Hot Docs Review: Kifaru (David Hambridge, 2019)


By 1971, the giant tortoise population on the Galapagos island of Pinta had been so decimated by a combination of poaching and invasive rodents (also brought on by humans), that only a single male tortoise was known to us. 40 years later when he finally died unceremoniously at the age of 101 inside a pen, Lonesome George was still the last known Pinta Island tortoise. And so, one of many millions of evolutionary experiments on our planet, though likely several million years in the making, came to an end.

In almost all ways, the story in Kifaru parallels that of Lonesome George in an eerily familiar trajectory. The northern white rhino population has been devastated by poachers looking to turn some outgrowth on the two-tonnes pachyderms into keratinaceous gold, by selling them to superstitious East Asian cretins who confuse toe-nails with miracle cures. While their wild brethren was dying, the handful of captive rhinos in zoos across the planet could not be coerced to reproduce successfully. Long-bloody-story-short, the last one known, named Sudan, died in March 2018, and this is the story of its last days. Told from the point of the view of Sudan’s three keepers, this film is more about the journey than the end. It could hardly be about anything else, when you knew the ending before it began.

One technical complaint that I have with the film is how unusual the camera work is for being constantly out of focus, consistently mis-placing the subject off the center of the frame, which was often very low to the ground. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to convey the point-of-view of Sudan, with rhino’s notoriously bad eyesight and and stocky build.

No one would be surprised at my confirmation that Kifaru is a plaintive film. But it is also a strangely dignified watch. You feel a righteous anger rising when tourists gleefully pay respect to the last of a species that, but for human disruption, would have continued to be successful. But it would simmer and leave behind shame when you realize that, despite your anger, we are failing to prevent the pulses of many other species from slipping away. As one of the keepers said ruefully: “black rhinos, there are still 5000 of them left…”, implying that we aren’t giving them the same protection as we are Sudan. I don’t argue against the logic that the last of its kind is precious – but how we got to the present hides a truly confounding mystery: what do we love to do when presented with a miracle cure? We study the living-daylights out of it and crucially, we make damn sure we have more. It’s what happened with chickens. Why then are there no Purdue rhino farms or Tyson pangolin hatcheries to keep the miracle well flowing?

The truth is painfully clear: deep-down, EVERYONE, both Sudan’s keepers and Chinese consumers, understands that toenail shavings in traditional medicine is nothing more than placebo. So, so many of us just don’t care, taking a note from a nihilist epitaph: “Nothing saved me. Nothing matters”. We will keep chugging along until the next sad passing, human or otherwise. The dignity and the testament of Sudan, is that Nature doesn’t care, either. Like any evolutionary experiment before or since, one day soon, it will be the last human on Earth struggling to stand on his/her two feet. And it may not mean anything more than that of the last northern white rhino. If we continue to be enslaved by this destructive logic, then we shall go to our deathbeds alone, never understanding how even a rhino could manage to die surrounded by those who know and appreciate his worth.

Kifaru will screen again at the times below. Witness. Or spend the time to do better.
Sunday, 4/28 10:00 AM
Friday, 5/3 4:00 PM

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews