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Tony Lee: Strong Hunter
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Tony Lee: Strong Hunter 

Tony Lee, producer and director of The Cat That Changed America, is back at this weekend’s Topanga Film Festival with a follow up to the story of mountain lion P-22. Strong Hunter screens on October 21. Photo courtesy of Tony Lee.

A Chumash story of creation holds that the Earth Mother, longing for company, planted magical seeds in an area now known as Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel. The seeds grew into plants from which sprung men and women who would come to inhabit the island. Earth Mother’s husband, Sky Snake (the Milky Way), gifted the people fire so they might stay warm and cook food. After many years of prosperity, the people crowded the land and their noise kept Earth Mother awake at night. She complained to Sky Snake and suggested that half the people would need to journey to the mainland, where they would have more room to live and grow. Sky Snake said he would make a rainbow bridge that the people could walk across to get from their island home to the mainland mountain top where they would find rich resources and plenty to eat and drink and be happy about. During the journey, those that fell into the water below were turned into dolphins, and those that reached their destination populated what we now know as Carpinteria. Now, Chumash call the dolphins their brothers and sisters, and the rainbow bridge is representative of a journey to a better life.

Director and Producer Tony Lee has made a short film in memory of mountain lion P-22, in which the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing is likened to the rainbow bridge. Strong Hunter is a 22-minute short film that is a follow-up to Lee’s The Cat That Changed America, which was released in 2017 and chronicled the life of our hero mountain lion who resided in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park on the eastern side of the Santa Monica Mountains. By now, you’ve no doubt heard of his daring and unusual journey from the western part of the mountain range across Los Angeles to Griffith Park, which he undertook in search of territory and a mate. You’re also undoubtedly aware of his sad passing last year. P-22 was euthanized in December 2022, following a string of residential dog attacks and his subsequent capture. We are told it was then discovered he was suffering from chronic medical conditions and injuries most likely related to being struck in traffic. We are told it was with the utmost care and respect that the veterinary team had mercy on P-22, easing his pain. Yet there seems to be a collective wound after the death of the great cat who had come to symbolize freedom and our ancestral past. 

Lee made Strong Hunter, which premieres at the Topanga Film Festival this Saturday, Oct. 21, as a response to that grief and as a means to heal both himself and the community. The film is an ending in many ways, but also the beginning of a conversation about Los Angeles’ Indigenous people and how their struggles parallel those of P-22. 

“He is the perfect example of an animal teacher,” says Alan Salazar, Chumash & Tataviam tribal elder featured in the film. Salazar renamed P-22 posthumously to the more fitting “Strong Hunter.” The mountain lion survived in a hostile environment and truly lived up to his name until the very end. It is a bitter end for many Angelinos. Lee is hoping people will come out to honor P-22 by attending his film. He spoke at P-22’s end of life celebration in January of this year, as did Salazar, the latter of whom will open your eyes to resentment that has been brewing for a few hundred years over urbanization of land and marginalization of his people. He calls on us to honor the first human inhabitants of this space just as we honor wildlife—with actions, not simply with words.

Tony Lee, a one time student at University of Reading in the U.K., received his degree in zoology; he has been making wildlife films ever since. It was his love of all creatures big and small that landed him his first job at the BBC, working with David Attenborough. From there, Lee traveled to California for a National Geographic series entitled The Shape of Life, an eight part documentary on sea-dwelling invertebrates and how we relate to and even depend on them. His film training was hands-on, on-the-job, though it seems to be something he is naturally suited to. A creative person, Lee is also the author of a children’s book about P-22 named for his first film, and four books on filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

When asked why he made the film Strong Hunter, Lee replied, “I wanted to make peace with P-22’s death, and complete his story. As Alan (Salazar) says, we really have to learn from and study the animals to stay in harmony with them, with the bears, cougars, and eagles.” 

Lee’s film The Cat Who Changed America introduced P-22 to audiences. Strong Hunter focuses on the cultural heritage of the Chumash and the Tataviam, two of the Los Angeles area’s Indigenous people. In an interview given to the Natural History Museum, Salazar says, “The Fernandeño Tataviam are traditionally from northern L.A. County. Most Los Angeles residents have never heard of us, let alone know that they are living on tribal land. We are currently under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for our federal recognition. If we are approved we will be the first tribe in L.A. County to be a federally recognized tribe, that will be huge.” Currently, the Tataviam are not recognized which has prevented the tribe from becoming a sovereign nation.

Today, the Chumash, Tataviam, and other Indigenous peoples are working to restore a lost connection to their culture and to the planet. The film Strong Hunter draws a parallel between the wildlife crossing as a bridge of hope, and the work of Indigenous leaders.

“I wish he had a happier ending”, says Lee of P-22. “I hope he finds peace and resolution and reincarnation.” 

It is a beautiful hope, then, that P-22 is in some way with us, laying forth a curriculum that still needs learning.

You can purchase a Saturday ticket entitling you to view all films shown that day, or an individual ticket: www.topangafilminstitute.org 

Original music scored by Tongva musician Lazaro Arvizu.Strong Hunter screens Saturday Oct. 21, 12:15 p.m., at Froggy’s

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