Our planet is fucked. We have 12 years to limit climate change before irreparable damage sets in, according to the authors of a sobering 2018 report commissioned by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we don’t keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, extreme and devastating weather will worsen. We’ve seen the signs: California’s largest wildfire ravaged the state last year; deadly heat waves are becoming more frequent across the world; and hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods are happening with more power and frequency.
The apocalyptic future climate scientists warn us about is avoidable, but significant changes to our everyday lives must be made. It would be easy for the Environmental Film Festival to program a bunch of films designed to scare you into living a more sustainable life. But this festival—now in its 27th year—is too smart for that. Instead, this collection includes more than 100 films from all over the world that portray how beautiful, precious, and remarkable our planet is, and the dangers it faces—from the threat of extinction of sharks to one Japanese family’s 100-year-old oyster farm.
At a time when global tensions are increasingly taut and agenda-setting governing bodies manipulate our fear and anxiety, the Environmental Film Festival doesn’t take a scared-straight approach to sharing its message. It instead aims to inspire. Because Earth is pretty damn awe-inspiring—and these films show that. —Matt Cohen
The River and the WallDirected by Ben MastersU.S.
The Rio Grande stretches along the Texas/Mexico border from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. There are parts where you cannot see the river because of the border wall already in place. This is one of the many simple, practical details in The River and the Wall, a political documentary that doubles as a travelogue of the Texas border. By focusing on the physical realities/challenges of the river, not presidential rhetoric, the filmmakers make a practical case for why the wall is a bad idea.
Director Ben Masters, along with a team of guides and scientists, decides to make sense of the river by traveling its entire length. They start in El Paso on bicycles, switching to horseback, and eventually settle on canoes. Throughout the journey, the team thinks about what the river offers the surrounding area, and how a wall would get in the way of its many benefits. There is abundant biodiversity along the river, for example, with many animals crossing it without much thought about the country on either side. They also speak to locals and politicians about the wall, including Beto O’Rourke, and while many of them want border security, none want a wall.
If The River and the Wall runs the risk of being too repetitive, Masters breaks up the argument with a sense of adventure. There are some stretches where the film unfolds like a Western, like when everyone hops on horses the first time. This also leads to throwaway comedy, since the team falls into Western archetypes, and one has to be the comic relief. The River and the Wall probably won’t change any minds, but it offers an engaging, effective point of view on what Trump’s bullshit ideas would functionally mean. —Alan Zilberman
Screens Thursday, March 14 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m. at National Geographic.
The Fisherman and the ForestProduced by NHK World-JapanJapan
Shigeatsu Hatakeyama can see himself in his grandson. The pair explore nature together in Kesennuma in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture so Hatakeyama can pass on his love of all living things. Culturally, their adventures feel like a father-and-son fishing trip, but instead of discussing the birds and the bees, Hatakeyama is passing on wisdom about the forest and the sea. If his grandson takes over his oyster farm, Hatakeyama calculates that his family business will be a century old.
Hatakeyama’s oysters aren’t anything like the bivalves from the Mid-Atlantic or New England that Americans slurp. The shells stretch on inch after inch and the oysters inside approach the size of tight fists. The perfect specimens are a reward of sorts for the love that Hatakeyama puts into caring for Mone Bay where he makes his home.
In 1964, the nearby Kesennuma Bay was at its worst. It became polluted as a result of Japan’s rapid economic growth in the aftermath of World War II. Hatakeyama remembers the year because it was also when Tokyo hosted the Olympics. The bay was swarming with red tide. Hatakeyama was determined to restore the bay to its original splendor and tapped a professor from Hokkaido to be his research partner. Together they learned that the sea and the forest are intrinsically linked.
“They’re locked in an eternal embrace,” Hatakeyama says. “The forest is the sea’s lover.” That’s because the forest produces phytoplankton that are vital to underwater ecosystems. Hatakeyama’s research proved critical again following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. After the disaster, 25,949 people were reported dead or missing, including Hatakeyama’s mother. For a movie principally about phytoplankton, The Fisherman and the Forest imparts an appreciation for the planet’s fragile symbiotic relationships as well as the Japanese culture of mastery. —Laura Hayes
Screens Friday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Japan Information and Culture Center, Embassy of Japan.
When Lambs Become LionsDirected by Jon KasbeU.S.
Following the success of animal wildlife docs like The Cove, Blackfish, and Trophy, When Lambs Become Lions arrives with the most titillating scenario. It is a crime drama examining the ivory trade in Kenya through the lives of two men on opposite sides of the law: Asan, a National Reserve Game Ranger who uses brutal tactics to discourage poaching, and the anonymous “X”, who manages an illegal and dangerous poaching operation.
Instead of choosing sides, it seeks commonalities. Viewers who love animals will want the poacher demonized and the ranger praised, but instead director Jon Kasbe sees them as brothers who have chosen different paths out of the same problem. Both are stricken with poverty, must risk their lives in a dangerous vocation to feed their families, and are traumatized by the trade. “Out here we are all hunters,” says Asan, and the film at its best examines the broken culture that has forced decent men to find dignity on either side of a monstrous situation.
It’s an irresistible hook, so why does so much of When Lambs Become Lions feel inert? Much like a military operation, there is a lot of waiting around before a sudden burst of action. As X’s team embarks on a hunt in the final minutes, there is finally some real tension—as well as a revelatory kicker—but with its brief 80-minute runtime, it shouldn’t drag so much. All the elements are there for a thrilling wildlife documentary with a strong human component, but a crime drama needs an actual crime. —Noah Gittell
Screens Saturday, March 16 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 24 at 4 p.m. at National Geographic.
Into the CanyonDirected by Peter McBrideU.S.
You would expect the Environmental Film Festival to offer its fair share of dispatches from the eternal battle between man and nature. But if one of the perils of the documentary format is the tendency of a director to make themselves part of the story, that goes double for nature docs. Such is the conflict in this celebration of nature as a buddy movie travelogue. Photographer Pete McBride, who directed, documented his journey with Kevin Fedarko, who teamed up (with the help of seasoned guides) to make a 750-mile hike across the length of the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, the end product is less about a natural wonder than about the friends they made along the way.
The movie is best when McBride turns the camera away from his team to document various crises that threaten the national park, from Navajo land endangered by developers to uranium mines that contaminate ground water to a thriving industry of helicopter tours whose constant whirring has turned the region’s peaceful vistas into a noisy tourist trap. Only when McBride just lets you see the “river of stars” and bask in its majesty does he truly let you… into the Canyon. —Pat Padua
Screens Saturday, March 16 at 4 p.m. at National Geographic.
WildlandDirected by Kahlil Hudson and Alex JablonskiU.S.
The world watched in horror last year as Camp Fire—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history—laid waste to 1,893,913 acres of the state. It would have been far worse without the tireless efforts of hundreds of wildland firefighters, who put their lives on the line to control the flames. Kahlil Hudson and Alex Jablonski’s meditative documentary, Wildland, chronicles a single firefighting crew—from the day of their first interview to become firefighters to their training to the moment they’re shipped out to the frontlines of a raging wildfire in California.
The cinematography of Wildland is gorgeous. The sweeping, slow-motion shots of the Oregon wilderness and the scorched earth California vistas are haunting, and give the film a poetic quality. But as far as documentaries go, Wildland falls flat when it tries to get viewers to engage with its subjects. Each of the people they profile has their own reasons for wanting to become a firefighter—from a young kid from Maine who’s looking for adventure to returning citizens and former addicts on the road of recovery—but the film’s lyrical nature doesn’t really allow you to connect with them. They’re presented more like characters floating in and out of the narrative than people whose lives you’re invested in. —Matt Cohen
Screens Saturday, March 16 at 7 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema.
Meow Wolf: Origin StoryDirected by Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan CappsU.S.
A recurring festival theme is one of an environment contaminated—by nuclear power, uranium mining, garbage. But can the environment be contaminated by art? That is the inadvertent lesson of this feature-length infomercial about the art collective Meow Wolf, who has set its sights on D.C. The group began as a response to the commercial art gallery scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which one Meow Wolf co-founder lambasts as “a bunch of marketing bullshit”—a complaint that becomes awfully prescient. A group of friends got together and rented cheap abandoned real estate for what amounted to a more intense version of Artomatic. The early days of Meow Wolf were anarchic and, as its members boast, “radically inclusive”—which leads one to ask why, then, does it seem like everybody involved is white?
But as the projects grew and began to make money, Meow Wolf needed structure, and this pull between chaos and order may well be a metaphor for man and the environment. While the installations are cool enough, Origin Story feels like hagiography; nobody questions their motives and priorities, such as convincing Game of Thrones author and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin to donate more than a million bucks to convert an abandoned bowling alley into a dazzling playground. (Doesn’t anybody need affordable housing in Santa Fe?) Still, directors Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps aren’t afraid to reveal what really drives these one-time DIY pioneers; by the end of the movie, Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek freely admits he wants to turn it into a billion- dollar corporation. Yay environment! —Pat Padua
Screens Sunday, March 17 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Return to Mount KennedyDirected by Eric BeckerU.S.
After President John F. Kennedy’s death, the Canadian government honored him by naming a previously unclimbed mountain in his honor. In 1965, Robert Kennedy, with mountaineer Jim Whittaker, ascended the mountain for the first time. Return to Mount Kennedy is not about that specific journey, but an identical one undertaken 50 years later by Whittaker and Kennedy’s sons.
Bob Whittaker, Jim’s son, is a strange guy. Before life as conservationist, he was a tour manager for rock bands like Mudhoney, R.E.M., and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He had a hard-partying lifestyle, which is why his desire to climb the mountain represents such a growth in character. Director Eric Becker makes no attempt to stay objective with this material: He feels like he’s pals with his subjects and talking heads, including Eddie Vedder, so the film has the polish and charm of well edited home movie.
Unlike most environmental films that focus on a specific issue, Return to Mount Kennedy is a look at how adventure and family can dovetail with conservation efforts. The Whittakers and the Kennedys found the outdoors as the source of their friendship, and their desire to honor the mountain highlights the rugged, austere beauty that only the natural world can provide. Mountains are one of the few things that will stick around long after we are gone, so making sense of their permanence is a way to reflect on the past, and what we owe our future generations. —Alan Zilberman
Screens Sunday, March 17 at 4 p.m. at National Geographic.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: CodaDirected by Stephen Nomura SchibleU.S., Japan
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto came to fame in the 1970s with synth-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, and won an Oscar for the score to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor. But in 2014, a cancer diagnosis led the electronic music legend to appreciate the sounds of nature more than ever.
Director Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2017 profile charts his subject’s passion, not just for music but for the environment (Sakamoto is a longtime opponent of nuclear power). Coda immerses us in a creative process that doesn’t always begin at the keyboard. Inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Sakamoto finds music in the sound of rain falling, and has even travelled to the Arctic to record the sound of melting snow. He makes haunting music out of a grand piano that was washed away by the massive tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Musing over the decay rate of a single piano note that quickly fades, Sakamoto suggests that a perpetual music machine would be a metaphor for eternity.
But as we see vintage footage of the younger composer with jet-black hair, the artist’s now-white hair and grizzled face make one wonder about the very purpose of decay—and if the piano’s decay rate is no less than a metaphor for mortality. —Pat Padua
Screens Sunday, March 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium.
Silent Forests Directed by Mariah WilsonU.S.
The issue of ivory poaching gets a second perspective at the festival in Silent Forests, a feel-good story about a wide array of activists working to end the criminal practice. The film by Mariah Wilson is a lyrical nature documentary and a powerful issue movie at once. It profiles a female eco-guard in Cameroon who speaks of the “joy in [her] heart” when she sees an elephant; a Czech activist training puppies to sniff out ivory and other protected species; and a former poacher who has given up his life of crime to run a cocoa farm with his family, and nows speaks out against his former trade.
These are stories determinedly designed to inspire, but the hopefulness never feels contrived. Wisely, the filmmakers let the beauty of nature speak its own message. There is an unforgettable sequence halfway through in which a family of elephants emerges under the cover of night to drink from a river. The group includes a juvenile still young enough to nurse from its mother. Other films would create tension and force us to fear for their safety, but Silent Forests gives us the space to open our hearts and let our compassion out. Instead of trying to shock us into action, it organizes its story around the principles of love, family, and community. —Noah Gittell
Screens Monday, March 18 at 7 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema.
Harvest SeasonDirected by Bernardo RuizMexico
“All winemakers should be able to offer something about the grape that is hidden,” says one of the principles of Harvest Season, a documentary that examines the vineyards of Napa Valley through the prism of the Latinx experience. Such wisdom should also apply to documentarians, and while the film by Bernardo Ruiz offers its share of hidden stories, it is missing a consistency that would tie its flavors together.
Harvest Season shines a light on successful Hispanic winemakers, including a young female vintner who is proving herself in a male-dominated world. It also chronicles the journey of a Mexican laborer who comes to California for a summer of work, and tours the housing units he lives in set up by a coalition of vineyards. In the final third, it documents the crippling wildfires that destroyed more than 200,000 acres in 2017, and its tragic impact on the region and its inhabitants.
There are profound moments scattered throughout, such as the conversation between old-timers who recall having to sleep in the fields when they first arrived to work the land. I could have spent an hour with them, but the film moves on too quickly. Perhaps none of its subjects were quite compelling enough to stick with; the immigrant laborer seems like a sweet guy, but the smile never leaves his face, and the tale of hardship that the filmmakers were seeking never materializes. Something about Harvest Season feels unfinished, as if the product was bottled too soon, when it really needed time to breathe. —Noah Gittell
Screens Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Malsi Doyle & Michael Forman Theater at American University.
LOBSTER WAR: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing GroundsDirected by David Abel and Andy LaubU.S.
When you think of border disputes your mind may not jump to the boundary between the United States and Canada, but that’s exactly where LOBSTER WAR brings us. Thanks to a quirk of history, both the U.S. and Canada claim a patch of sea in the Gulf of Maine. And thanks to climate change, this “gray zone” is now home to a record number of lobsters, leading lobstermen from both nations to the spot—and thus into conflict.
LOBSTER WAR takes a while to get started. Or rather, it gets started a bunch of times. The doc keeps hammering home the story’s stakes—both Americans and Canadians rely on the crustaceans caught in these contested seas—to the point that it gets redundant. Even if it’s slow going, the doc is full of beautiful shots of boats and the sea and morbidly engrossing footage of lobster butchering. The story picks up when we meet the communities for whom the gray zone is a daily reality.
Although the characters talk a lot about conflict, it doesn’t come across as particularly warlike. Fishermen recount things like cut lines, which may not mean much to land lubbers but amount to thousands of forfeited dollars to lobstermen, and thumbs lost to accidents caused by overcrowding—the impact of which should be obvious, even to non-seafaring folk.
The film ultimately pivots to climate change, noting that lobsters will likely disappear from these waters. What will happen to these communities then? it wonders. It’s a good question, but I’m more interested in the bit that comes before. As the globe continues to warm and ecosystems transform, people will increasingly be pushed against one another, struggling over scarce and valuable resources. The film gives us a glimpse of what’s to come, but the next war won’t be over lobster. —Will Warren
Screens Sunday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at the National Museum of Natural History.
The Human ElementDirected by Matthew TestaU.S.
Water, air, fire, earth—the four elements that comprise life on our planet. The Human Element adds one more to the list: people. “People are changing the other elements,” says nature photographer James Balog, the central talking head in this documentary. “At the same time, the elements are changing us.” Of course, he’s mostly talking about climate change, and visits places that have been particularly affected by it. There’s Tangier Island, Virginia, whose water levels are increasing so dramatically that one resident says, “We’re one storm away from becoming part of history.” Balog takes photos at a school in Denver that has a special program for students with asthma. And he embeds with a group of firefighters who are battling “megafires” in California, with one firefighter remarking on the unnaturalness of fires burning in 91 percent humidity: “You’re getting wet, but the fire’s still burning. It’s not something that’s supposed to happen.” The chapter that gets the least amount of attention is Earth, with Balog traveling to Pennsylvania coal mines and talking to his father about his grandfather’s mining death, as well as touching on how “our quest for coal has reshaped the landscape,” according to an expert. Throughout, one tenet rings clear, says Balog: “People are the only element that can choose to restore balance.” —Tricia Olszewski
Screens Sunday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
This Mountain LifeDirected by Grant BaldwinCanada
Before we see the mountains, we hear the wind. “75 percent of British Columbia, Canada, is mountains,” reads the film’s opening text, as the sound of snowy gales builds in the background. “Few people truly experience them.” The purpose of This Mountain Life—a documentary by director, cinematographer, and editor Grant Baldwin—is to amend that last claim, immersing us within shot after transcendent shot of the immense elevations that reign over Canada’s horizon. We follow Martina Halik and her 60-year-old mother Tania as they attempt a six-month, 2,300 kilometer journey from Canada to Alaska, the narrative diverting at points to introduce us to a handful of compellingly offbeat characters who live on the precipice. From the halcyon convent nestled within a valley to the perils of an avalanche, This Mountain Life is a breathtaking ode to nature’s most sublime metaphor.
Gorgeous visuals are this film’s bread and butter, but Baldwin is wise to pair aerial views with gritty handheld camera footage that archives the sometimes bitter struggle that occurs when people and nature converge to meet each other in hostile environments. Still, This Mountain Life feels like going to church, especially when the alpinists and artists who give the landscape voice are so eloquent, so philosophical about their communion. Mountains are “a return, a well-spring, or fountainhead;” places where men “can become heroes.” In one particularly heavenly shot, a nun paraphrases T.S. Eliot as she spins pottery in slow motion. “At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is,” she says. “If there was no still point, there’d be no dance.” The mountains are one of the grandest still points of life, this film seems to say. To experience them as such for 77 minutes is a wonder. —Amy Guay
Screens Monday March 18 at 12 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Embassy of Canada.
The Most UnknownDirected by Ian CheneyU.S.
Somewhere in The Most Unknown, a great idea got lost. Opening text says that Ian Cheney’s film is an “experiment,” documenting nine scientists as they meet in pairs around the world and discuss their disciplines. The setting hops from Italy to Brussels to Nevada and beyond, with big questions such as “What is consciousness?” asked at each stop while the scholars try to explain their studies and methodologies to whomever they’re paired with. A word that seems to pop up more often than most is “cool,” with each researcher geeking out, particularly when in the role of student. As one says, “That’s what we’re trying to do with the brains we have, to try to understand our place in the universe.” This curiosity is the cornerstone of The Most Unknown, but it doesn’t succeed in making it compelling. The problem is that, although the topics themselves are interesting, it’s obviously impossible for anyone to go into much depth in a 92-minute film, resulting in generalities that hardly enlighten—and, ultimately, elicit a big “so what?” —Tricia Olszewski
Screens Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
The Green LieDirected by Werner BooteAustria
Werner Boote just wants to eat his M&Ms. But when the director of The Green Lie puts a few in front of activist Feri Irawan to gauge his reaction, Irawan says, “They were made with the blood of Indonesians.” Scratch that. This documentary investigates what Boote and research partner Kathrin Hartmann call “greenwashing,” or the act of corporations stating that their products are sustainable. Though “investigates” is a generous term; Boote and Hartmann do travel around the world and meet various people who are involved in or protesting against manufacturing, but mostly they talk amongst themselves, with Boote acting naïve and Hartmann setting him straight. The sin most frequently discussed here is palm oil, whose production necessitates rainforests being destroyed. Hartmann repeatedly says that, unlike what labels on many products claim, there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, and though a few interview subjects push back on this idea, she sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. Hartmann’s soapboxing gets a little tiresome, but Boote calls her out on it: “If your indignation could generate power, we’d all have light,” he says. She may be “a real killjoy,” as Boote says, but it’s enough to make you think twice about those M&Ms. —Tricia Olszewski
Screens Tuesday, March 19 at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Wild AmsterdamDirected by Mark VerkerkNetherlands
It’s pointless for a classic-style nature documentary to aim for anything less than BBC-level cinematography, given that our high-def tastes have been locked-in since Planet Earth debuted in 2006. In that respect, Wild Amsterdam gets the job done: It trains the camera on urban vermin with the same level of care that a more snobby film might give to majestic sea mammals. The underbelly of the Dutch metropolis will look familiar to anyone with a taste for content about common rodents, birds, aquatic creatures, and their predators; like any city, Amsterdam is an archipelago of micro-habitats where people and critters live in fascinating proximity. The film itself, though, has a deeply corny side, most of which comes from the “narration” by a common house cat. Yeah, a cat. (With a human voiceover, duh.) The kitty is photogenic and cooperative—if that’s even the right word—and there’s some solid logic in the idea of showing rats and pigeons from a feline’s vantage point. But the real star here isn’t the animals. It’s Amsterdam itself, with its canals and spring sunlight, beckoning the viewer to come and revel in the cuteness of it all. There’s weird stuff, of course, including the escaped parakeets that have learned how to survive the winter, the bachelor toads that smother breeding females, and the invasive U.S. crayfish that thrive in the canals. But the city is the real stunner. I mean, why wouldn’t an animal want to call it home? —Joe Warminsky
Screens Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Royal Netherlands Embassy.
Thirteen WaysDirected by Ian CheneyU.S.
Thirteen Ways is unlike anything else. It gets its name from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, and after seeing it, you’ll never look at the natural world the same way. The entire premise of the film is an experiment: 12 scientists and nonscientists walk the same piece of Maine land and describe it, through winter, spring, summer, and fall. Nowhere is the power of the natural world more apparent than in this plot of land, with these people. Not one of them sees the natural world in the same way, and we are taken on a ride through each of their minds, exploring this world, our world, through them and their quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Directed by Ian Cheney, the film is a reminder that just beneath the surface of seemingly mundane surroundings, there is so much intrigue—and nothing is mundane when the surroundings are being described by passionate scientists, nature lovers, and creatives. There is talk of lichens and vole tunnels, as well as racism and sexism, and there is even paragliding. The forest is home to snow-covered tree branches in the winter, as well as the sounds of bustling insects in the warmer months. The eccentric, diverse cast of characters makes for wonderful eyes to see the woods through. And the four seasons, Thirteen Ways’ central characters, are most enchanting in this little part of Maine. Vivaldi would be proud. —Kayla Randall
Screens Thursday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema.
The Woman Who Loves GiraffesDirected by Alison ReidCanada
In the 1950s, a young Canadian zoologist left for Africa to study giraffes in the wild. Anne Dagg traveled the continent alone in her small, shaky car. There were no cell phones, there was no infrastructure. She fought steep odds as a woman explorer pushing back against the scientific and academic community’s sexist resistance to her, and she would go on to be considered the world’s first giraffologist. Her story isn’t widely known, her boldness relegated to the footnotes of history—until now. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is director Alison Reid’s love letter to Dagg, her life, and her work, and in this documentary, Dagg’s boldness comes through in spades.
A journey through Dagg’s past and present, the film paints a picture of a woman who is exceptionally knowledgeable about the long-necked apples of her eye. She admires their long necks, tails, and tongues, and is an endless wealth of giraffe expertise. After all, she’s loved them since she was 3 years old. But the film isn’t just about a woman who loves giraffes, it is about a woman who is a pioneer. She co-wrote what is today considered the bible on giraffes. Before Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees, there was Anne Dagg and the giraffes. Featuring lovely voice work by actors Tatiana Maslany and Victor Garber, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes gets to the heart of who this fascinating, peculiar scientist is, and why her own heart belongs to the giant endangered African grassland dwellers. With sweeping overhead shots of giraffes galloping in African plains and closeups of their beauty and quiet elegance, the stunning visuals take the viewer right into the savanna. At the end of this film, it’s easy to come away loving giraffes as deeply as Dagg does. —Kayla Randall
Screens Thursday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Malsi Doyle & Michael Forman Theater at American University and Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m. at Eaton DC.
Sharkwater ExtinctionDirected by Rob StewartCanada
To a shark, especially a great white shark, humans seem like adorable sacs of meat that do not swim very fast. Part of the reason that they’re so fun to eat is that, in the ongoing human/shark wars, humans are handily winning. According to the conservation documentary Sharkwater Extinction, millions of sharks are slaughtered every year for shark fin soup and miscellaneous fish products. As a great white shark, I find this infuriating.
Rob Stewart, the director and star of the film, is one of the good ones. Over many years, he has exposed illegal shark poaching that still happens all over the world. This film follows his efforts, whether it’s going undercover or catching poachers in the act. His point is a simple one: The mass killing of sharks is immoral, and will cause irreparable harm to our ecosystem. Maybe remember that before you buy a ticket to another dumb movie that demonizes sharks, you assholes.
Sharkwater Extinction is a hodgepodge of footage, with Stewart jumping from one activist campaign to another, strung together with admittedly gorgeous footage of shark-kind at our most graceful and serene. The reason for this approach is tragic: Stewart died in a diving accident in 2017. The film handles his death delicately, and while his spirit lives in the film, its unfinished quality diminishes its overall power. It’s a shame in multiple ways. If humans were more like Rob Stewart, sharks wouldn’t be so eager to devour you like some of you are eager to devour shark fin soup. —A Great White Shark
Screens Saturday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at National Geographic and Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
A Modern ShepherdessDirected by Delphine Détrie France
Plenty of people fantasize about leaving their nine-to-five doldrums behind and escaping to a farm somewhere off the grid, but Stéphanie, the subject of A Modern Shepherdess actually did it. A single mother and former graphic designer, she left her life in Paris to try her hand at running a farm and breeding sheep. Turning a profit in agriculture is a tall order in the best of circumstances, but Stéphanie’s been going it alone since her partner left, and since many in the community continue to see her as an interloper, she doesn’t have much of a support network.
What she does have is boundless optimism and a genuine love for what she does. Stéphanie offsets her sheep operations by educating groups of schoolchildren and agritourists, and in one such demonstration, she explains that her profession is technically designated as a “smallholder farmer,” but she prefers the quainter term “shepherdess.” The part of Normandy where she resides is an urban commune, which means she’s under stringent regulations, and isn’t allowed to put up fencing around her property, leading to the pilfering of her flock. Bristling against the bureaucratic interference in her pastoral life is a theme throughout the film.
A Modern Shepherdess is primarily a hangout doc—not a whole lot happens, but we slowly glean the details of how she works and the struggles she’s up against, which include random acts of vandalism from disgruntled neighbors and nonsensical decrees from local governing bodies. The film could benefit from emphasizing these stakes a bit more, or perhaps a bit more context of how farmers are regulated on an urban commune. Nevertheless, it’s an intimate portrait of a winning heroine, and though there’s not a clear conflict, audiences will be rooting for Stéphanie to come out on top by the end. —Stephanie Rudig
Screens Friday, March 15 at 7 p.m. at the Embassy of France and Sunday, March 24 at 7 p.m. at National Geographic.
Welcome to SodomDirected by Christian Krönes and Florian WeigensamerAustria
Any documentary about trash pickers needs a good story about the trash or a good story about the pickers. Welcome to Sodom, set at the massive Agbogbloshie dump in Accra, Ghana, comes up short on both. The piles of electronic detritus are explained in only the briefest of terms, as we’re told that much of it is illegally shipped from all over the world. It’s hardly a new concept for rich-country audiences, even if this wasteland—nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the locals—is particularly immense. If we’re inclined to have any deep anthropological thoughts about our trash, there’s not much in the film to satisfy any curiosity. The pickers, meanwhile, are presented in a series of vignettes, speaking about persistence and survival via dry voice-overs. It’s clear that the Austrian filmmakers weren’t looking for a real protagonist. The dump-as-a-character is the focal point, and there’s not much of a story arc possible for such a uniformly dusty expanse. What about the gay ex-academic who hides out at Sodom, fearing his country’s anti-homosexuality policies? What about the kid who collects bits of scrap steel from the soil with the magnet from a giant stereo speaker? What about the guys who are fascinated by the snapshots on the discarded, unlocked phone of a far-away white guy? We gaze at them or their activities for mere moments, and then the film shifts somewhere else. In a vast, sickly, beige space of hidden details, Welcome to Sodom often stops looking just when things are getting interesting. —Joe Warminsky
Screens Tuesday, March 19 at 7:45 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.