Editor’s Notes: The Last Safari makes its World Premiere at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival. Both Goldman and Gilbert will be in the Hamptons for the festival for a Q&A after the screenings, which take place Sunday, Oct. 13 at 2:15pm at East Hampton Cinema 2 and Monday, Oct. 14 at 5:15pm at Sag Harbor.
Elizabeth Gilbert has been photographing Africa for two decades now, first covering armed conflicts and genocides, and then shifting her focus to document tribal life in remote regions of Kenya. Gilbert has published two books of her photography from the region in hopes of publicizing a culture that is quickly receding from existence. There’s a sense of melancholy hanging over The Last Safari, which is incredibly open about the fact that the things Elizabeth has seen and the cultures she knows will probably disappear within her lifetime. There’s also an exuberance to the proceedings, as Gilbert comes into contact with people she hasn’t seen in decades and tries to bring new experiences to the culture she has loved.
There’s a sense of melancholy hanging over The Last Safari, which is incredibly open about the fact that the things Elizabeth has seen and the cultures she knows will probably disappear within her lifetime.
The film follows Gilbert (along with the film’s director Matt Goldman and a small crew) as she returns to the places she documented in her book, bringing along a projector and screen so that she can exhibit her work as slideshows to people who have never seen photographs of themselves. Along the way, she visits friends and colleagues from her time in the Great Rift Valley, encounters violence, flash floods, and extortion, and generally seems to be tying up loose ends. It is clear that The Last Safari is intended to be a deeply personal journey, but that portion of the film never really feels complete. Gilbert is an incredibly knowledgeable person with a lot to say on tribal life in Kenya, but her discussions about herself feel somewhat detached. It seems that by the time the cameras started rolling, Gilbert had given too many interviews, and her confessional moments feel almost as academic as her discursions on the area.
The culture and traditions of the Great Rift Valley are eroding before our eyes, and Goldman captures this fleeting beauty with acuity surpassed only by Gilbert’s own photographs, which are sprinkled throughout the film.
Those musings are incredibly informative, though, and often matched with beautiful shots of the landscape. If Goldman sometimes fails to capture the whole of his subjects’ humanity, he never misses a chance to document the grandeur of the country that means so much to all of them. His camera feels almost trapped in the early scenes set in New York, but appears to be freed once he’s out in nature. He captures masses of people, rolling fields, and rushing rivers far better than he ever handles a single subject, and the more The Last Safari feels like a nature documentary, the more striking it is. The culture and traditions of the Great Rift Valley are eroding before our eyes, and Goldman captures this fleeting beauty with acuity surpassed only by Gilbert’s own photographs, which are sprinkled throughout the film.
At times, The Last Safari feels a bit self-congratulatory, like a victory lap for Gilbert put on film. Yet every pat on the back the movie seems to give her is earned by the work she’s done, and in the film’s best moments, the real reason for its existence is laid bare. Gilbert has been changed by her time in Africa as much as the continent has been changed over the decades she’s spent there. The most emotional moment in the film comes when she meets a friend she hasn’t seen in a decade. In the years since they parted, he has gone to school (Gilbert sponsored him), married, and had two children. Gilbert weeps with joy at the sight of his young child, and in that fleeting moment, The Last Safari shows us how much the Great Rift Valley has meant to her, and how much she has meant to many of its denizens. It’s a small, short scene, and the film never recaptures the magic of that moment, but its more than enough to turn The Last Safari from self-congratulatory to celebratory, and it erodes some of the emotional detachment the rest of the film maintains. Goldman tries to maintain objectivity throughout, which is ultimately a mistake. He clearly loves Gilbert (the two have a child together), loves her work, and loves being a part of this journey with her. Objectivity can be a boon to many documentaries, but The Last Safari could have used a bit more tenderness; this is an emotional journey that could stand a little more emotion.
[notification type=”star”]63/100 ~ OKAY. It is clear that The Last Safari is intended to be a deeply personal journey, but that portion of the film never really feels complete.[/notification]