Feb 7, 2022
The Tibetan Plateau: a cold, barren landscape full of bizarre and beautiful creatures so foreign it might as well be another planet. Wild, hairy yaks are relics from the age of megafauna. Spindly kiangs, also known as the Tibetan wild ass, are one of the only animals still roaming the plateau. But among them all, there is one animal that dominates the landscape: the snow leopard.
This past week, the Roxy Theater showed the new documentary “The Velvet Queen” ahead of the International Wildlife Film Festival, set to roll into Missoula at the end of April. The documentary, directed and shot by French filmmaker Marie Amiguet, tells an intimate story of a wildlife photographer and an adventure novelist on a quest to find the ghostlike cat of the Himalayan Mountains.
For many viewers, the interest stops there. Not only is this film a nature documentary (and not the cutesy kind narrated by Jim from “The Office”), but it’s also a foriegn language film. It’s slow. It’s somber. You wait with the team for what feels like months for the slightest trace of the elusive cat. It’s painstaking.
And it’s beautiful.
Every shot is a work of art, which is only appropriate for one of the last truly wild places on Earth. There is not an inch of landscape or the tiniest bird that won’t make your eyes widen with pure wonder. This is captured flawlessly on camera by Amiguet, who we can only hope will continue working on projects like this for the rest of time.
Rare is the day you watch a documentary about snow leopards and genuinely think you may not see one by the end credits. “The Velvet Queen” does this. It pulls you so deep into the narrative that the question of whether the titular character will make an appearance weighs heavily on your mind.
Luckily, there are friends to keep us occupied along the way.
The Tibetan fox is a recurring character, whose odd-shaped head distinguishes him from his American relatives. The fox’s antics are a great distraction from the missing cat.
The Himalayan brown bear and her cubs are scene stealers when they arrive in the back half of the doc. Fuzzier and somehow cuter than our University’s namesake, the bears enjoying the sunshine and unwittingly making an entire herd of wild goats run for their lives is nothing short of delightful.
Sure “The Velvet Queen” can be alienating for some, but that’s the point. This world is borderline alien. You aren’t supposed to feel comfortable. Rarely does comfort come with discovering something new.
A recurring theme of the documentary is the encroaching territory of man on the world’s wild places. There are less than 4,000 snow leopards left in the world, a number that is rapidly declining due to poaching and climate change.
So go! Go watch the snow leopard documentary! Better yet, buy a ticket to Tibet and find one yourself. Book the Serengeti safari and see a black rhino before they’re gone. Get on a boat and feel the mist of the fluke of a humpback whale while there are still some left in the ocean.
Because someday, when you watch “The Velvet Queen,” you won’t be thinking “Wow, what a beautiful animal,” you’ll be thinking “I can’t believe they’re gone.”