By Susan Granger
Special to WestportNow
Continuing the Earth Day celebrations, here are three “nature” documentaries to stream this week:
After months of painstaking work by photographers and editors, “Elephant” is the most accessible and appealing nature film ever made about the annual 1,000-mile trek of elephant herds across Southern Africa. And having an engaging narration by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is an added bonus.
The elephants’ migration begins in Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta when, according to ancient tradition, the wise but weary, 50 year-old matriarch Gaia decides it’s time to leave that once-verdant paradise and steadfastly plod across the arid Kalahari Desert to the Zambezi River and its islands atop Victoria Falls.
In this survival story, as the ‘ellies’, particularly Gaia’s younger sister, Shani, and her calf, Jomo, face death from thirst as they travel from one watering hole to the next, they try to elude predators like lurking crocodiles and a prowling pride of lions.
Instinctively knowing that she’s next-in-line to be their leader, 40 year-old Shani pays special attention to the details of this pilgrimage, making it a sensitive, parallel journey.
Those familiar with Disneynature films know that the animals are always anthropomorphized so that youngsters can easily relate emotionally. This convention is at its best when tenacious Gaia must use her ingenuity to dislodge a struggling calf that’s stuck facedown, close to suffocation in a mud bank.
As for Meghan Markle, she adopts a low-key, conversational tone, perfectly suited to the ‘family friendly’ script. FYI: the Duchess of Sussex donated her voice-over fee to the conservation charity Elephants Without Borders in Botswana.
Writer/director Mark Linfield, along with co-directors Vanessa Berlowitz and Alastair Fothergill, not only capture the world’s largest terrestrial animals but also the rest of the African menagerie: hippo, Cape buffalo, zebra, giraffe, monkeys and an adorable cheetah cub.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Elephant” is a sweetly spectacular 8, particularly when paired with the insightful “In the Footsteps of Elephant” which follows on Disney Plus.
If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of the vaquita, a small porpoise that lives only in the Sea of Cortez, an area between Baja, California, and mainland Mexico that Jacques Cousteau called “the aquarium of the planet” and the subject of National Geographic’s “Sea of Shadows.”
Unfortunately, vaquitas often accompany totoaba fish whose swim bladders are so valued in China that they’re considered “aquatic cocaine.” So when fisherman use huge nets to catch totoaba, they also ensnare so many vaquita that they’re now high on the endangered species list.
While it’s acknowledged that Chinese criminal syndicates fund illicit totoaba trafficking, rampant institutional corruption, inherent in Mexico, prevents law enforcement.
To focus attention on the plight of the vaquita, television newsman Carlos Loret de Mola focuses on various aspects of the dilemma — from the poor village fishermen in San Felipe who are caught in the economic crossfire to myriad conservation efforts.
Aboard a vessel called the Sea Shepherd, Jack Hutton belongs to volunteer group that uses drones to stalk sneaky totoba poachers at night in order to cut and empty their illegal, habitat-destroying gill nets.
Dr. Cynthia Smith works with a group of scientists who propose that, in order to save the vaquita species, the last few of these marine mammals should be caught and bred in captivity until they can returned to their natural habitat. But will their sanctuary concept work?
Meanwhile, Andrea Crosta, executive director/co-founder of Earth League International (formerly Elephant Action League), has undercover operatives tracing totoaba black-market links in China, describing the vaquita situation as “an extinction in real time, entirely driven by greed.”
Partially funded by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions, it’s directed by Austrian cinematographer Richard Ladkani (“The Ivory Game”), winning Sundance’s Audience Award for World Documentary.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles, on the Granger Gauge, “Sea of Shadows” is a suspenseful 7, chronicling an ecological crisis.
Leningrad-born director Viktor Kossakovsky’s globe-trotting, climate change documentary “Aquarela” is uniquely challenging in that it shows the raw power of water — from destructive hurricanes to dissolving glaciers — yet offers little relatable context since there’s no voice-over, on-screen description or captions.
It begins on southern Siberia’s Lake Baikai, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. From January through May, when it’s frozen over, residents drive across the pristine ice but, when there’s a treacherous early thaw, intrepid crews are often summoned to rescue sunken vehicles and stranded motorists.
In Greenland, monumental glaciers are cracking, turning upside down and sinking into the ocean. Aboard the chartered, two-masted 100-ft. schooner, the Polski Hak, Kossakovsky was able to chronicle the glacier’s magnificent, yet unpredictable calving.
There’s a harrowing trans-Atlantic crossing, as a small schooner battles massive 30-foot waves and howling 40-knot winds.
In California, there’s the Oroville Dam crisis and, in Miami’s South Beach, there are terrifying glimpses of the chaos caused by 2017’s Hurricane Irma.
Concluding at Angel Falls in Venezuela, Kossakovsky pays tribute to another Russian director, Andre Tarkovsky, when he photographs a rainbow which — at first — seems to be in the sky but, in reality, is at the foot of the foaming falls, an uninterrupted 2,368-foot plunge.
Using Arri digital cameras to so that he and cinematographer Ben Bernhard could film at 96 frames per second to create incredible visual clarity without resorting to CGI, Kossakovsky amplifies the natural drama with an often-intrusive score by violinist/composer Eicca Toppinen of the Finnish “cello-metal” band Apocalyptica.
The (unstated) environmental message is that — with global warming — we’re all living on thin ice.
On the Granger Gauge, “Aquarela” is an immersive, cinematically overpowering 6 — available on Apple TV and Fandango NOW.
(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)