format is visual storytelling,” he says. “You really can’t use too many words because if you use too many words it’s ‘in one ear and out the other,’ and it works against the picture and it kind of ruins the whole experience.”

Releasing just in advance of the annual Earth Day, “Pandas” is a timely reminder that we are all stewards of the planet and that our futures are intricately tied to one another.

The documentary presents two really good educational opportunities, says Owens. “One is a way to tell people what we’re doing, why we’re doing it — and it’s through this story of Qian Qian, one panda, from the very beginning, and then you can see Ben [Kilham]’s side of it, where this could go, where we foresee going,” he says. “And the other side of it is that we need young people to get into conservation.”

Kilham hopes that the film’s audiences will see and take notice of “the fact that two cultures can get along, and two types of bears can help each other. If you read the headlines of the newspaper, the two cultures aren’t getting along very well, but you watch the film and you realize that on a much lower level that it can work out very well.”

IMAX, Jordan's Furniture, Kristen Bell, New England Aquarium, pandas