Amazon’s ‘Wildcat’ Doc Explores Trauma and Redemption in the Jungle

LAMag Spoke to the directors and key figures in “Wildcat” about the healing and grieving taking center stage in the powerful documentary

You don’t use a watch in the jungle. 

Ask British Army veteran turned wildlife conservationist Harry Turner, one of the main subjects of Wildcat, a new Amazon Prime documentary hitting the streamer on December 30: “You tell the time by the sounds. You know if there’s an animal nearby because you can hear the birds. You know what time it is because of the monkeys. You’re so in depth in the forest, it becomes a part of you.” Isolated under the dark canopy of a vast, remote wilderness, the jungle can both heal you and disappear you.

“I went to the jungle to commit suicide,” Turner says, “because I didn’t want my family to find me.”

He ended up falling in love with the place. 

Throughout Wildcat, Turner is positioned as a unique monument to both the complexity of trauma and the uneven process of trying to heal. The film, set in the Peruvian Amazon, focuses on Turner’s work with conservationist Samantha Zwicker as the two rehab an orphaned baby ocelot—Keanu—with the hopes of eventually releasing him back into the wild. Embarking on the rehabilitation process is, in itself, a uniquely enthralling project to watch. But it takes on a new dimension as the film slowly uncovers the human traumas that find ways to express themselves even this far removed from the human world. 

There is the story of Zwicker’s own upbringing, colored by the complicated relationship she had with her father. And there is also the story of Turner: a boy who went to war instead of college. Who was medically discharged with recurrent depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and repeated instances of self-harming, some of which are shown in Wildcat. At one point in the doc, Turner tells the infant ocelot he grows to love, “Me and you, we’re wild.”

Even as the film explores the similarities between humankind and the wild—which is complex and powerful to watch—it is also an intimate examination of Turner and Zwicker’s lives, reminding the viewer that trauma can either break or fortify us. 

“I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t struggle with mental health issues, especially depression,” Zwicker tells LAMag of the years she has spent running the conservation project HojaNueva in Peru. “It has a lot to do with the weight of the responsibility. And a lot to do with being the one to see these things happening time and time again—really destructive things to the environment or the animals you receive.” Both Turner and Zwicker credit the strength they developed through hardship as the reason they were able to stick it out in the face of the jungle’s extreme demands. 

The danger of this environment—ridden with poachers, deforestation, and more—parallels the Afghan war-scape Turner entered as a soldier when he was just 18 years-old. It also echoes the personal devastation of Zwicker’s upbringing, navigating the impact of her father’s alcoholism. Zwicker and Turner’s embodiment of both endurance and grief is paralleled by the quickness with which we shift between the idyllic nature of the film’s imagery and the harsh reality of the jungle.

“When you get something you have to kill it,” Turner tells the ocelot at one point as the two practice hunting together. “Or else you’re going to die out here.”

It’s a haunting directive given Turner’s own struggle to reconcile with the casualties of war that haunt him. Today, however, he speaks about the initial impulse to film his time with Keanu as a way of keeping his memories alive. “There’s noise all the time,” he says of the months he spent living in the jungle. “Your dreams become so vivid and so clear. And then after a few days, maybe even a week, it’s like that weight kind of gets lifted off your shoulders.”

Turner was, in fact, what first caught the attention of the film’s co-director, Trevor Beck Frost. In the Amazon working on a photo project about anacondas, he saw Turner by chance in the lobby of a local hotel.

“You’ll never believe that guy’s story,” a friend told him.

It wasn’t long before a meeting was organized and the project got underway. Frost and fellow co-director Melissa Lesh began shooting under the impression that they were going to make a story about how the jungle saved a veteran’s life. They did not anticipate how much Turner still struggled, or how much of Zwicker’s own pain might also unfold before the cameras. 

This is evident in the first 15 minutes of the doc when Khan, the ocelot that came before Keanu—and was the first cat Zwicker and Turner tried to rehab, is killed by a poacher’s trap.

“Even war was more peaceful than his death,” Turner tells LAMag. This revelation also sets the narrative of the film while it untangles the mystery of Khan’s death, even as Zwicker and Turner seem to seek their own rehabilitation through the tragedy. 

“One of the things that dawned on us is that trauma really kind of stays with people,” says Frost. “And then, obviously, from a mental health perspective, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for ten years. So I’m acutely aware that it’s not something that just disappears and goes away.” 

By the end of shooting, the filmmakers were left with over 100 hours of footage—a significant portion of which was shot by Turner or Zwicker themselves, a diary-like documentation of those quiet moments alone with grief, the struggles of recovery, and the challenges of trying to love and save a wild animal. 

“I think what you maybe feel but don’t see,” Lesh says, “is also Trevor’s and my story. In many ways, the film is a reflection of our own processing, our own reckoning with our pasts and what we’ve been through.” This foundational awareness of struggle both within the film and behind the scenes results is further (and literally) illustrated by just how much visual beauty Frost and Lesh are able to provide, even when that beauty is tendered by grief. And though someone else might leave the film as a portrait of struggle, the real brilliance of Lesh and Frost’s finished product is the way they move us slowly toward healing in a way that does not feel like moviemaker manipulation. 

Today, Zwicker and Turner still feel the lingering effects of their time in the jungle.

Zwicker is dedicated to her enduring desire to educate people on the difficulty of re-wilding carnivores in particular, as well as protecting a part of the world that is uniquely vulnerable despite its forbidding power.

As for Turner, two parents approached him after the Wildcat premiere at Telluride. They had watched it with their 11 year-old son, who also struggles with suicidal thoughts, and they wanted Turner to know what he told them after seeing the film: “Oh,” he’d said. “I’m not alone.”

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