2023 Atlanta Film Festival Festival Coverage Reviews

Path of the Panther (documentary) ★★★

In the 1970s, the Florida panther was on the brink of extinction. There were as low as 20 Florida panthers living in the wild, with many dying due to being hit by cars. Since then, a decades-long conservation effort has increased their population to be in the 200s. Path of the Panther details the research and processes that have enabled this modest recovery to occur as well as educates on topics such as wildlife photography and political advocacy.

MV5BMGQ4MGQ3ZjAtNDUzYy00MDgxLWEzZDMtODE3MjE5YzU0MTRlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjE4ODA3NTY@._V1_Path of the Panther notes that one significant challenge that the Florida panther faces is loss of habitat. Today, the Florida panther inhabits only 5% of its historical range, most living within the Southern Everglades. If scientists can document a female Florida panther traversing into the Northern Everglades (for the first time in 40 years, I might add), then they will be able to prove that there is an opportunity to preserve the Florida panther species. 

It is then photographer Carlton Ward Jr.’s mission to capture photographs and videos of the Florida panther making her journey northwards. We see Ward set up cameras along animal-made trails where wildlife frequently migrates. His cameras are encased in a durable case which protects the camera, but there is only so much protection he can do against bears, hurricanes, and rising waters. We see frustration when Ward comes to collect his cameras and they are destroyed before capturing any meaningful footage. Nonetheless, Ward is persistent and his cameras are finally able to capture a female Florida panther making the crossing from south to north. What is left to document is the presence of a male Florida panther within the same region as well as cubs accompanying the mother, a process that will continue into the following months and years to observe.

Ward’s wildlife photography is central to Path of the Panther and enables us to observe the Everglades almost as if we were there ourselves. A single strategically-placed camera captures pigs, bear, deer, turkey, raccoon, alligator, and rabbit, illustrating the vastness of life within the Everglades and the significance of conservation efforts. Not only the Florida panther, but the whole ecosystem must be preserved. When a major highway system is proposed running through the Everglades from north to south, Ward and his team are horrified – new highways would destroy any hope of the Florida panther being able to cross its wildlife corridor. The scientists as well as local farmers are thrust into political advocacy in order to protect the Florida panthers, their farmland, and the Everglades.

With beautiful photography and videos of Florida panthers, Path of the Panther conveys its reverence for the signature Florida species. In addition to tracking the female Florida panther through the Northern Everglades, the documentary also observes the recovery of a Florida panther with three broken legs after being hit multiple times by cars. He is named Tres by the scientists and veterinarians. In close proximity, there’s a compelling argument to say that we can see gentleness and understanding in Tres’s eyes as he is healed to full health, a miracle in itself. When released back into the wild, Tres sprints out of his enclosure and into the forest with such vigor that it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion. Tres’s recovery and the capturing of footage of the female Florida panther with cubs in the north is euphoric to these scientists, and Path of the Panther ensures that we can share their satisfaction as part of our viewing experience.

Released today in challenging times, Path of the Panther is testimony that ordinary people can make a tangible difference, and that validation can still be found in one’s career. The scientists’ conservation effort is a herculean effort, and it is clear that the success in increasing the Florida panther population is due to their passion and dedication to preserving the species. Path of the Panther reveals that the proposed highways would not be built due to public opposition though, like many documentaries, the film iterates that continued effort and diligence will be needed to ensure the Florida panther’s survival in coming decades. In a sense, Carlton Ward Jr’s work has just begun, but he is no doubt ready for the battles to come.

Originally a music critic, Alex began his work with film criticism after watching the films of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman for the first time. From these films, Alex realized that there was much more artistry and depth to filmmaking than he had previously thought. His favorite contemporary directors include Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Terrence Malick.

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