Reviewing political or social documentaries can be a little dicey. Even if one agrees entirely with the point being put forward - that salary inequity is bad, say, or child labour is wrong - one might still have to tell people that a given documentary doesn't make that point particularly well. And then, well, one looks like a bit of a tool.
This is where I end up on Milking The Rhino, which screens Wednesday evening at the Bloor Cinema as this month's entry in Hot Docs' ongoing Doc Soup series. It's a movie about an intriguing subject, but it never quite finds a way to package that subject in a compelling manner.
Milking The Rhino is writer-director David E. Simpson's look at the progressive cultural shift underway in Africa, where conservationist groups are working with indigenous peoples to move them from subsistence to self-actualization.
In Kenya, Maasai tribespeople experiment with tourism, opening the Il Ngwesi Lodge and squiring European visitors around to see the local fauna. And in Namibia, the Himba and Herrero people have evolved from poachers to protectionists, negotiating quotas with the government that allows them to hunt a limited number of animals for food while guarding the rest from other threats.
These tactics appear to be working, which is terrific news for endangered species like the black rhino. And Simpson's footage of a rhinoceros conservation program, when it finally appears, is remarkable.
But there aren't many remarkable moments in Milking The Rhino; it's a sluggish and disorganized work that takes a very long time to knit its various elements together into a thesis more complex than, "Hey, progress is awesome!"
Indeed, watching the movie left me wondering whether Simpson had started shooting with any real idea of what he wanted to say; it's clear that he's put a lot of work into Milking The Rhino, but a lot of that work results in repetitive footage, like the interviews with various officials, all saying more or less the same thing about how important it is that these programs succeed. And they say it at length.
If you visit the film's website, you'll find a notation that Simpson has created two cuts of his documentary - an 83-minute version for film festivals, and a 54-minute version for TV broadcast. Doc Soup is screening the longer cut, as you'd expect from a feature documentary series ... but I'd be willing to bet the shorter version makes all the same points in a much more satisfying manner, simply by virtue of necessity.
Milking The Rhino screens at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm Wednesday, February 11. David E. Simpson will be in attendance.