“Trophy”: the sad story of Cecil the Lion is only a little of it

Trophy”, directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, from The Orchard, aired on CNN Films Sunday night January 14, and treated us to breathtaking African safari scenery.

It also presented self-serving rationalizations of poachers and commercial hunters in Africa.

There is a basic argument that killing wild animals makes the native villagers safer.  There is the more sophisticated argument that if you limit legal hunting of animals, the illegal poaching will go up. That sounds a little like legalizing drugs, where libertarian arguments seem to make sense.  Much of the film shows a commercial auctioneer and land manager (John Hume) who says he is protecting animals from illegal poaching, but he will stay in business only as long as he makes money. At the end, the film tells us that Hume has won his case.

There is also a “religious” argument about man’s dominion over the animals (and the speaker denies evolution).

The film opens focusing on rhinoceros tusks, and soon move to elephants, where the world population has shrunk by orders of magnitude.

During the last part of the film, the sad story of the 2015 “accidental” killing of Cecil the Lion, by a Minnesota dentist, is covered.

Name: “Trophy”
Director, writer:  Christina Chusiau, Shaul Schwarz
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2018/1/14
Length:  108
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  The Orchard, CNN Films
Link:  CNN 

(Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2018 at 11:30 PM EST)

“Jane” Goodall’s work on chimpanzees on film shot in the 1960s becomes backstory for a new documentary

Jane” (2017), a National Geographic documentary directed by Brett Morgen, tells its backstory with “animals” (quasi non-human persons – chimpanzees) set in the 1960s in Gombe, Nigeria, and then Tanzania with found (in 2014) footage of Jane Goodall’s work at the time.  The film is based on her own autobiography, “My Life with Chimpanzees”.

In modern day, Jane is often interviewed, while the backstory shows her as a young woman, who spent five months camping out alone before getting the chimps to be comfortable around her.  Very early on. she discovers that the chimps can make simple tools to get at food (especially insects).

In the meantime, she married Hugo Van Wawick from the Netherlands (after saying she didn’t need a family) and had her own son, who would grow up in camp in Tanzania but go back to England for schooling.  As a little boy, you wonder if he could play with toddler chimps as equals.

The chimps learn to use the couple’s feeding station properly, and the chimps tend to view people as chimps themselves with oddly largely hairless bodies.  A polio epidemic occurs among the chimps, and the couple considers vaccinating them. Later, a political dispute or warfare (rather prescient of humans) develops between northern and southern factions of the chimps, rather like our own Civil War.

But the saddest story concerns a young chimp who seems autistic, never stopping suckling, and losing the will to live when his mom dies. That autism would occur in other primates besides man should provide major clues to the genetics of pervasive developmental disorders.

Wikipedia images:

Gombe picture: Goodall shelter

Chimpanzee picture

Tanzania picture

genealogy of chimpanzees to humans (full bipedalism seems to be the crucial step that facilitated human cognitive development to work with language, money, abstraction, and the transmission of culture)

Name:  “Jane”
Director, writer:  Brett Morgen, Jane Goodall
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1 with a lot of 1960s footage
When and how viewed:  Landmark E-street 2017/11/3 nearly sold out
Length:  90
Rating:  G
Companies:  Abaroama, National Geographic Films, Magnolia
Link:  Natgeo

(Posted: Saturday, November 4, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Two Lovers and a Bear”: in northern Canada, a polar bear plays guardian angel to troubled lovers fleeing their pasts

Two Lovers and a Bear“, by Kim Nguyen, is a bizarre little film that pits desperation and the will to live against a harsh environment, and argues for befriending wild animals to boot.  The film touches the fringes of sci-fi and erotic mystery without going very far.

Roman, played by the charismatic and boyish Dane DeHaan, drives trucks and run errands in Iqaluit (actually, Apex) in Nanavut, formerly part of Northwest Territories, above Hudson Bay, Canada, well above the Arctic Circle. He has an off-on relationship with a more bookish girl friend Lucy (Tatania Maslany) who wants go to Montreal or Toronto to college and study pre-med. Both he and Lucy have issues with abusive pasts.   He also has the unusual talent of befriending wild animals, especially a particular polar bear, with whom he carries on conversations (voice of Gordeon Pinsent).  (It occurred to me that Reid Ewing could have played this role, given his history with dogs on social media.)   The film shows a few impressive shots of the polar bear alone, and gives us a moment to ponder whether climate change will endanger is magnificent and free animal, well up the scale in intelligence.

Roman resents her leaving and even kicks her out when she wants to make up, but then they do make up and go on a journey south together on a snowmobile, oblivious to a coming spring blizzard.  The bear has three conversations with Roman in the movie, and is obviously concerned for Roman’s life. The bear knows he can survive but humans can’t (again, ironic, given the climate change issue).  Dangers mount, as Roman falls into an crevasse but Lucy gets him out.  They then have an interesting sequence inside an abandoned military facility that they stumble into, but this doesn’t give them enough wisdom to avoid tragedy.  But the Bear seems to have the key to their entry into heaven.

The early scenes in the film make indoor life in the village look more prosperous than we expect.  There is a party scene in a home early in the movie.  Everything, including Internet, seems to work.

I’ve had a couple of encounters with wild animals.  In Maine in 1974 on a trail on Mt. Katahdin, I saw a black bear in the distance, but he didn’t pay attention to me.  A few years ago on the Appalachian Trail near Stoney Man in Virginia, I saw a mother bear with her cub. She saw me but did not act concerned. She calmly crossed the trail with her cub and ran down the mountain.  On the day of Hurricane Sandy (in the DC area, a long way from the area of major damage), a crow twice chased me back into my garage, as if to warn me of the storm.

There have been a couple of films from Russia about the far north with similar moodiness, such as “The Return” (2003) and “How I Ended This Summer” (2010) and “Leviathan” (2015).

Wikipedia picture, Iqaluit.

Wikipedia picture, Apex.

Name: “Two Lovers and a Polar Bear”
Director, writer: Kim Nguyen
Released: 2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix, Instant play, 2017/5/23
Length: 98
Rating: R
Companies:  2oth Century Fox (rather than Searchlight, unusual for Fox), Entertainment One, Netflix
Link:  official FB

(Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 at 7 PM EDT)

“A Dog’s Purpose”: their lives are richer than we know; do they experience reincarnation?

Ever wonder what it is like to “be” a family pet?  Especially a dog?

A Dog’s Purpose” is indeed a fable that purports to show us what animal consciousness is like’ but by introducing dog reincarnation, creates a tender story about how, by returning after remembering his past lives, a dog can repair the loneliness of his former owner’s life.

In the movie, Bailey (Josh Gad as the voice) has five incarnations.  In the first one, as a puppy, he wonders why he is “here’ and if life is just about having fun, until the dogcatcher stops him.

Then he goes through some kind of astral gateway, and “I’m back”. This time, a loving family on the Canadian prairie rescues him from a hot car of a reckless abusive owner.  The boy, Ethan, convinced dad (Luke Kirby), a traveling salesman, to let him keep “Bailey”.  There follows a 40-minute story, the longest in the film, some of it centered on a slapstick situation comedy scene where dad and mom have the boss home for dinner in their farm house.  While the film style here is faithful to the situation genre of the 1950s, the issues are not;  the Cuban Missile Crisis gets mentioned over the black and white TV.

Then we see Ethan as a mature teen (K.J. Apa).  You have to say he is a terrific kid, protective of his family.  He has a personality like that of Smallville’s Clark Kent.  But he has gotten a football scholarship, and his girl friend Hannah (Britt Robertson) has gotten an academic nod.  But another local teenager, after a dispute, “accidentally” sets the house on fire.  Ethan rescues Barney and his mom but breaks his own leg in escaping.  So much for football.  (Clark Kent was never allowed to play football, either.)

But Bailey emphasizes the bond he developed with Ethan growing up with him over ten years.  Finally, Ethan goes away to agricultural school, sees less of Bailey as he grows old and is finally put to sleep.

But then, “I’m back”.  As a girl, this time a police dog in Chicago.  After she (Elle) rescues someone and saves her owner’s life, she gets shot.  His fourth life is with a low income but happy black family (with a big wedding).  Yet, not a lot comes out of that episode.  His finale is in a low income working class white neighborhood.  After some abuse, he runs away and discovers Ethan’s farm , which he remembers over his past lives.  And he finds an aging Ethan (Dennis Quaid) who is very much alone.  Ehtan was not quite superman after all.

Humans don’t normally recall past lives very easily.  Could it be different with animals?  You wonder about dolphins and orcas, who biologists say may be capable of shared or distributed consciousness.  That raises another question:  why am I who I am, and not someone else?  Could I experience “being” someone else, even for an hour?  There was a Smallville episode where Clark and Lex exchanged bodies for a day.

There was some controversy about the film, including boycott calls, because of a reported incident on the set (USA Today story).  Hollywood Reporter carries an apology by producer Gavin Polone here.

Apa was great as the teen Ethan, but I though the role could have been cast by Reid Ewing, because of his work with dogs.

Name:  “A Dog’s Purpose”
Director, writer:  Lasse Hallstrom (book by W. Bruce Cameron)
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2017/1/26, small audience, evening
Length:  100
Rating:  PG
Companies:  Amblin, Walden Media, Universal
Link:  official

The film has several shots of Winnipeg, which I visited in September 1997 (picture).

(Posted: January 27, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST)

“Live and Let Live” presents the case for veganism


Name: Live and Let Live
Director, writer:  Marc Pierschel
Released:  2013
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant
Length 80
Rating NA
Companies: Blackrabbit
Link: VOD

Marc Pierschel’s “Live and Let Live” (2013) presents veganism , going back to the time of an essay promoting the dietary concept in “The Vegetarian Messenger” back in 1944.  Vegan diets do not allow any animal products at all (especially, no dairy).

The title of the movie reminds me of the appellation I gave my own proposal for eliminating the ban on gays in the military in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997.  It also reminds us of a notorious James Bond movie and song, “Live and Let Die” (1973) complete with that Mississippi sheriff.

Perschell spends a lot of time interviewing a German farmer family, and also a competitive cyclist Jack Lindquist, who, handsome enough except for the shaved and partially tattooed arms and legs, shows how he can consume 5000 calories a day with plenty of variety of plant proteins.  Many others are interviewed, including Peter Singer (professor of Bioethics) and entrepreneur Aaron Adams, who went through his own epiphany and started the Portebello Trattoria in Portland, Oregon.

Other speakers talk about “carnalism”, how we rationalize our raising and slaughter of some animals for eating, while honoring others (dogs).  Animals do value their own lives (Singer talks about “sentience”), and pigs particularly are quite intelligent (as in the 1995 Australian film “Babe”).

But one speaker says that even vegan food can come with karma or ethical problems, if it is dependent on fruit grown or picked by migrant or essentially slave labor.

Is the vegan diet best for personal heart health?  Celebrities from Bill Clinton to Reid Ewing say so.  Here’s a con argument  or another piece by Chris Kesser.  The Wall Street Journal had a balanced article in 2012.

(Posted: Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 at 11 AM EDT)

“The Islands and the Whales”: Faroe Islands (country) faces moral dilemmas in sustaining its way of life



Name: The Islands and the Whales
Director, writer:  Mike Day  (Scotland?)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.94:1  film or HD video, very high quality
When and how viewed:  AFI Docs, 2016/6/26 at Landmark E St. sold out
Length 84
Rating N.A. (PG-13?);  Danish, Faroese, English
Companies: Roco
Link: Site

Mike Day’s documentary “The Islands and the Whales” (taking five years to make) presents the moral dilemmas faced by the Faroe Islands  , a tiny country of 48000 people (and autonomous part of the “kingdom of Denmark”) geographically comprising an archipelago between Iceland and Scotland in the far north Atlantic.

The country’s biggest industry is, understandably, fishing and this includes whaling.  That poses two major problems.  The first is that the people are gradually getting exposed to more mercury in the seafood, which can cause gradual mental dulling in kids  The second is the whole ethical basis of the pilot whale hunting.  People include whale meat in their diet, but much less than in the past.  Now, all goods can be imported into the modern country, but in the 1950s whale was actually a major protein source.

The movie has brutal scenes of the killing of the whales once captured.  Pilot whales have a complex social structure similar to that of dolphins and orcas, and their intelligence may approach that of these other “animals”.  It’s interesting to remember that, before the oil and gas industry developed, back in the 19th century, people used whale oil for lighting. Now, cetaceans are understood to have the intelligence comparable to elephants and primates, and even a more communal sense of self.  Orcas may have intelligence fully equal to humans.  Hunting them is more objectionable than would, say, hunting big cats (which cause an international uproar in the case of Cecil the Lion) because we have come to appreciate the intelligence of most carnivores, whether as pets or large in the wild.  We feel their lives, if separate from us in the wild (like the grizzly bear) should be respected.

In the QA, Day said that the residents of Faroe would probably compare whale hunting to agriculture and hunting in the American West, which used to be socially and morally acceptable.  Information about the intelligence of whales is more recent and not accepted by everyone.  More discussion of the “non human person” concept is here.

The film focuses on a particular family, with an attractive father probably in his 30s with wife and  two daughters, taking the medical tests for mercury.  The father has more mercury than the others but no symptoms.  The family debates cutting down or out on eating whale meat.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200
VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

The film also shows the “sea warriors” who show up to protest and disrupt whaling activities, and get arrested.  It also shows a street fair in Torshavn in late summer.  The climate is marine, with little snow at sea level but heavy snow at over 1000 feet in winter, and cool summers.  The scenery, of lava flow glaciate rocks and greenery, with sharp peaks and plateaus, is spectacular.  There are a few towns and densely populated areas.  The people talk about the coming of electricity after WWII.

Curiously, the Faroe Islands have one of the highest fertility rates in Europe.

Another environmental issue is the dwindling population of a spectacular bird, the Puffin, which is also hunted.


Many other parts of the world have done whaling. The Smithsonian Folklife exhibit on Basque culture refers to it off the coast of Spain in the past, associated with the modern sport of estropadak, or rowing.

Q and A follows





Here is Carl Nielsen’s “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands”.

Related feature films would include “The Cove” (2009, “Racing Extinction” (2015, both Psihoyos), “How to Change the World” (2016, Rothwell, about Greenpeace), “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015, Ron Howard, about “Moby Dick”).

Wikipedia attribution link for Faroese landscape    by Vincent van Jeigst, under CCSA 3.0.


The feature was preceded (at AFI Docs) by a short “My Deadly, Beautiful City” (previously titled “The Hidden City”), 13 minutes, by Victoria Fiore. It was sponsored by the New York Times (largely in Russian with subtitles).  The film showed Norilsk, Russia, an industrial city in Siberia 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, polluted by nickel mining. Norilsk is the world’s northernmost city with a population over 100000, but it is usually closed to non-Russian visitors.  But Putin has been offering free land and housing to families who will settle in Siberia and have lots of babies. But is this city Vladimir Putin’s shame? So much for how well Soviet communism and now ultra nationalism takes care of people.

Here’s an interview with a Russian journalist on the most polluted city in Russia.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of landscape near Norilsk, by Grain, public domain.

(Published: Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

(Last picture is from Aquarium in Baltimore, dolphin show, November 2009, mine)