His “shadow” was a 500-pound pet he shared his space with 23 hours a day and fed frozen liver dinners to – until he found himself with his leg inside a tiger’s mouth.
A KU professor’s new movie is about the story of Antoine Yates, a man from New York who shared a tiny apartment in Harlem with a tiger and an alligator.
Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air focuses on the “extraordinary” relationship between Yates and his tiger Ming.
Filmmaking and experimental film professor Phillip Warnell said: “Shock isn’t a bad word for the almost unbelievable sense of how Antoine lived with predatory animals for such a long period.
“Considering that the apartment was also used as a foster home for a procession of children: Antoine, the tiger, the alligator and the children seem a most unlikely, fantastical family unit.”
Yates raised the animals in the cramped 21-storey apartment until he was caught in 2003 after being seriously mauled by Ming. He told Animal Planet at the time that Ming was “like an attachment thing, a shadow”.
He was then sentenced to five months imprisonment for keeping exotic pets in a social housing complex. Professor Warnell, who found out about him at the time of the accident, said:
“I made contact with Antoine specifically to appear in the film. He was unexpectedly charismatic and became much more a subject and focus for the film than I had expected, with some unconventional and quite philosophical views.”
The odd circumstances around the story enabled the film to be part documentary, part fiction and “rather performance-based” project simultaneously.
The professor had a hard time producing and directing the independent movie, as he needed funding and a range of partners, including two UK zoos, where he filmed the tigers.
He said: “The actual shooting time, especially with the animals, was also difficult to develop with all sorts of health and safety limitations.
“These things are especially difficult in independent productions where corporate finance and commercial influence aren’t a factor.”
Nevertheless, the film has had much success on the international film festival scene, winning the Grand Prix Georges de Beauregard International Jury prize at the Marseille Film Festival and the Universities Culturgest International Prize at the IndieLisboa Film Festival in Lisbon.
Professor Warnell had help from his students, from building and decorating sets to working as runners in New York and post-production in London.
“I think working in close proximity to a prodigious tiger was the most amazing experience for everyone involved in the production of the film,” he said.
The teacher finds it “crucial” that his research feeds back into the “melting pot of the film programmes” at the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture, with his MA seminars influenced by human-animal studies and exotic companionship.
Professor Warnell is currently working on three other projects and Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air has scored a deal with Soda Pictures, which will officially release it in the UK next year. The film will be available to watch on a limited cinema release and Blu-Ray.