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Why on Earth

Though the imperial glasses: well-meaning documentary about animal cruelty and endangered species presents the US as trailblazer in conservationism - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

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Orangutans, sharks, rhinos and so many other animals are facing the prospect of extinction in various corners of the planet. Forty-one-year old Chicago model-turned-filmmaker Katie Cleary travels to various developing countries – Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Kenya and others – in order to meet the brave people fighting daily for their conservation. Their task isn’t easy: they have to fend off violent poachers and trophy-hunters. The beautiful young woman meets various rescued animals in conversation facilities. They include the last two surviving female white rhinos. The last male died in 2008 (she also visits his tombstone).

While the efforts of these people are indeed commendable, and Cleary is bursting with compassion and good intentions, I wonder how those outside the developed world will relate to the American’s first feature documentary. The director, who often steps in front of the camera awkwardly interacting with both her subjects and the animals, is the epitome of the white saviour. She conveys anger and indignation with the conviction of a five-year-old child. At one point, she prays. A biblical passage from Genesis tells us that we should be good to animals. A constellation of Hollywood stars help Cleary to make her assertions: Clint Eastwood, Dan Richardson and Kristin Bauer. The thick imperial glasses might blur your view of these incredible animals.

All the hope in the film seems to emanate from the California State Capitol. This legislature has draft and created a string of legislation against animal cruelty, ranging from the banning of products tested on animals to offering vegan options to inmates in state penitentiaries. It is true that change starts at home, and that indeed we must applaud these legislators for sowing the seed of change. The problem is that there is no investigation as to what is happening in other parts of the world. The film gives us the false impression that the US is trailblazer in conservationism. At one point, a legislator boasts: “there are no such laws in the EU, or in any other countries in the world”, without offering any further details. In fact, the US became the first country on the world to withdraw from the Paris agreement in 2020, and it is indeed the second largest polluter on this planet. The self-proclaimed Land of the Free is hardly a role model and beacon of hope for environmentalists.

The final third of this 75-minute movie becomes a little more interesting, when Clearly addresses animal cruelty on her very own turf. She visits a dairy farm at an undisclosed location in the US, and a hunting ground in the state of Florida. She also invites consumers to reflect upon the nature of the products that they buy, encouraging them to seek the “cruelty-free” label. In the director’s naive conception the absence of such marker is irrefutable evidence that an animal has suffered, a myth busted by far more enlightening documentaries such as Seaspiracy (Ali Tabrizi, 2021). This is just one of the many empty claims that the director makes, in a film that lacks statistics and in-depth political contextualisation. Cleary also suggests that veganism is only way into the future, quoting English primatologist Jane Goodall in order to support her. Yet another well-intentioned yet simplistic proposition. The director cares for the Orangutans of Sumatra, and chastises the greedy people who cut down their forest in order to plant palm tree, leaving the apes without natural habitat. Which is fair enough. However she fails to note that vegans indeed eat the palm oil from these trees. Vegan Society’s spokeswoman Sam Calvert admits that including palm oil in a cruelty-free diet is “not a straightforward question”. The conservation debate is not that black and white. And abject proselytism is not the answer.

Why on Earth has just premiered at 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival as part of the Doc@Just section.


By Victor Fraga - 15-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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