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IWFF activities continue throughout the year as students create their video projects

It's spring again and, like April's showers bring May flowers, the annual tradition of the International Wildlife Film Festival brings to Missoula a growing magic of its own. Festivalgoers and filmmakers alike will converge in Missoula for a week beginning Saturday.

"It starts when the final judges arrive in late March to pick the winners, and begins again when they come back for the festival in April," said Debbie Fassnacht, IWFF education coordinator, about the "magic" of the event.

The films speak for themselves, and the judges and film industry dictate what's important in choosing the winners. But the filmmakers have the opportunity to watch the public get involved in what is really the only film festival of its kind involving children and viewers in the way it does.

"It's heart-warming to hear from the judges that we're the only festival that involves the community like this," Fassnacht said.

"You go to the Wild Walk parade or into the Wilma Theatre day or night and see it full of kids - and the filmmakers go in to watch people react to their work. Last year, two young filmmakers got up in front of the microphone at the Wilma and asked, 'Does anyone have any questions?' The kids went bonkers! 'How do you get to be a filmmaker?' was among other questions."

This combination of both wildlife and filmmaking seems to be the spark that ignites the magic.

Part of the yearlong festival effort includes a summer video-making course where kids combine the technical with the visual in creating their own short film. Last year's course resulted in "Underwing," created by Missoula students about injured birds in captivity. Entered in this year's festival, it was voted Best School Group Program.

Other festival programs include the Wild Walk parade, where kids wear an animal costume they have created themselves, and the Kids' Wildlife Art Club, where teachers instruct kids about animals and habitat though art curriculum.

IWFF has also created an extensive video library that teachers and the public alike can access. According to Lisa Kerscher, outreach coordinator, one of the great things is that producers and filmmakers allow their videos to be lent out for educational purposes.

"Otherwise," said Kerscher, "some people wouldn't see them because they're not always broadcast. These filmmakers who have a limited market for where they could sell and distribute have the opportunity to get the word out and get more exposure for their film."

Recently, Kerscher has been working on an educational game show that will involve questions about Montana wildlife and species from around the world. It will take place during the festival and be taped and archived in the video library, and afterwards will be available on IWFF's Web site as an educational resource for anyone.

"We're making materials available to teachers, and making them user-friendly so they can use them in their classes," said Fassnacht, who also creates educational packets that teachers receive before they attend the festival matinees with their students.

"These educational packets provide an authentic way to apply curriculum," said Bobbie Tilton, associate professor in the Department of Art at the University of Montana who works with prospective teachers. "Students look at the visual elements of film and spend time looking at films as an art form. They ask the question 'What did the filmmaker want me to feel?' They learn that film has the power to manipulate and that they can critically analyze what they're seeing. It lets the kids have a voice."

"We recognize the support of Montana and Missoula and the importance to teach local students and people, and because of the Internet, people from all over the world," Kerscher said. "If you can't make it to Missoula for the festival, you still have the opportunity all year 'round to view high-quality films. Even if you don't live here, you don't have to be left out from learning about wildlife and issues that involve humans and the environment."

"Kids love wildlife one way or another," said Kerscher. "If they can express it through art or learn it through filmmaking or games, they're still getting that information. We're still fulfilling our mission - and raising awareness."

But Kerscher is quick to point out the importance of the filmmakers in the role of all this.

"They're the foundation of what we do. Without the filmmakers making good stuff and really teaching well visually and getting the information out in a compelling interesting way - without that, we could do nothing. Because they're able to, we can extend their message through curriculum, through art … getting their message out to different communities though their films - and that's excellent."

As Fassnacht explains: "The magic is the international dimension. Initially the world comes to Missoula in April during the festival. But we are sending wildlife and educational messages out to the world throughout the whole year," she said. "That's the magic."

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