Last month, UW-Milwaukee alumna and filmmaker Lenore Rinder visited Bangalore, India to screen two of her short films at the Wildlife Week Celebration Film Festival. While there, she was honored by the Bangalore Rotary Club and Watchers India Trust.
“I had no idea they were going to be honoring me and my colleagues,” Rinder says, “It felt fantastic.”
Rinder was only meant to show her latest film, Kagaraja – Lord of all Animals (2019), but after the 13-minute film was over, the audience wanted to see more. The second film she played was People of the Wild Tiger (2017), a 15-minute short she produced on her last trip to India.
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In her two films, Rinder and her co-producer Vallish Kaushik look at the relationship between people and animals in close quarters and document the consequences of deforestation. Rinder interviews priests, soldiers, village elders and ex-poachers. Kaushik brings Rinder to hidden places and close to wild animals, close enough to film from a safe distance.
“Never run, especially from a tiger because they love to run after their prey,” Rinder says, “I stay pretty far away with a telephoto lens.”
In Kagaraja, Kaushik explores how the government evicts local forest tribes from their homes in the name of land conservation. Government-sponsored rabbit and bird aviaries allow children to interact with the animals. The chirping of the bird aviaries attract wild birds, Kaushik says, giving the wild birds confidence that they can build nests and survive in the area.
“There are these huge animals that live amongst people: tigers, bears, elephants,” Rinder says. “All these features they see every day. Hundreds of cows on the streets, hundreds of pigs. I love it, it’s just like the animals are really part of the environment.”
For People of the Wild Tiger, Kaushik and Rinder spent a month in 2017 documenting tiger stories from people who lived in remote parts of Southern India. “I got this one interview with a man who loved the tiger so much, he called her his mother,” Rinder says.
She also captured men painting their arms and legs white, and their chest and torsos with the face of a tiger, for the annual Pulikali Tiger Dance. The film includes a funeral ceremony and cremation for a tiger that died of old age. She also met with ex-poachers to discuss the economic significance of tigers. In 2016, the Hindustan Times reported the international value of a tiger skin was close to 50 lakhs, (5 million Indian rupees or $60,900 U.S. dollars).
“[Kaushik] takes me into these secret places, these illegal ex-poachers and since it is pretty hard for them to come by tigers, they create fake tiger skins and fake tiger claws and try to sell those,” Rinder says. Despite not directly harming tigers, Kaushik explains that by making fake tiger products, they add to the market for real skins.
In addition to the film festival honor, Rinder and Kaushik spoke at four screenings at different schools in Bangalore and at the Bangalore Rotary Club.
“People came up to us after with tears in their eyes, saying, I love your filmmaking and it really touched me,” Rinder says. “And that’s what I like about other people’s films – when they are beautiful and touching, and they can move you on an individual level.”
Maybe documentary is not entirely the right word to describe Rinder’s style of film.
“I’m sort of doing documentary filming, but I’m trying to combine it into a real painterly animated fantasy kind of surrealism,” she says. “I’m trying to do something very unusual, and it’s real personal. And it’s not realistic, but it does sort of have one foot in documentary.”
In some of her films, Rinder incorporates different filters and textures and uses different mediums, such as animation. “I’m trying to incorporate more sort of artwork, graphics and also the dreaming,” she says, and then pauses. “You know film sort of reflects life, how it’s very strange, like memory and life just seemed like a dream to me.”
Rinder attributes her style to what she learned at UWM’s Graduate Film Program. Born in Chicago, but having moved to Milwaukee as a child, Rinder always knew she wanted to be an artist. “I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut or anything,” she says.
As a child, she started to draw and paint before studying bronze-casting and printmaking at Macalester College in Minnesota, where she got a Bachelors in Fine Arts. She came back to Milwaukee to study film at UWM.
In 1986, she graduated in UWM’s first MFA class for film and painting. At the time, the film department only shot on black and white 16-millimeter film and everything was done by the students. “When I was there it was different, the department was really experimental and most of us didn’t work with crews to create things,” Rinder says.
While the program has changed, she finds the work being produced by students is still impressive. “I think they are doing great stuff now,” she says “The stories are really wonderful things.”
After she graduated from UWM, she taught animation classes, as well as art and film classes. “Then I was a telemarketer for 3 years, then I worked for Time-Warner Cable community television department teaching the public and producing videos and PSAs for Milwaukee and the suburbs,” Rinder says.
In 2011, she retired from her position at the Ethan Allen School for Boys in Delafield, where she taught incarcerated teenagers video production and photography.
After her retirement, she started traveling the globe. “I wanted to see places other than the Midwest,” Rinder says, “and I just started filming these sort of diaries.”
First, she visited Ireland. “I accompanied Milwaukee’s Irish Fest choir and documented their tour of Ireland,” Rinder said. The choir also paid for part of her trip. Then she saw Turkey, Morocco, Jordan and India.
“I’ve interviewed tour guides, camel herders in Morocco, filmed Turkey celebrating its Independence Day,” Rinder said, “I mostly just wanted to record these other worlds of experience.”
In 2019, she was given The Greater Milwaukee Mary Nohl Artist “Suitcase Travel” grant, after producing, People of the Wild Tiger. She was awarded the grant again in 2022, to fly to India and attend the screening of Kagaraja in Bangalore.
During her trips to India, she is surrounded by vibrant colors, swirling dances, dense forests, and lively ceremonies and celebrations. “First of all, India is eye candy for an artist. Everything is bright colors, glistening sparkles,” Rinder says, “[There are] bloody, dirty places and hard, hard life, but there’s also celebrations and festivals all the time.”
Rinder’s passion about deforestation and the encroachment of humans into wild animals’ habitat is a common theme in her work. “India is always expanding,” Rinder says. “All the beautiful farmers with all the animals that have lived with the natives for millions of years – they are getting destroyed. … Right now all my films are dealing with people who are trying to survive with this encroachment problem.”
Rinder, who still lives in Milwaukee with her husband, already has tentative plans to return to India, this time with her sister to film and collaborate with musicians Lenore knows. She is also working on a new project about wild monkeys in India that invade the homes of people who live close to the forest. “It’s gonna be weird,” Rinder says, “but it is basically about how we are destroying nature.”
Rinder says it was amazing to receive recognition for her work in India, and offers some advice for fellow artists and filmmakers.
“Sometimes you have to force yourself to get out of your comfort zone to really explode into creativity,” she says. “For me at least, I needed to get away because there are limits to staying at home and being an artist in your own room.”