Longtime activist brings film to W.Va. festival

November 06, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The tale of the Lord God bird is a bitter-sweet one.

Thought to be extinct for decades, the Lord God bird - formally known as the ivory-billed woodpecker - was tentatively detected in Arkansas in 2004 and 2005.

It is a good news-bad news scenario for conservationists.

On one hand, the tantalizing possibility that a species considered extinct might be found alive shows that conservation efforts can pay off. But filmmaker, writer and photographer George Butler wanted to show the deeper, sadder reality of the bird's discovery: How did the woodpecker end up in this situation in the first place?

Butler will discuss his recent film, "The Lord God Bird," during the American Conservation Film Festival on Saturday at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown. His film will be shown several times over the course of the festival, which opens tonight and continues through Sunday, Nov. 9.


In the past, film festival organizers have said they choose films that focused on people's relationships with nature in an effort to encourage viewers to re-examine how they interact with the environment.

Conservation have been a consistent theme in Butler's career. But often, Butler's conservation films take up perspectives audiences don't expect.

In 1990, his controversial film "In the Blood" suggested that hunting was an important part of game conservation, noting that the African countries with the best hunting programs had the most game - a sentiment that was not well-received by animal rights groups, Butler said.

Lately, his films have examined the nature of extinction. Research for an upcoming film about Bengal tigers, another animal on the brink of extinction, has taken him to the Sunderbans delta, at the mouth of the Ganges River in India. He's also working on, "Gorilla," about Africa's lowland gorillas - also in danger of extinction.

War is another important issue for Butler. He's working on a film about Iraqi was veterans returning to the U.S. with brain injuries caused by road-side bombs.

Butler was involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War.

In 1971 Butler and David Thorne co-edited "The New Soldier," a book about the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Vietnam War veteran John Kerry (later a U.S. senator and presidential candidate) wrote a section for the book.

In 2004, Butler premiered "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," a documentary about Kerry, chronicling his experiences in the Vietnam War and in the peace movement.

Excerpts from The Herald-Mail's interview with filmmaker George Butler

What was it like working with John Kerry?

I projected back in the '60s that he would be president one day and he almost did. If he had used the movie more last election, it could have made him win the presidency. It was the perfect retort to Swift Boat. ... I think someone like T. Boone Pickens is being highly irresponsible. John did what he (Kerry) said he did. T. Boone Pickens doesn't know about it. He went along way to ruin a career of an American hero.

Given your involvement in the peace movement during the Vietnam War, what are your thoughts on the current state of world affairs and America's "War on Terror"?

Well, I think we invaded Iraq under false pretenses. Senators and Congress were told there were weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and we've spent billions of dollars on a war that's going to end up like Vietnam. It's going to be hell on wheels trying to get out of there without causing more trouble. I think America is at the weakest time.

Why is conservation such an important issue for you?

Because I love the outdoors. ... I hate the reason I made the film about the ivory-billed woodpecker ... It would be one of the greatest moments in conservation if the bird were definitively found.

It's good news that there have been recent discoveries of the Lord God Bird, but then the context has some other implications - like the role society plays in causing animals to be extinct. Do you consider the story of this bird to be a happy or a sad story?

It's pre-eminently a sad story. If the bird were definitively found, it would probably be the last bird of its kind. ... What will follow the ivory bill? It's a great shame that my grandchildren might not get to see these wonderful creatures.

What was the reaction to "In the Blood"? It seems to go against what most people think of as conservation.

It came out in the 1990s, at the height of the animal rights movement, so it was not a popular film. In 1974, Kenya shut down hunting and lost its elephant population. ... Hunters play a terribly important role in conservation over the years.

Do you think films can make a difference on a broad scale?

I think these fairly low-budget films can have a very profound effect. Low-budget documentaries can be so powerful.

If you go ...

WHAT: "Conservation in Context," a conversation with filmmaker George Butler. Part of the American Conservation Film Festival

WHEN: 3:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8

WHERE: National Conservation Training Center, 698 Conservation Way, Shepherdstown, W.Va., Byrd Auditorium

COST: Free

MORE: Go to for more information.

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