8/21/13

Review: Ofir: A Wildlife Crime Documentary (2013)


Mark McDannald's Ofir: A Wildlife Crime Documentary is a great story and a rather astonishing achievement. It's true crime, animal welfare, the fight against the extinction of the great ape and other endangered species in Africa, specifically, in the movie, in the nation of Cameroon. It's a story of frontiers, boundaries, hard realities and the many inspiring and often troubling intersections of human and animal lives and spirits.

The movie starts with Ofir Drori, our title subject, caring for a rescued chimpanzee (which he names Future). Drori is an Israeli wildlife preservationist working to rescue animals and use rarely enforced laws in Africa to prosecute those who harm, kill or traffic protected wild animals. He traveled to Cameroon with the intention of writing a story about those on the front lines of protecting the great apes, whose extinction Jane Goodall had called imminent. Who he found at the front lines was himself and some other people willing to join his effort.

As we'll see throughout the movie, at the beginning of his project in 2003-4, physically caring for animals was a big part of the job Ofir set out for himself. Striding into wild places, interfacing with other activists, workers and sometimes corrupt, recalcitrant or resource-strapped officials to find homes and transitions for animals and to investigate crimes against them, using informants, constantly staying aware of his surroundings as he travels and works, it's no easy or repetitive struggle.

It's shown rather journalistically, from the ground level in the movie. It's early in Drori's and his group's effort to establish the credibility of their mission and organization, but he's jumped in headfirst and just started saving animals while trying to get laws enforced, a volunteer humane society worker and sheriff who tries to get the job done, working with the systems in place when possible or somewhat around them when necessary. It's something to see, as is the animal photography throughout. I didn't know what a tree pangolin was until I saw a close-up of one of the gorgeous creatures here Ofir returns to its forest habitat.

It takes someone of extraordinary heart and capabilites to even attempt, much less to have some successes and navigate the varied environments and circumstances in which Ofir places himself in this movie and in the larger context his activities have taken on in the nations of the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Guinea.

(This is as good a place for full disclosure as any: I do not know Ofir Drori or anyone associated with his organizations LAGA: The Last Great Ape Organization or AC: Anti Corruption Org nor the co-author of his book The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent, David McDannald, who appears in this movie. I did go to college with the documentary's director, Mark McDannald, who has given me a look at the movie ahead of festivals.)

Shot on video, some of it undercover, the quality of the visual and audio components is rough at times, but the important story comes through clearly. With camera work by subjects Ofir Drori and David McDannald, the movie is evidently a personal work, sometimes almost a video diary, and a labor of love. Watching it one understands why they wanted the story told so much and admires how they tell it so well.

Original instrumental guitar music by David McDannald accompanies much of the movie effectively, with a feeling of motion and discovery, and the end credits feature an original song by LAGA investigator and musician Kalebass Rostrand, who participates in a gorilla rescue depicted in the movie.

Worthwhile on its own as a document and engaging as a complex narrative, Ofir is documentary filmmaking as it should be: finding a compelling story and making it real for an audience. Even if any particular audience member might not have been deeply concerned or interested about the issues with which it grapples, they're presented in an immediate and fascinating way, a modern true story, messy, moving and worth engaging.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies