It's inevitable that Grant Osum's feature doc Minnesota Tiger Man will be compared to Netflix's Tiger King, though it's more likely a cinematic cousin to the similarly themed 2009 documentary The Tiger Next Door. All three documentaries, and others, affirm society's fascination with the increasingly rare and endangered Siberian tiger.
Having myself visited Indiana's Exotic Feline Rescue Center, I can understand the fascination. There's a romanticism to the tiger that is balanced by the awareness that these are wild animals. When found in the United States, they are nearly always in zoos, rescue centers, or settings similar to that created by Grant Oly, the Minnesota Tiger Man of the film's title and the central figure in this nicely made, low-budget indie doc.
It's worth noting, and perhaps important to note, that director Grant Osum is Oly's nephew and experienced the tigers himself when he was a young child. Osum notes that he barely remembers when the tigers went away, though he's always known that it was a traumatic experience for his uncle. One of his stated goals with Minnesota Tiger Man is a more fair and balanced portrayal of his uncle while also being faithful to the facts around the case. Oly took in his first tiger cub in the late 90's from a local whose big cat facility was being shut down. Eventually, Oly's southern Minnesota facility would have seven fully grown tigers and thousands of square feet of exhibits. Oly spent thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to create a facility that was both demanded by area authorities and healthy for the cats.
After a series of accidents, Oly's facility attracted a spotlight from which it never really recovered. Initially, it was local government questioning the legality of his facility and the safety of the tigers. Eventually, local authorities became state authorities and state authorities became the Department of Homeland Security. Oly was drawn into a series of years-long legal battles and DHS would end up seizing all of the tigers, closing the facility, and jailing Oly following a reported mauling by four of the tigers of a young woman. Eight years and multiple trials followed.
Fifteen years later, Oly still lives in the same place. The tigers are gone and Oly lives in a half-finished home with only the remains of his tiger habitat surrounding him. Osum captures vividly Oly's ongoing bewilderment at all that unfolded including, through his eyes and the eyes of some of the volunteers who assisted him, the questionable shortcuts that were taken by legal authorities and reported mysterious influences by unnamed parties that sabotaged Oly even when he fully complied with all orders.
To call Oly bitter would likely be an understatement.
While it's clear where Osum's sympathies lie, he also does a nice job of presenting a balanced view across the spectrum of his uncle's experiences maintaining his tiger habitat. Minnesota Tiger Man includes a wealth of archival photos and footage, some of it quite jarring, along with the obligatory interviews and it nicely explores issues around big cats in the United States and the tensions that exist between conservationists and big cat owners. Osum does paint a powerful portrait of his uncle, a man who lost everything but who has clearly been painted as the bad guy by nearly everyone. Yet, it's not a stretch to explore the impact of how lax laws have contributed to the concerns and created a challenge that the U.S. is largely ill-equipped to handle. As the closing credits were rolling, I found myself wondering to myself if Oly was really the problem or if U.S. laws were the problem and the inconsistent ways that they're enforced.
Music by Marlon Lang benefits the film nicely and there's even the presence of Dylan Love on hammered dulcimer. I love me some hammered dulcimer. While there are certainly those moments in this just under one-hour documentary in which its low-budget is obvious, that's less of an issue than you might expect and the extra layer of grittiness actually works nicely with the archival footage and the raw atmosphere in which the film is set. While there's a disclaimer in the film's opening moments regarding graphic footage, it's minimal and Minnesota Tiger Man is an engaging, entertaining doc easily safe for teens and adults. It's most likely not appropriate for smaller children.
Minnesota Tiger Man is just starting its festival journey. Watch for it at an indie or microcinema fest near you.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic