As the last male northern white rhino in existence nears the end of his life, humans hurry to revive the extinct species in a tragicomic farce of conservation efforts in this observant documentary
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In 2018, Sudan, the last male specimen of the northern white rhino on the planet, died in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. “The Last Male on Earth” was made over 32 months leading up to Sudan’s death, and shows the assorted cast of humans surrounding Sudan prepare for his death in their own manner. Conservancy staff, tourists, bureaucrats, scientists, all play their parts, creating a rumpus while the regal animal quietly passes away, in this tragicomedy of the Anthropocene.
WHO MADE IT: Floor van der Meulen is a young film director from the Netherlands, who has made great strides in her filmmaking career. Her previous films, all shorts of varying length, dealt with radicalization, the Syrian war, and migration. “The Last Male on Earth,” which van der Meulen co-wrote with experienced documentary producer Renko Douze, is her debut feature-length documentary and her first foray into Africa and the field of conservation. The people featured in the film are all directly or indirectly connected to the preservation of Sudan, with James Mwenda, his primary caretaker at Ol Pejeta, the most memorable and tender of voices. Sudan was the last male northern white rhino on the planet and is survived by daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu, the two last northern white rhinos in existence.
WHY DO WE CARE: Like many other humans in the last few years, we kept listening to dispatches from Ol Pejeta with bated breath, hoping that some miracle would alter the fate of the elderly rhino patriarch. It didn’t, but the aftermath of the ungulate’s death, hopefully, served as a wake-up call to some. Van der Meulen’s film is an inquiry into how some humans hurriedly try to undo the damage that generations have inflicted. Surprisingly, it reminded me of “Death of Stalin,” although Sudan has very little in common with the Soviet dictator, except for the pomp of his demise. But the way humans were desperately trying to find angles in a miserable situation and shoving elbows prompted the visions of the delightful but ominous bickering between Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale as Khrushchev and Beria. Of course, the humans featured in “The Last Male on Earth” are generally not after their personal gain, and some, like the Kenyans guarding the refuge with their lives, are downright admirable. But the way each fortune is linked to Sudan’s fate makes for an interesting and humbling sociological commentary. After all, what is Sudan’s story if not a centuries-old fable about the dignified death of a wise giant, and the petty brouhaha it instills in humankind fully responsible for the tragedy?
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: “The Last Male on Earth” is a comprehensive, fascinating portrait of the conservation industry—a necessary, helpful sphere which simultaneously involves selflessness and significant risks, as well as blatantly capitalist strategies. Perhaps other texts detail the industry’s structures better, but because van der Meulen chose to let the film’s subject speak for themselves, the conclusions are left to the viewer. And when watching the mercenary-like training that the park’s rangers go through to be able to resist the poachers or the giddiness of the reproduction specialists trying to revive the species through IV fertilization, it’s hard not to muse at how preventable and needless the whole shebang is. If only humans were less greedy and careless with nature in the first place, none of this would be necessary. And this lack of foresight in humans as a species is so ridiculous, it’s funny. For instance, when the Ol Pejeta marketing person starts talking about the need to switch strategy after Sudan’s death to the two remaining white northern rhino females,—who had been previously sidelined,—it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the gender politics of the human world. Perhaps this is what makes the film work so well. It doesn’t dwell on the pathos of its main theme, concentrating instead on the implications going forward, and the irony that lies beneath. Somber in its subject, “The Last Male on Earth” is also a testament to van der Meulen’s talent, because she is clearly able to see the droll through the macabre. And if there is any way to pull through the ecological catastrophe we’re in right now, it’s through humor, humanity, and heeding to the tragic experiences of the endangered species. It might not be long until we follow suit, after all.
The Last Male on Earth, 2019
Director: Floor van der Meulen
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