Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: The Last Male on Earth, The Instrumental Value Of Wildlife
Next up in our essay series, Ben Nicholson writes about Floor van der Meulen’s The Last Male on Earth in relation to other depictions of extinction in contemporary wildlife focused documentary.
The proclaimed value that animals have to humanity provides the ‘practical muscle’ for on the ground conservation according to Norman Meyers in his 1979 book The Sinking Ark. The instrumental value of wildlife is a vital notion to keep in consideration when we wrestle with ideas of representation in wildlife documentary and questions regarding what such films are ultimately trying to accomplish, and what are the most meaningful and ethical ways of achieving those ends.
All of this plays into the ways in which we can consider Floor van der Meulen’s first feature documentary, The Last Male on Earth. The ostensible subject of the film, as implied by the title, is Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, who died in 2018 at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sudan became something of a global celebrity – “he’s a superstar,” says Ol Pejeta’s Head of PR, Elodie Sampere – in the decade he spent back in Africa after more than thirty years in a Czechoslovak zoo. However, while Sudan is the ‘last male’ of the title, it is noteworthy that his name does not appear, as it did in the title of the BBC’s 2017 Natural World special on him, Sudan: The Last of the Rhinos. This might seem unimportant, but it means that the title foregrounds Sudan’s status for his species, rather than Sudan as an individual creature. As such, one reading of the title suggests that Sudan is not the subject of van der Meulen’s film as much humanity’s relationship with extinction is.
Sudan’s position and purpose at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is to help tourists to connect with the plight of the northern white rhinoceros and, by proxy, other endangered species. Christian Paulussen’s camera watches on as various visitors are introduced to a disinterested Sudan by his devoted keeper James who goes on to beseech them to tell others of their experience with Sudan. This might also be considered the primary purpose of a nature documentary – to educate the masses about the natural world and the challenges it faces, particularly with regards to the current climate emergency. The film certainly engages in that way; in particular, the relationship between James and Sudan is subtly moving, recalling the tender parental moments in Orlando von Einsiedel’s otherwise stomach-churning Virunga (2014).
However, van der Meulen creates something misty-eyed about Sudan and his predicament whilst also applying a clear eye to the way in which his predicament has become the source of interest and investment. The film spends less time that might be expected watching Sudan, far more interested in the various administrators at Ol Pejeta, the training of armed guards to protect the rhino from poaching, the overwhelmed reactions of tourists at having touched Sudan and had a photo taken with him. The film stops short of wondering whether their heartfelt reactions will stay with them once they’re back home from their safari, but the question hangs deliciously in the air.
Several films over the past few years have challenged assumptions about conservation. Two of the most interesting examples were Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy (2017), which provocatively interrogated trophy hunting as a conservation tool, and Mark Grieco’s A River Below (2017), which explored the true story behind a famous video of dolphin slaughter in Brazil. While The Last Male on Earth may not be as openly combative as those two films, it manages to gently prod at similar knotty contradictions through wry observation and its mordant countdown clock to Sudan’s departure. At least he was able to shuffle off this mortal coil safe in the knowledge that those who missed him would be able to sport a natty ‘most eligible bachelor’ t-shirt with his face on to remember him by.
Ben Nicholson is a film critic and programmer. He also runs Alt/Kino.