Sunday 26 February 2017

On demand: "The Ivory Game"

In 2015, Netflix earned one of its first Oscar nominations for the documentary Virunga, about the fight to protect a Congolese wildlife reserve from increasingly rapacious poachers - a stand-off that generated scenes closer to Assault on Precinct 13 than anything in the generally serene Dave Attenborough back catalogue. The Ivory Game operates in much the same vein, although it expands the field of survey to Kenya and Tanzania, natural habitat of those elephants whose ivory is routinely hacked off for sale to rich pricks in China. This new breed of nature doc has two major selling points. The first remains the wildlife itself, now filmed up close by GoPro cameras or from above by drones: here, we marvel at the prehistoric otherworldliness of the elephants, lumbering yet graceful and somehow, despite their mass, as cuddly as Dumbo ever was. Secondly, and more thrillingly, these films have the night-vision footage of those patrols going after the poachers, innately cinematic sorties that sometimes result in abject horror: ele-carcasses slashed up in the most savage fashion. Occasionally, though, they arrive at a happier ending - the arrest of those responsible.

Around these setpieces, directors Richard Ladhani and Kief Davidson weave an involving behind-the-scenes drama that showcases the investigations of Wildleaks, a whistleblowing website to which tipoffs can be uploaded anonymously. This strand allows for some wider analysis of the global ivory trade, which begins to look very much like any other area of capitalism: those poor dumb suckers employed to do the actual killing receive, on average, a mere 6% of every sale, leaving those higher up the criminal chain to pocket the rest. For a while, the film seems to be casting around for structure, torn between responding to reports of poaching and pulling back to provide an overview of the market, yet - nimbly deploying onscreen maps - Ladhani and Davidson eventually start to connect their own dots, showing us first where the ivory is harvested (and by whom), then following the money into the cities of the Far East to show us where it ends up and the staggering amounts it goes for.

What begins in Africa becomes a very specifically Asian concern: as one of our gamekeeper heroes notes, this may be the first time that one man - Chinese president Xi Jinping - holds the fate of an entire species in his hands. Soon thereafter, we get a sense of evidence being collected, a case being made, the net closing in, due in no small part to the efficiency of those first responders on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania. The elephants may provide the publicity images, in other words, but the heroes are resolutely human: individuals remaining steadfast and phlegmatic in the face of rampant market forces. At one point late on, we witness one of the activists talking excitedly about an upcoming meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss the elephants' fate - framed as a major development in raising awareness of the ivory trade. You can only shudder to think what will become of these creatures - the pachyderms, and their protectors - now there's a big game hunter in the White House.

The Ivory Game is now streaming on Netflix.      

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