BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The giraffes Finely and Etana systematically ate their fiddle leaves, the meerkats posed shamelessly, but the guinea fowl protested with loud cries in their Regenstein African Journey surroundings, surely stating filming on a Saturday morning was not welcome. But the team of young filmmakers from Facets persevered, capturing the candor of Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell, named Facets honoree of the year.
This film will debut on May 8 at the Facets Screen Gem Benefit held at the Arts Club. The evening benefits Facets’ year round children’s educational programs and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, with the Tribune’s Rick Kogan as Master of Ceremonies, Facets Founder Milos Stehlik as award presenter, and Susan Regenstein, Suzette Bulley, and Mitchell Cobey as this year’s gala planners.
Max Weber, a Facets film camp participant, Haven Middle School student, and a member of the Film Festival Jury, plunged into filming despite being a little nervous, stating, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I am ready to give the interview all I’ve got!” We quickly saw Max meet his objective of “keeping things natural and flowing.”
His co-filmmaker, Julia Swartz, a student at Jones College Prep, who is possibly planning a career focusing on environmental issues, showed similar poise with the camera and microphone as the two easily switched roles.
Sam Kolhaas, Facets’ development coordinator, was clearly pleased with the young filmmakers he accompanied: “To prepare for the shoot, Max, Julia, and I met to brainstorm questions, practice with the equipment, and discuss interviewing techniques. I was very impressed by their intellect and film knowledge. Max’s brain is a film encyclopedia, a Milos of his generation.
He continued, “Meanwhile, Julia had such an incredible sense of framing and the questions she wanted to ask. She is great with people and made the interview feel more natural as a result. We can expect great things from Julia and Max.”
Kevin, too, soon saw that he was dealing with students who had carefully considered their questions. President of the Lincoln Park Zoo since 1996, he has served as chair of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and on the board of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater Syracuse University.
This has been a trajectory long in the making: Kevin grew up at the Bronx Zoo, where his father served as curator birds. The family’s home was located behind the zoo’s reptile house, prompting Kevin’s reputation as “the boy who has 2830 pets,” so dubbed in a local newspaper article.
Max quickly got to the heart of the matter, asking, “What was it like to live in the Bronx Zoo?” Kevin responded:
“I came to live there at four years old and by five, I discovered that most of my best friends were animals. When I was 10, Mike Wallace of Sixty Minutes had an Eye On New York 30-minute feature on what it was like growing up in a zoo. I took him around and showed him all the animals.
“I loved all my animal friends, but I had to be careful when I was a teenager of the peacocks who roosted on a roof close to our house. When I came home late from a date, I would turn off my lights and coast in very slowly, otherwise they would screech loudly to let my parents know that I had arrived.”
The interviewers focused most of their questions on Kevin’s longtime experience at the Lincoln Park Zoo where he was invited by former zoo director Lester Fisher in 1976 at the age of 23 to join the staff, becoming the youngest curator in the zoo’s history. Kevin had been studying the common puffin off the coast of Maine and had just received his master’s degree when he took over the post as Curator of Birds.
Here is a look at the interview between the two young filmmakers and the zoo president:
Julia: Do you have a favorite animal in the Lincoln Park Zoo?
Kevin: I’m of course a bird guy, but I love many animals. I must admit the black rhinos here at the Regenstein Safari are among my favorites—they are very endangered and in need of our help. I also think the Sichuan Takin, a type of goat-antelope, is very special and is considered a vulnerable species.
Most of my job is all about dealing with people, but when I have a moment, I know I can escape and be with our animals. I am very proud that our zoo is one of the largest centers for conservation and science studies in the country and that entrance is free.
Max: What are some of the new things you are doing that make you proud?
Kevin: For the last five years, we have really worked at engaging young people in their own communities. We have terrific programs in Little Village and North Lawndale where we go to rooftops and other places in their community to engage with their own local wildlife. They learn that insects and bats are very important, and through this study they learn empathy and conservation.
Julia: Tell us more about learning about empathy.
Kevin: About 25 years ago, we had a polar bear named Mike that lived at the north end of the zoo, and he was a real fan favorite. He lived a long life and when he died, we had a little memorial service. One young boy came up to tell me that he had had a personal relationship with the bear, that when he put his hands up on the glass Mike would always come up and put his paws up on the other side right next to his.
Now, Mike did that for many people, but I like to think that that little boy, now grown up, continues to think about issues that involve his friend Mike, like climate change. I think the little boy could have learned empathy here.
All of us take what we do for granted here, but there are truly fine lessons to learn. We have one woman who visits the ape house every day to see a special friend. We try to be mindful of these relationships and send out many email blasts with updates on our animals.
Julia: Facets focuses a lot on the importance of children’s programs. What are other programs here for young people?
Kevin: We have gone to local high schools for our Conservation Ambassadors program, generated by teenagers for other teens who want to get involved with conservation. We have an intern programs as well.
We also have an arts center where a variety of visual arts can be created. One student did a fine sculpture that was displayed here and then returned to the student’s community where it is shown.
Max: Facets is all about films. Are there films made by the zoo?
Kevin: Several have been made over the years, including Otto: Zoo Gorilla, Artic Window and Zookeepers, and TV shows shot here have been very famous. When Marlin Perkins, who was famous for the show Wild Kingdom, was director of the zoo in the early 1960s, he initiated Zoo Parade, which his successor Lester Fisher continued.
All of us also appeared on the very popular Bozo’s Circus, often filmed at the zoo. I remember once, in 1993, when Bozo and I were peddling on the zoo pond, and the boat kept going around in circles because Bozo couldn’t peddle because of his very big shoes—you needed two peddlers to go in a straight line.
Julia: What are some of your favorite movies?
Kevin: I like a lot of the classic black and white films of the 1950s, including Humphrey Bogart’s, and Orson Welles’s Time Machine and Apocalypse Now.
Max: What’s next for the Lincoln Park Zoo?
Kevin: I have been here 43 years, but I don’t ever want to get complacent. We want to have more neighborhood programs like the ones in North Lawndale. We are rebuilding our Lion House, and we hope to have more habitats for Asian animals, to name just a few initiatives.
Facets Founder and Artistic Director Milos Stehlik draws an important parallel between Facets’ mission and Kevin Bell’s work:
“All of us at Facets are thrilled to be able to honor Kevin Bell for his stellar leadership of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Bringing wildlife into the center of a major city and creating environments for observing, learning, and developing empathy parallels Facets’ own mission of connecting individuals through the empathy machine of film. Kevin’s focus on merging scholarship with engagement with young people, in particular, makes us all realize our responsibility to the planet and the urgency to save it.”
The Screen Gems Benefit is Facets’ annual fundraiser and award ceremony for the Facets Brilliance Award, won this year by Kevin. The benefit is a celebration of the mission of the organization, founded in 1975, to use film to heal divisiveness, provide a moral compass, build bridges across divides, and connect individuals, families, and students to each other and the world.
In announcing the Facets Award, Facets’ Board co-chairs Barbara Koren and Matthew Steinmetz together noted:
“Kevin Bell is more than a leader, he is a visionary. He has transformed the Lincoln Park Zoo into a prism that allows us to understand and embrace the interconnectedness of all living things. With a career marked by groundbreaking educational programs that harness the power of empathy, Kevin Bell’s passion is a call to action: we have to become responsible stewards of our planet and each other.”
For more information visit facets.org/screengems or call 773-281-9075 ext. 114.