Though not a single human being appears throughout the entirety of Derek and Beverly Joubert‘s nature documentary “The Last Lions,” the underlying message of the film is clear from the very beginning: we are to blame for the hardships we are about to see.
The film begins with a shot of Earth from afar and slowly zooms in as narrator Jeremy Irons notes how the spread of humans has left few untouched areas of wildlife. The setting is an unsettled area of Botswana where wilderness still exists as it should, though in closer quarters than usual. It is here that we meet our subject, a lone lioness referred to as Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”). The lack of human-free land has brought a rival pride of lions onto her land, so Ma di Tau must flee to a nearby delta with her cubs to protect them from the vicious rivals. What follows is a tale of struggle and survival that keeps you glued to the screen.
“The Last Lions” may be a nature documentary, but the story plays out like any human drama. Themes of family bonds, love, loss, betrayal, revenge, and acceptance come easily to the film, and the personalities of the animal “dramatis personae” are unmistakable. Ma di Tau is our protagonist, a determined single mother struggling to support her young, and the playful antics of her cubs provide humor and warmth. There are even villains: Ma di Tau is being pursued across the wetlands by Silver Eye, a rival lioness whose right eye Ma di Tau injured in an early fight, and a herd of dangerously aggressive buffalo is lead by the “Scar Faced Bull”. Though you get the sense that clever editing manipulates the audience into seeing events and emotions that might not have truly been there, it doesn’t matter one bit: the story that the Joubert’s have crafted out of their footage is just plain solid.
The movie is not an easy watch. There’s no euphemism here, no covering up the violence and loss that comes with life on the African savanna. It is brutally honest, quite bloody and at times incredibly heartbreaking, so young children might not be the best audience for the film. But if you can handle the unfiltered savagery of the African jungle, you will find this movie both enthralling and beautiful: not only is the story engaging, but the entire film is photographed so beautifully that even with only minimal colorizing and touch-ups in post-production you would swear that some of the scenes were created entirely by computer, like the opening shot of the Earth.
Of course, there is a bigger intention here than just creating a thrilling story: “The Last Lions” was produced by National Geographic and is here to remind us of the effects of human development and settlements. In the ending minutes of the movie, as the camera draws back out to reveal the lights of human cities and the clutter of satellites and space debris around our planet, Irons tells us that these animals we have seen are some of the last lions living in the wild, and that their numbers have dropped from 450,000 to just 20,000 in the last 50 years.
Proceeds from the film will go toward National Geographic’s “Big Cats Initiative,” which aims to help prevent the loss of habitat for lions and other large cats, who can require up to 100 miles of hunting ground for a single pride. For each viewing of the trailer on YouTube, $0.10 will be donated toward the cause up to 1,000,000 views (current views stand at about 150,000). You can also learn more or donate at CauseanUproar.org, or follow the organization on Twitter @CauseanUproar.