(2021) Documentary (XTR) Marcos Uzquiano, Laurel Chor, Gloria Chor, Zhang Go Yang. Directed by Elizabeth Unger
It is no secret that the natural world is under siege, and that largely due to humans. Our expanding population requires that more and more land that was once the sole habitat of animals are becoming developed for human habitation. The toxins we pour into the water and the soil are poisoning animals and the plant life that they feed on at an alarming rate. The carbons and hydrocarbons we release into the atmosphere are warming the planet, rendering some habitats unlivable for some species of animals and insects. We are diverting wter for agriculture and other less pressing needs, turning once lush places into virtual deserts. And particularly in countries like china and Myanmar, folk medicine remedies that depend on various organs, skin and bone of a variety of animals has led to a lucrative poaching trade.
Bolivia’s Madidi National Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is also one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and is one of the last places which is densely populated by jaguars. However, poachers are reducing the population of jaguars in this protected place at an alarming rate. Park director Marcos Uzquiano is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. He is committed to protecting these beautiful animals, long a symbol of strength and wisdom to the natives of the region.
Meanwhile on the border between Myanmar and China, journalist and environmental activist Laurel Chor is discovering a thriving trade on jaguar teeth and pelts. She is wondering who is buing these items, and what are they being used for. Without knowing it, she is following the same trail that Uzquiano is from different ends.
The sequences set in Madidi are breathtaking and justify the park’s reputation for being one of the places on Earth that is unmatched in terms of natural wonder. Unger, a National Geographic Explorer who has been to all seven continents and is making her documentary feature debut here, builds up the Uzquiano sequence almost like a thriller, with a boat chase of poachers who were likely armed, and a sting operation in which a suspect is found to be trafficking in illegal jaguar teeth and quickly confesses and begs for clemency. We also see Uzquiano interacting with fishermen and villagers in the region, trying to find out who is hunting the big cats and more importantly, who they are selling to.
The Chor sequence is a bit more dry but no less important. She wears a hidden camera as she interviews selelrs at markets who display jaguar skulls and teeth alongside cell phones, others with piles of shark fins to be sold to chefs for shark fin soup. Chor is a bit more articulate than Uzquiano, discussing the situation with her mother who at first disbelieves the claims of environmentalists as “exagerrations” but as her daughter steadfastly informs her that the rhinos whose horns were taken as aphrodisiacs are extinct, she gets defensive. “It’s not just a Chinese problem. There is also a lot of ivory in America.”
Chor realizes that it is a cultural issue, and that changing the hearts and minds of literally billions of people is going to require education rather than indoctrination. She gives talks with school children, trying to open some eyes which Unger hopes to do in the West with her film. Uzquiano comes off perhaps less polished than Chor, but no less committed.
It has been said before and by far more articulate writers that we are custodians of the planet for the next generation; sadly, the generations preceding ours largely failed in their job and while we are getting at least aware of the problem, we are not much more successful. It isn’t just the hearts and minds of the Chinese that have to be changed; all of us are in this together. We owe it to our descendents to give them a world no less beautiful than the one we were given.
REASONS TO SEE: Breathtaking beauty. Heartbreaking and horrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID: The journalist’s sequences are less compelling than those of the park director.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are fewer than 100,000 jaguars left in the wild and fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (there are more tigers in captivity). Some species of rhino have gone extinct, all attributable to Chinese and east Asian demand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Tribeca @ Home (through June 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tigerland
FINAL RATING: 7/10