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A well-intentioned mashup of reality TV contest and enviro-doc studded with Mission: Impossible-style graphics, Rise of the Eco-Warriors follows a united nations of young activists who spend 100 days in Borneo in an effort to fight deforestation and save endangered orangutans.
Cloaking her wake-up message in contemporary stylings targeting a young demographic — the documentary initially plays like a kind of Survivor: Borneo — Australian filmmaker Cathy Henkel issues a battle cry for action against the big, bad palm oil companies busily bulldozing the rainforests of the southeast Asian island.
Despite the jazzy externals, the result is more educational than engrossing, although it’s a hard heart that’s not stirred by the charming presence of the featured orangutans. One-off screenings around Australia throughout March should be followed by niche festival berths, and the film is a natural for use as a classroom tool.
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A sequel of sorts to Henkel’s 2008 film The Burning Season, about deforestation in Indonesia, Rise of the Eco-Warriors assembles 15 “eco-warriors,” aged 18 to 35, from nine different countries. Borneo-based conservationist Dr. Willie Smits heads up the team as they troop deep into the most remote parts of the jungle, where palm oil plantations operate beyond the scope of the law.
The young people splinter off into four groups: one to work with the local Dayak villagers in reforesting; one to create a musical show which tours local schools raising awareness; another to care for the displaced orangutans (there are some nice moments involving Aussie activist Ben Dessen bonding with an orphaned baby orangutan named Jojo.) The fourth group introduces a satellite monitoring system called Earthwatchers, which enlists the help of school students around the world in reporting the illegal presence of palm oil companies.
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A welcome streak of realism runs through Henkel’s film, despite its grandiloquent superhero title. The conservationists arrive in Borneo with sky-high expectations, and there is much talk of “inspiring other young people,” but they’re soon forced to get down to brass tacks as they grapple with the logistics of funding, marketing their message and sustaining action into the future.
The film is as much about their personal journey pushing back against huge obstacles as it is about raising awareness of the evils of palm oil, a cheap, pervasive product found in so much processed food.
Production company: Virgo Productions
Cast: Dr Willie Smits, Paul Daley, Ben Dessen, Fahrani Empel, Liza Heavener
Writer-director: Cathy Henkel
Executive producers: Alan Finney, Jenny Lalor, Cathy Overett
Producers: Cathy Henkel, Mark White, Richard Hearman
Director of photography: Ismail Fahmi Lubish-Ezther
Music: Loic Valmy
Editor: Scott Walton
No MPAA rating, 105 minutes
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