"Bob Paine (played by Matthieson McCrae) explores the Pacific Northwest in search of a natural laboratory." From THE SERENGETI RULES. Photo credit: Nicolas Brown.

Passion Planet’s new documentary The Serngeti Rules is a well-glossed portrayal of our latest biology lessons.

Passion Planet’s new documentary The Serngeti Rules is a well-glossed portrayal of our latest biology lessons.

As a people, Americans are less interested in documentaries than affected by them. This means that the nonfiction moviemaking, while continuing to operate as a platform of social change that has produced a real change of political consciousness, rarely allows for well-financed, high-production movies to make it to an even limited theater release. One of the best things about the Tribeca Film Festival is that it presents an opportunity to see a selection of the year’s best and brightest documentaries, many of which you probably won’t see elsewhere. An exception to the rule of painstakingly researched films barely breaking even is Passion Projects, a strictly nonfiction production company run by producers John Battsek, David Allen, and George Chignell which has made some of the most culturally significant documentaries since the turn of the century. Their first feature, One Day in September, won the 2000 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and since then they have gone on to produce doc blockbusters like Searching for Sugar Man, I Am Ali, and Restrepo. Their most recent film, The Final Year, examining the end of the Obama Administration, played in theaters around the country and presents one of the first retrospectives on the presidency with almost prescient nostalgia. Largely met with good reviews, its main criticism came from those who found the film too politically lighthearted. The same could be said for The Serengeti Rules, Passion’s contribution to Tribeca this year and their seventh production made under their Passion Planet team, a side-venture if the studio which focuses on producing “inspiring science and natural history documentaries.” Some of their previous films have been made in partnership with PBS and National Geographic, and The Serengeti Rules has a production value which evinces a mastery of craft: gorgeous vistas shot by drone, deep dives into emerald waters, and general lushness to nature which can only be found by scouting team. These techniques, which emulate the astounding production of the Planet Earth series, are not just evocations of nature but arguments about it – they imply that such splendor still proliferates on our globe.

The documentary makes itself out to be something like a textbook, educationally essential and yet completely disengaged.

The Serengeti Rules is narrated by Sean B. Carroll, the author of the book by it was inspired by, which bears the same name. Carroll is a biologist, and conducts his narration in a beautifully decorated old office from the era when environmental concern was still known as ‘naturalism’. Occasionally, a snake winds its way through his array of files and specimens set between glass and mahogany. The film is largely a foray into the work of other biologists, each of whom discovered that the disparate ecosystems they specialized in all had a keystone species, or an animal whose presence affects many others. The keystones, usually predators which control the population levels of their prey, have all been drastically affected by human activity. Several times throughout his narration, Carroll uses the phrase “doom and gloom” to describe current views on the state of nature. Given that is the first big film on the subject to emerge in the wake of President Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Agreement – widely viewed as essential for even modest environment longevity – one might expect doom and gloom of The Serengeti Rules. Such viewers will find themselves surprised at the upbeat nature which characterizes the movie. Carroll makes it clear for the start that his discovery about our ecosystems should be cause for celebration. An exemplary account of this insight comes from Tony Sinclair’s study of the Serengeti, the African grasslands which have been a massive nature reserve governed by Tanzania since the 1950s. Around then, Sinclair began recording the population levels of wildebeest in the reserve and found, unsurprisingly, that their numbers shot up dramatically in the years after they received protection from hunting and poaching. The herd’s growth went beyond what many scientists considered a ‘natural’ amount, but Sinclair resisted the calls from the biological community to begin culling, and soon found that an abundance of wildebeest allowed for a reciprocal bump in the populations of their predators, made the grass greener through greater fertilization, and even allowed for the whole new growth of trees. The Serengeti as we think of it – dry, yellow grass occasionally marked with beech trees – was only how the place looked with its keystone species under attack. The ecosystem had, in biologist terminology, been “downgraded,” by humans before it was a nature reserve, and is currently responding to the upgrading of environmental protection.

The production value is not just an evocation of nature but an argument about it – they imply that such splendor still proliferates on our globe.

Our ability to improve our quickly deteriorating natural world really comes down to our power to narrate this deterioration, to set its conditions into matters affected by individuals. The Serengeti Rules is basically a report on how we have improved a number of ecosystems around the globe with a greater understanding of our interaction with the environment. It’s absolutely good news, and the film presents it in an interesting and entirely approachable format intended that it is seen by viewers at every level of education. Carroll is absolutely right that the general outlook on nature is, as he would say, gloomy, and improving our world in the wake of the disheartening facts of climate change often feels hopeless. Offering a counter narrative, one that’s instead hopeful, is crucially important to creating further change. Passion Planet’s documentary is a beautifully stylized yet incomplete narrative, and they severely mislead anyone who could believe that this is even a version of the whole story. While some ecosystems have been set back on course with the nurturing of keystone species that had previously been decimated – sea otters off the coast of Alaska, for instance; or wolves in Yellowstone – these are little victories in a losing battle with climate change. Some ecosystems have keystone species that is dangerously near extinction, like the American bison in the Great Plains. Some ecosystems, like our oceans and icecaps, are still changing to such an extent that all animal life is in danger, regardless of how much some species affect others. These points are basically footnotes in the course of the film, rendering The Serengeti Rules a little out of touch with current events. Instead, the documentary makes itself out to be something like a textbook, educationally essential while and yet lost in objectivity. The film never promises to be anything else, and perhaps it’s my mistake to expect that making ecological documentaries would somehow be political act. But the result felt to me like someone tending their garden with a meteor speeding toward the Earth. Barring some language used by the scientists, it’s the type of thing I hope young students would be shown if their teachers wanted to make their unit on ecosystems more fun. For anyone with a GED and a desire to know not just about the world but one’s own place within it, your time would be much better spent with An Inconvenient Truth.  

Nolan Kelly writes on film He currently lives in Brooklyn

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