In discussing or even thinking about the value of anything new–a movie, an automobile, a book, a longbow, a lover–the typical approach is to compare the new item to the established norm. While judging new against old has always worked for me, it failed miserably when I attempted to review, some five years ago, the DVD Primal Dreams, a strikingly professional yet homespun production from Wensel/Mitten Productions. Primal Dreams was and remains radically different in tone and presentation from any bowhunting video or DVD I’ve ever seen, before or since. And the same must be said, in spades, for the Wensel/Mitten team’s follow-up DVD, Essential Encounters: Primal Dreams II. Since both these films are incomparable beyond themselves, that leaves me to tell you what I think about Primal Dreams II by comparing it to the original Primal Dreams, which I assume most readers here have either seen or at least heard of. To wit:

  • While Primal Dreams was far-flung in the areas where its hunts took place and the game it pursued, Essential Encounters is largely a whitetail story, filmed in mostly agricultural settings throughout the Midwest. Other species of pursuit include turkey, wild pig (in one of the funniest episodes in the film), javalina, grouse, bison and more. But overwhelmingly it’s whitetails. Yet such whitetails. Throughout the film we are presented with segments depicting not only the hunting, but also the undisturbed daily lives of big beautiful bucks. In fact, the monolithic size of these animals and the prevalence of artful nontypical among them at first prompted me to search the background of every such scene for a high fence. But there are none. These are wild, free-roaming deer, albeit in typically mid-American agricultural settings. Happily, with few and brief exceptions, the crop fields we see deer and other wildlife frequenting are working farms, not “deer bait” patches. The film footage of these spectacular bucks alone is easily worth the $20 price of admission.
  • A second striking uniqueness of the original Primal Dreams was that nobody tries to sell you anything, either overtly or “subtly” with camera close-ups of product names on bows and other gear. Essential Encounters continues this dignified legacy.
  • Aside from a lot of great stickbow shots on flying turkeys in the opening minutes of Primal Dreams, nothing visibly gets shot and killed there. Rather, animals are stalked, the archer draws and aims … then the film jumps politely forward in time to the hunter walking up on his slain quarry. Restated, Primal Dreams contains no blood and guts. Some, like me, who want to feel we can share film depictions of our bowhunting passion with nonhunters, liked that a lot. Other viewers, accustomed to standard whack-and-stack hunting video fare, registered complaints. Consequently, in Essential Encounters we see that those complaints were not only heard, but also given a lot of thought. The result is a working compromise in which lots of animals wind up with their ribs vented on film, but only from the hunter’s eye view, with no slo-mo instant replays or other “stretch the moment” gory graphics. And in the end, we see no triumphant hunting heroes posing cowboy-style atop their slain “enemies.” Loud applause from this viewer for that! Rather than the horn-porn ritual of triumphant knuckleheads giving rebel yells and self-congratulatory high-fives every time an arrow enters an animal, the true hunters in both Primal Dreams and Essential Encounters demonstrate what comes across as heartfelt respect and reverence toward the animals they kill.
  • In Primal Dreams, Mike Mitten–author of One With the Wilderness, a popular speaker at traditional events, and a real, boots-on-the-ground by-gosh outdoorsman–is pretty much the solo man-on-camera. In Essential Encounters, Mike is almost in the background with generous appearances by Barry and Gene Wensel (aka the Twins), Mike’s brothers David and Mark, as well as other Wensel and Mitten family members including two absolutely adorable budding young archers who instantly stole my heart, as I predict they will yours.
  • In a laudable tradition begun with Primal Dreams, Essential Encounters continues to strive for a credible way to express the innate connection all enlightened traditional bowhunters feel with wild nature. The operative word here is spirituality. The first time around, however, that spirituality came out as fairly straightforward Christianity, making some viewers uneasy. This time, while the film opens with a brief “benediction,” the concept of nature-spirituality is presented in a more subtle and diffused manner that I, for one, view as a solid step in the right direction. Religion is specific to denomination and credo. Spirituality is universal. We needn’t share religious convictions to share a spiritual connection to nature. End of sermon.
  • Most lesser bowhunting flicks follow the “Outhouse Channel” tradition of getting a bunch of drawling good old boys together on the cabin porch or at a faked-up camp at some point during every hunting “production” to provide “how to” tips focused on whatever Silver Bullet gadgets they’re trying to sell us. Boring, to say the least. Consequently, I flinched the first time Essential Encounters turned its lens on five guys in camo sitting in a backyard with a staged campfire blazing behind. “Oh geeze,” I thought, “here come the snores.” But it didn’t turn out that way at all. Rather, these frequent good-old-boy get-together scenes provide the Wensel brothers a great opportunity to demonstrate their Car Guys style comedic “brother banter.” Likewise, Mark, the eldest of the three Mitten boys, pops corny jokes and demonstrates a distinct lack of harmonica virtuosity, though you sure can’t fault his enthusiasm. There are serious moments out there in the yard as well, including discussions of hunter ethics, nature spirituality, and even some useful hunting tips. Rather than detract from the whole, these interludes actually contribute.

While I could keep adding to the list, you get the picture.

After watching the two-hour Essential Encounters main feature, I slipped in the second disk for nearly another hour of “bonus features,” including more backyard conversation between the Mitten and Wensel boys, some very impressive Wensel target shooting, an interview with the man who guided Fred Bear on his world-record brown bear hunt, and a conversation with the Sioux musical ensemble Brule, whose instrumentals and chants provide audio background throughout most of Essential Encounters.

But hold on, this “review” is approaching the length of a thesis, so let me try to bring it to a summary wrap: The quantity, quality and variety of episodes depicting wild animals in their natural settings doing what they naturally do, provides the artful backbone of this film. Plenty of hunting, no worries. Yet the bulk of film footage is given over to “just watching wildlife,” both game species and non. To put it bluntly, I’ve never seen more interesting wildlife scenes, nor better photographed, than here in Essential Encounters … Nova, Discovery, National Geo and all the rest notwithstanding. More amazing yet, with less than a handful of brief exceptions, all the camera work was perpetrated by those camo-clad guys sitting in somebody’s backyard popping jokes.

And I can’t disappear without offering a special salute to David Mitten, who did the editing, arranged the music and otherwise carries the heaviest creative load in this highly successful film project. For example (as Mike explained it to me on the phone), throughout the film we see a lot of slow-motion scenes, such as rutty whitetail bucks bounding along after does. That’s fine and hardly unusual in wildlife films. Yet, David Mitten didn’t merely slow the film down to stretch it out or make a leaping deer look extra cool; watch and listen closely enough and you’ll see that most often when the visuals slow, they slow just enough to perfectly match the movements of that deer (or whatever) with the beat of the background music.

“It was a real family affair to get this film done,” says Mike, speaking for the Wensels as well as the Mittens, “including using original guitar and piano solos by my son Dillon and my sister Rhonda.”

While its lowly status as “a hunting flick” will likely throw it out of the running in bigger film-award arenas, Essential Encounters, as was Primal Dreams before it, is an award-worthy documentary art film.

While I don’t feel the trailer does justice to the film, it’s a place to start, and it’s free. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ai0BzyDbE1Q. The 2 DVD set: 123 minutes main feature, plus 50 minutes bonus feature, can be purchased from www.brothersofthebow.com.