When he graduated from Portland’s Lewis & Clark College with a degree in biology, Warren Pereira didn’t anticipate ending up as a filmmaker. He also didn’t expect that his return to the country of his birth, India, would provide the inspiration for his feature documentary debut, the compelling and morally complex tale of Tiger 24.
And yet, when he describes his unlikely path, it all seems to make sense.
“When I graduated, I took an internship at a lab where I calibrated anesthetic machines in Philadelphia, which was really boring. Then I took some acting classes but when I went on auditions, I hated it because I wasn’t in control. I was living in the Pearl, so I walked across the street to the Art Institute and ended up getting a film degree. I started making short films in my neighborhood.”
Efforts to break into the industry in Los Angeles were fruitless. So Pereira pursued another path. “I’m from India originally, so I thought, why don’t I try to do a tiger documentary. I went into tiger reserves with a little handheld camera, and thought I’d just capture some animal behavior, add some narration, and be done.”
But then, in May 2012, he came across one especially magnificent specimen that stared directly into his camera lens and ended up changing his life. “I asked around about this tiger, and the locals told me, ‘Oh, that’s T-24. We think he’s killed a few people. I wouldn’t follow him.’” Although most tiger documentaries focus on females, Pereira decided he would start filming T-24 once or twice a year and see what emerged. (Tigers in India’s reserves are identified by number, although they often acquire nicknames. T-24, for instance, is known as Ustad.)
Three years later, Pereira received word that T-24 had killed again, for at least the fourth time, and that he had been officially been declared a “man-eater,” which meant he was due to be either killed or captured and placed in confinement. When Pereira arrived back in India, T-24 had become a folk hero. Billboards drew attention to his plight, protests railed against his treatment, and a legal case regarding his fate made it all the way to the Supreme Court of India.
In fact, T-24’s story feels at times like a true-crime saga. Was it a case of mistaken identity? (Initial reports about the fourth killing indicated that T-24’s son, T-72, was the perpetrator.) Or self-defense? (All four killings occurred in areas of the preserve that are supposed to be unlawful for humans to enter.) And was T-24 accorded due process, or was his case rushed through in order to forestall more bad publicity?
Examining the legal issues in T-24’s case, Pereira says, serves as “a compelling way to call into question the rules and guidelines that are used to determine whether a tiger is a man-eater.” The federal guidelines, issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, require definitive proof of a tiger’s homicidal behavior. The state, forced to deal with the reality of the situation, can’t afford to be quite so hesitant to remove legitimately dangerous animals. (One assumes this film will find its way into the curriculum at Lewis & Clark Law School’s vaunted Animal Law program.)
While activists for T-24 want to follow the federal government’s more stringent procedures, Pereira notes that documenting a male tiger in the act of killing is incredibly difficult and rare. “I didn’t see T-24 kill anything. Males hardly ever make the kill. Mostly they steal their kills from other animals.”
Eventually, T-24 was tranquilized and transported to a zoo enclosure, and the film follows another male tiger, T-57, as he takes advantage of T-24’s absence to move in on T-24’s mate, known as Noor. Pereira captures an almost uncanny sense of grief and resignation on the part of the tigress, and I asked him if he worried about falling into the nature-doc trap of overly anthropomorphizing his subjects.
“It’s somewhat human, but it’s also typical tiger behavior,” he replied. “T-57 was around when T-24 was still in the reserve. He was just shit scared of him. He always wanted to come in and seek out the females there. But did I push it? I consulted with the local tiger experts and they said that made sense.”
An especially poignant detail is that, because tigers mark their territory with urine and pheromones, both T-24’s mate and his rival anticipated his return until the first big rain after his removal, when his scent washed away and all bets were off.
Even shorn of its subtexts, Tiger 24 contains intimate, unguarded footage of large predators that would make David Attenborough green with envy. It’s especially impressive from a self-funded, relatively novice filmmaker. “Ideally, I like to be about fifty feet away from them, which allows me to frame and reframe very easily [as the tigers move around].” But Pereira’s limited budget meant that he didn’t have the long lenses that, say, the BBC has access to. “So, when you see my close-ups, I’m close, like within ten or fifteen feet. And as a result, photographically, you see the dimensionality more.”
Perhaps the most intimate and vulnerable moment Pereira captured is an early scene in which T-24’s son exhibits the barest hint of a challenge to his father by wandering a bit too close to the sleeping patriarch. Confronted, the son rolls in the dirt, exposing his belly and urinating wildly. “He literally pissed his pants,” says Pereira. “That was so lucky. We got that on the second scheduled shoot, December 2013, on Day One. And the lighting was beautiful!”
Pereira is quick to dole out praise to the members of his crew, including the often-neglected role of the colorist. “With all the different cameras, we needed to be able to make it match, and I had Luke Cahill, who to me is the best documentary colorist in the world. I actually couldn’t afford him, but he gave me a break.”
Tiger 24 doesn’t yet have distribution in India, where it would presumably have a wide audience. Pereira has signed on with an American distributor, Elevation Films, but they have left the theatrical release in the director’s hands. For now, that release is coming courtesy of Living Room Theaters, which is owned by a pair of independent filmmakers who have been tracking the project for years. The film has played on their screens in Indianapolis and Boca Raton, and now comes to Portland. The hope is that once these dates are successful, a wider release will be in the offing.
The real message of Tiger 24 is that large, endangered predators like tigers need much more room to roam within designated preserves. “And if we don’t give them that space,” says Pereira, “they will go extinct. Future generations will not be able to see these incredible animals. From a climate change standpoint, if you preserve these animals, you need to preserve this habitat. Which will lead to a better quality of life not only for the animals, but for humanity as well.”
Pereira will be in Portland and present for Q&A sessions following the 6:45 p.m. screenings Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 24-26. Sharan Glaeser from the Oregon Zoo will join him on Friday and Sunday. Carole Baskin, CEO of the Florida nonprofit animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue and seen in the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, will do a Q&A at 3 p.m. Sunday via Skype.
(Tiger 24 opens at the Living Room Theaters on Friday, June 24.)