M, 92 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
A quest for a rare and beautiful creature in one of the most remote locations on earth has more than a bit going for it. It’s a journey few of us would undertake. For the tough living conditions, for the dangers, known and unknown, and because at the end of the day you would need to have something to show the sponsors who financed your trip. We like the idea but might just leave its implementation to the experts.
The quest to find the elusive snow leopard that features in this magnificent wildlife documentary was undertaken by two Frenchmen, both eminent in their fields. Vincent Munier, a BBC wildlife photographer of the year three years in a row, and Sylvain Tesson, a well-travelled, award-winning author. Both of them have much to bring to their documentary, which they shot in leopard habitat in the mountains of Tibet.
The Velvet Queen has been directed by Munier and Marie Amiguet, while the screenplay is the result of their collaboration with Tesson.
The original music score, composed by Warren Ellis and featuring Nick Cave, is the perfect, immersive companion to Munier’s stunning cinematography
The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are between 4,000 and 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. The tiger exists in similarly small numbers. Snow leopard territory extends across the remote mountainous regions of Central Asia, a vast inhospitable terrain that is shared with yaks, bears, antelope, falcons, foxes, wild sheep and other creatures adapted to the conditions. Tibet is one of the 12 countries of the region where this wild cat roams.
The high angle shot that opens the film might be a taste of what is to come. As a pack of white wolves close in on a herd of yaks, the larger beasts try to head them off. Viewed from above, the life-and-death struggle is just a page from nature’s story of survival. Generally speaking, however, there is much less of the hype and urgency that often features on the dramatic doco features on TV’s Animal Planet.
This wildlife doco captures the silence, the stillness and the harmony of life in the timeless mountain wilderness. The figures of Munier and Tesson appear from time to time, tiny and irrelevant intrusions within this vast, exquisite canvas.
How to merge into the landscape was an abiding challenge. Much of the time, the men have to remain still and camouflaged in the landscape as they await the perfect moment. One imagines it is so much more difficult to hide and remain undetected in a location when the slightest sound, like opening a zipper in a backpack to retrieve a more suitable lens, travels huge distances across the emptiness.
How they did it for days and weeks on end is a mystery, though Tesson, who used a pair of hiking sticks as he walked, suggested their maxim went something like this:
Scorn pain, ignore time and never doubt what you set out to do
While capturing a leopard within the frame was the holy grail, there were other unusual species around to celebrate as well. The Eurasian lynx makes a brief appearance, and a sleek wild ass. And there are many moments of breathtaking splendour in the landscape itself. To this extent, The Velvet Queen is the journey rather than the destination.
There are a few droll cutaways to the men’s Tibetan companions at base camp, who mischievously play up the danger of wolves and bears but it’s for the benefit of cinema audiences wanting thrills. Yet, when Munier and Tesson do encounter a group of curious bears, and ask each other whether they should stay or get the hell out, it’s an amusing, self-deprecating moment. Munier and Tesson had different ideas about risk, but as far as we can tell, the main dangers lay in the terrain and altitude.
As the voiceover notes, when a creature obsesses you, the whole world takes its form. Tesson’s writing is occasionally over the top, but it’s no spoiler to say that the eventual encounter with a snow leopard is an extraordinary moment. A long tail arches above the spine of a rocky outcrop, a silhouette against an evening sky. There was never any guarantee the fabled creature would be found, but when it is, it’s exquisite.