A bear is killed at school, a student documentary film ensues

April 17th, 2023
By Joshua Murdock

This article was originally published in The Missoulian.

ALBERTON – Not many seventh-graders produce a documentary film that screens at an international film festival. But not many seventh-graders watch as a police officer shoots and kills a black bear just outside their schoolyard fence, either.

It was that wild moment last fall that motivated students at the Alberton School to learn about how and why bears come into conflict with humans around the small town 30 minutes west of Missoula – and what could be done about it. The story of bear conflict in Alberton, and recent efforts by concerned residents to secure bear attractants, are chronicled in “Fatal Attractants,” a roughly 15-minute documentary planned, filmed and edited by five seventh-graders and one eighth-grader in the school’s project-based learning class. The film earned support from the International Wildlife Film Festival, Montana Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts.

“Fatal Attractants” recounts some notable incidents in the long history of bear conflict in Alberton, including a pillaging of Brovold Community Orchard last summer. That event, along with the bear at the school, spurred concerned residents to form a group to address bear conflict. The documentary also traces events that transpired as the students were working on the film over the winter, including the Alberton Town Council’s decision in March to support developing a Bear Smart program. The film includes interviews the students conducted and filmed themselves, provided footage of bears in the area, and footage of the students performing a necropsy on the yearling bear that was killed at the school.

After a screening for students on Monday, “Fatal Attractants” will have two public screenings at the Alberton School during an exhibition on Wednesday, April 19. Those screenings are free and scheduled for 5 and 5:30 p.m. Wednesday’s exhibition also features a children’s book about the bear at the school created by Angela Hood, one of the seventh-graders who made the film. (At 6:15 p.m., first- and second-graders perform “The Jungle Book.”)

Then, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 23, “Fatal Attractants” hits the big screen at The Roxy theater in Missoula as an official selection of the 2023 International Wildlife Film Festival. It will screen alongside “The Giant Bears of Alaska” documentary. The student filmmakers will hold a Q&A session after. Tickets are $9. The festival’s website notes that “Fatal Attractants” is a kids’ movie. But although it was produced primarily by middle schoolers – they edited the final cut Wednesday and finished the film poster Thursday – the documentary tells a robust story worthy of viewing by all ages.

Nick Ehlers, the director of project-based learning at Alberton School, said that after the school was locked down and the bear was shot, “The whole community – there was a bit of an uproar of, ‘Why did this have to happen?'” His students, like other people in the community, wondered what had gone on before the bear met its demise at the school, and why bear conflict seemed to be surging. And, they wondered, is there anything they could do about it?

“We didn’t want more bears getting killed,” said Stormy Adams, a seventh-grader who worked on the film. “We wanted people to know how to keep bears away, try to bear-proof your trashcan, keep your stuff put away so those bears won’t come back.”

Adams and Hood were part of a team that included seventh-graders Elijah Porras, Avarie Reed-Nehf and Michael Powell, and eighth-grader Dawson DeVoe. Originally, Adams and Reed-Nehf said, the group set out to produce a much smaller video: “We were going to do a small PSA, maybe a 30-second PSA. And Nick was like, ‘This is a really good idea, we should turn this into a documentary.’ And we kept working on it, getting more footage, getting more interviews, and it became a documentary.”

Ken Grinde, a video producer who works with The Roxy and as the film festival’s media educator, remembered Reed-Nehf as the first to realize they were on to something bigger, just as the group concluded their first interview, with Bob Summerfield of Brovold Community Orchard.

“As we were walking back, Avarie turned to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, is this actually a documentary?'” recalled Grinde, who mentored the students on the technical points of filmmaking. “When she said that, I said, ‘I dunno, what do you think? What are your questions? What do you want to know more about?'”

So, under Ehlers and Grinde’s guidance, the team sought more interviews with more subjects, exposing new elements of the story. Grinde said, “The way I would express it to students is, ‘We’re asking a question by making this film, but we’re not trying to answer it. We’re trying to document asking it.'”

Ask they did, in interviews with Summerfield, Laura Collins and Jamie Jonkel of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Chad Bauer of Republic Services, Town Council member Kyle Cirincione and others. That left the students with about 24 hours of footage and accompanying audio that they cut down first to about a half-hour rough cut, then a 15-minute final cut.

Editing was one of the more challenging parts of the process, the students said. It hurt to cut out good footage that was redundant or, worse, marred by a technical issue. Adams lamented the “good interviews that we had to cut, sadly, because of the audio.”

For Ehlers and Grinde, the primary challenge was tackling a long-term project when students only had one 50-minute class period a day to work on it.

“You can barely open the project and start in that time,” Grinde said. “Bells, incredibly structured time and short classes – public school is just an incredibly tough place to be creative.” But, he noted, he is a product of public schools himself, and he hopes to keep creative projects like film in public schools. The goal, he said, was that the students will stick with it after the project ends and he’s no longer advising them.

“I’m not going to deny that I’ll do some things on the editor while they watch, to demonstrate things – but I was only out there one day a week, then they’re working on it on their own without me,” he said. “For the most part, I’m trying to make myself irrelevant. The idea is that after I’m long gone, they’ll just know how to do it.”

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