Monday, 31 August 2015

Racing Extinction

Documentaries are about achieving an artful balance of persuasion via engaging testimonials, revelatory visuals and the undeniable pleasure of enlightenment. On one end of the spectrum, documentaries which sensationalise events, told with skewed perception and rely on shocking, bizarre imagery - are bias to a fault, sceptisism inevitably invading the audience. But failure to dramatise events for the sake of entertainment results in a stale retellings, the attention of the audience wanes. However documentaries which strike this balance behold beautiful and terrifying powers. They have audiences believing in conspiracies, illuminated by horrible histories, inspired into activism. They can persuade viewers to change their lifestyle, their awareness, their diet. These films are infectious in their conviction and pure in their vision. It is director, environmentalist and photographer Louie Pshioyos who clearly appreciates this - his fascination with the storytelling utility of cinema and its use as a  "weapon of mass construction" is clear. His 2012 docu-drama, The Cove, illuminated our screens with the iconic image of a blood-filled cove, revolutionising the modern documentary genre and went on to become one of the most widely-viewed and awarded documentaries in the history of cinema. Racing Extinction, built on the same potent ambition and avant-garde technical niche, is a sobering tale of a human reality and the ugly future with awaits those selfish and ignorant to its severity.

Racing Extinction throws light on all of the environmental truths most people try to ignore. Director Louie Pshioyos addresses human impact on a faltering environmental by illustrating the grand plan to salvage our dying planet including the small but wonderful ways individual activists have sought change by using their own talents and then highlights the various operations which undermine its entire cause. In many ways, Racing Extinction is a look at Psihoyos own environmental awakening-  how he became conscious, then angry in his conviction and now driven in his pursuit for a future. He champions awareness and action, identifying our current environmental state as a war zone, the apathetic and greedy are the enemies and for once the impending apocalypse upon our loss has some realism attached to it.

What The Cove brought audiences was a beautifully dirty little secret. The object of its filmmakers was so blatantly clear, simple, clever in its execution, a vicarious bond formed between audience and activist as they pursue their desire for a common truth. But widening the scope of content in Racing Extinction seems to have come at a cost. Racing Extinction is too ambitious; it flits from subject to the next, without investing enough time or depth into each subject enough to have us care deeply for each of them. But in a strange way, the film actually addresses and compensates for this: its concluding scenes pay homage to the enormous scope of environmental ruin and the incredible task ahead. In doing so, its aggregate effect is profound and unforgettable.

Similarly to The Cove, the cinematic content is iconically self-referential. Psihoyos sought truth and exposure in The Cove by spending years constructing hidden cameras to tactically place at the scene of the crime. Reminiscent of the structure of his first film, Psihoyos packs Racing Extinction with plenty of heart-quickening covert missions followed by projects of exposition once the incriminating evidence is compiled. The final act of Racing Extinction is an elaborate city light show. Louie recruits the ingenuity of engineer Elon Musk to create a Bond-esque vehicle for moving projections. It is an exhilarating call to truth and action and an exhilarating rush to awareness - appealing to the humanity in humanity and utilising the best qualities of cinema for an ultimate crowd-pleasing outcome which feels thrillingly relevant.

We watch as our crusaders infiltrate the horrific black markets selling contraband which has been shipped from the tiny, economically dependent villages where endangered species are slaughtered in their masses. The film identifies China as the primary culprit - such species as manta rays, turtles, rhinoceroses, culled solely for traditional medicinal purposes. But this is finger-pointing in an almost congenial manner, hot fact laced into ugly realities and softly pushed in way of the audience.
They are undeniably successful in convincing audiences that this cause is not simply a noble or honourable one but wholly necessary and desperately urgent. No concessions are made for its genre constraints - this is a film akin to a traditional espionage tale complete with even a getaway driver, stakes as high as any and persuasion from our hero, as impassioned and enticing as they come.


  1. Didn't know Psihoyos had made a new doc! I remember The Cove hit me hard about the killing of dolphins. Seems Racing Extinction has a broader scope. Not the first and won't be the last documentary on climate change and extinction. Such pressing issues.

    1. Yes so pressing it seems that half the documentaries made today are about climate change. But Psihoyos' is definitely a stand-out. He doesn't rant. He just informs, beguiles and convinces!