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The Last Safari: Hamptons Review

The Last Safari Trailer Screengrab - H 2013
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The Bottom Line

Doc acknowledges the tricky ethics and practical perils of ethnographic art projects.

Venue

Hamptons International Film Festival

Director

Matt Goldman

Photographer Elizabeth L. Gilbert tours through Kenya showing locals the fruit of her work there.

Is it possible for denizens of modern society, even those with the best intentions, to interact with the world's remaining tribal cultures without one or both sides feeling exploited? Photographer Elizabeth L. Gilbert grapples with the question in Matt Goldman's The Last Safari, an account of a misbegotten trek through Kenya's Great Rift Valley. The doc offers quandaries both ethical and practical while making use of Gilbert's artful images and the stunning terrain; though its concerns may not resonate with a wide audience, the film should be well regarded at fests and could stoke discussions in a variety of classroom settings.

Having covered the Rwandan genocide and war in the Sudan as a photojournalist, Gilbert (not to be confused with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth M. Gilbert) felt useless; she embarked on a project meant to document traditional rituals before they vanished while avoiding the perils of earlier ethnographers.

After publishing two art books of these pictures, Gilbert wants to share them with her subjects. She recruits a crew from Nairobi to mount a traveling show, setting up a portable movie screen in remote villages and showing her pictures; boyfriend Goldman comes along to document the trip. But things don't go as planned: In addition to foreseeable road and weather hazards, Gilbert finds locals who don't always see her road show as the gift she intends it to be. In at least one location, she has to pay locals to attend her show.

The film touches on many prickly ways in which money colors interactions between indigenous people and the Westerners who visit them. On her earlier trips, Gilbert was convinced to "sponsor" some of the children she photographed, paying for schooling years after she returned home. "I've never made a dime off these books," she claims in voiceover, but her subjects have understandably come to feel that foreigners with cameras are profiting from their subjects and should pay for the privilege.

Saddened by many of the reactions to her tour, Gilbert wonders aloud if the real "truth" she sought with her camera is not just unadulterated tribal ceremonies but the for-show dances that are sloppily staged whenever tourists arrive. Though a coda shows that the experience didn't stop her from returning to Africa, it appears to have taught her lessons about the limits of cultural sensitivity and good intentions for any outsider who travels through a foreign land instead of abandoning her home and giving herself over to a single community for the long haul.

Production Company: Pandora Multimedia Productions

Director: Matt Goldman

Producers: Elizabeth L. Gilbert, Megan Griswold, Cathleen Klibanoff, Christine Morin, Jeff Rodgers, Vivian Taylor, Jackie Miller Stewart

Executive producer: Alejandro Tawil

Directors of photography: Leonard Chege, Japhason Lekupe, Matt Goldman, Elizabeth L. Gilbert

Music: Alex Minoff, Hisham Akira Bharoocha

Editor: Matt Goldman

No rating, 74 minutes