Hillary Clinton Drops in on Tribeca Panel for Kathryn Bigelow’s VR Poaching Short

“The Protectors” follows park rangers who are fighting what Clinton calls “some of the most ruthless killers on the planet”

The Tribeca Film Festival for the virtual-reality short “The Protectors” was always going to be a hot ticket because of the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow. But the event became even crazier on Saturday night with the surprise guest Tribeca sprung on the audience: Hillary Clinton.

The former First Lady and presidential candidate showed up, Clinton said, because organized poaching is “not just a terrible crisis when it came to the elephant population, it [is] a trade, a trafficking that [is] funding a lot of bad people.”

Clinton took the stage in a small room of fewer than 300 people, most of whom had no idea that she was going to be on the panel (though uncommonly heavy security might have been a tipoff that something big was afloat). In fact, Clinton’s participation was a pleasant surprise for Bigelow, too.

“I had nothing to do with her being here,” the director told TheWrap after the panel. “This was all the festival’s doing. But I know she’s been doing great work in this field for years, and she’s a woman of extraordinary power.”

The audience clearly agreed, greeting Clinton with a lengthy standing ovation before she spoke about efforts to end the global ivory market on the part of the U.S. government, the Clinton Foundation’s Elephant Action Network and international allies.

The film, made by Bigelow and co-director Imraan Ismail for National Geographic Documentary Films, focuses on the 200 rangers who work against formidable odds to stop poachers in Garamba National Park, an area the size of Delaware in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Because poaching is a lucrative trade that has been used to fund militias and terrorists, the poachers have powerful incentive to continue. “They’re not going to stop because there are a couple of rangers out there with guns,” said Ismail.

Added Clinton, “The rangers are up against some of the most ruthless killers on the planet right now.”

Bigelow, who first explored the issue of poaching with her 2014 short “Last Days of Ivory,” said on the panel that she thought VR was “a great opportunity to put you in the rangers’ shoes.” Afterwards, in a conversation with TheWrap, she added, “I had to learn the [VR] technology, but for me it has to start with the story, not the technology. And I just wanted to tell the story of these rangers, because they’re the most incredible people.”

She started work on “The Protectors,” she added, before she began filming her upcoming drama “Detroit,” then did editing on the short while the feature was in production. She goes back to work on “Detroit” on Monday, but added, “We’re in good shape. We only have a couple of weeks left and we’ll be ready.”

Meanwhile, she’s hoping “The Protectors” can rally support for the small number of men who are fighting to keep the elephant population — estimated at about 350,000 — from disappearing completely at the hands of poachers who funnel money from the international ivory trade to the hands of terrorists and militias.

On the panel alongside Bigelow, Ismail, National Geographic’s Rachel Webber and African Parks’ Andrea Heydlauff, Clinton spoke repeatedly about the effect an immersive look at the rangers can provide. “This Earth Day, we marched in part for science,” she said. “And part of science is understanding the relationship between ourselves and everything we share this planet with, especially large mammals.”

China, she said, made an important move to slow the ivory trade in recent years. “China is the largest market for illegal ivory,” she said, “but the U.S. is the second biggest market.

“We’ve got to bust the market, so it can’t come back.”

At one point, Bigelow asked Clinton if there couldn’t be a military component to the U.S. help for the rangers, given the national security implications.

“It would be very difficult for the U.S. itself to be involved [militarily],” she said. “…The bottom line is that we can provide support for the rangers, we can provide better equipment, and work with willing countries who take wildlife conservation seriously.

“I think we’re at the beginning at figuring out the best response.”