Minnesota Tiger Man
Aug 3, 2022
Grant Oly, Allison Asher, Ron Hiker, Tammy Quist
By now most of us have probably already seen Tiger King (2020) – the exploits of Joe Exotic being water cooler fuel the world over, making him the pre-eminent figure of big cat ownership in the USA, after Siegfried and Roy of course. What the Netflix series did though, probably quite rightly, was to focus more on the man himself and his ridiculously self-serving character traits which he developed to create his mawkishly morbid car-crash of a personality, rather than on the big cats he was supposedly looking after.
Grant Osum, the director/producer of Minnesota Tiger Man, has stated that he started putting together his film before the Netflix phenomenon had first aired, but nonetheless it seems he came across the same structuring dilemmas – that even though the tigers are the big draw for the audience, the story is still with the man/personality who has taken it upon themselves to be their saviour.
Osum has more than a passing interest in telling the story of Grant Oly – said Minnesota Tiger Man – as he is the latter's nephew and remembers a time when his uncle used to keep the tigers on his property in the Minnesota hills. At the time, Oly was vilified in the press and the media, painted as a dangerous kook who bred the animals for personal gain and who was so deficient in his duties that the surrounding community was in danger of being eaten alive by escaped tigers. Now Osum wants to give a more balanced view, having the benefit of time, distance and hindsight to enhance his objectivity, and in no way does he want to take sides. Some of the scenes where his uncle tells his version of the story might suggest why.
The story is told, much like Tiger King, through retrospective interviews with the interested parties. There are plenty of newsreels, home videos, paper cuttings and highlighted legal documents interspersed throughout to give context, credence and cross-reference to what's being said and everything is knitted together very well by editor/producer Sam Ruesink. The documentary plays as a high quality affair and its technical aspects stand it out as a professional production.
Of course, the most interesting segments are the ones with Oly himself and he gets a fair shake at the tree to tell his story his way, on multiple occasions and in different locations. Everybody involved with the 'Tiger Zone' habitat defends Oly and what he was doing, and unanimously feel he was badly treated by the authorities. The authorities, obviously, don't see it that way. Spending time with Oly, listening to him talk about his tigers in his habitat, might be you'd think, the best way to cut through the noise and get to the heart of the matter – but as with all men of his disposition, who feel they have a calling and are right about every decision they make, the more he talks the more he lets himself down and the more the mask slips.
Osum begins the film with an advisory warning, stating that viewer discretion is advised, but this seems to be a deliberate attempt at over-egging the pudding. There are a couple of rough handling scenes of the tigers, but nothing traumatic, and some of Oly's ire comes out at certain (female) individuals with a running undercurrent of sexism, but there's nothing that should turn the viewer off.
Osum's aim was to tell his uncle's story in a new light, with all the relevant information and an objectivity that wasn't present at the time. He does an excellent job of rounding out the story and presenting as much of the evidence as possible, on both sides, to give a fair and balanced representation of the salient arguments. However, through all of this what he doesn't manage to do, is remain unbiased.
Whatever your thoughts and feelings on private owners being able to keep big cats on their property, Osum definitely has his views on whether his uncle was a good keeper/protector of the animals or not. The editing together of certain audio and video pieces reinforces this and it's clear to see what the film-maker thinks without him stating it outwardly. For what is otherwise a fair and balanced documentary this is a shame, not least because Osum doesn't fully achieve what he was aiming for.
For the time investment that you would put into one episode of Tiger King, you can watch here a full film with a beginning, middle and end. You get all the elements you're looking for – tigers, conflict, media hype, maulings (or lickings depending on if you're in denial or not), and an eccentric, slightly delusional main character. On all this Minnesota Tiger Man delivers, just don't expect the director to be looking fully straight down the camera while he shows you.