The fact that there are only 500 tigers left in eastern Russia probably doesn’t get a lot of play around dinner tables in Mahopac. But it doesn’t diminish the issue for a Mahopac native who has made a name as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. The endangered species is the subject of Ross Kauffman’s latest film, “Tigerland.”
“There are 4,000 tigers left worldwide,” said Kauffman, a member of the MHS Class of ’85. “If we lose the tiger, eventually we lose the forest. If we lose the forest, eventually we lose the habitat, and if we lose the habitat, we lose the water supply.”
Preserving the balance of nature made Kauffman’s travels to Russia and India worth it.
“The numbers are shocking, and when you see it in the film, it really hits home,” he said.
Kauffman says he lived an ordinary life in Mahopac. He grew up across the street from Lake Mahopac on Westlake Boulevard and played lacrosse. Becoming a documentarian was not on his radar back then.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Kauffman said.
Kauffman majored in marketing at Boston College, but things changed when he came across a filmmaking book during his junior year.
“I got bit by the bug,” Kauffman said.
He immersed himself in cinema and learned that film editing could provide a sustainable career path. An apprenticeship followed, and later he landed his first editing job in New York City.
Kauffman, who now lives in New Jersey, went on to win the 2004 Oscar for his documentary, “Born into Brothels,” and continued with films such as “E-Team” (a Netflix documentary about human rights), and was a producer of the Academy Award-nominated “Postergirl.”
“The Oscar opened a lot of doors,” he said.
Kauffman is married, so his sojourns to far-flung locales such as India, Libya, Syria and Russia often hinge on his wife’s approval.
“It’s a negotiation for sure,” he joked.
But Kauffman said he was the hesitant one when he was contacted about doing a film on tigers. But then he had an epiphany.
“Instead of doing a nature film about tigers,” he said, “I did a film where you see tigers from people’s point of view.”
The legacy of Indian conservationist Kailash Sankhala kicks off the film, which is currently playing on the Discovery Channel website and just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Sankhala raised the profile of the tiger, and with the backing of Indira Gandhi, set up reserves through Project Tiger.
However, the film’s spiritual voice comes from Sankhala’s great-grandson, Jai Bhati. Well-versed in the many mythologies, the 13-year-old helped get across the “poetry” of the tiger that Kauffman was trying to evoke.
Kauffman said that Pavel Fomenko and his team have been engaged for two decades with the World Wildlife Fund and believe deforestation and poachers are the main culprits for the tiger’s demise in his Russian homeland.
Kauffman said the shoot in Russia was challenging.
“We were running around the fields of [far eastern] Russia searching for cubs on the first day in minus-20-degree weather,” he said.
Kauffman said getting to know the native people of the region who assisted him was important and crucial to the film.
“The people I followed were wonderful,” he said. “They were passionate, and I feel like I really experienced Russia in a true sense.”
Victories, like rescuing a cub or accounting for a wayward mother, created a bond among the group members and raised hope for their cause.
The visuals weren’t just window dressing either. After the film’s release, the Discovery Channel and the World Wildlife Fund announced a partnership to help raise money to preserve 3.8 million acres in Russia.
“When your film helps an effort like that, it is very exciting and gratifying,” Kauffman said.