‘Wild Life’ review: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin explore love and conservationism in effective climate change doc | SXSW
People have been sounding the alarm for years on climate change, and it’s often hard to figure out what to do to help prevent or slow it. If you run a profitable clothing company, however, there are actionable options to make a significant impact. Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, well-known for engaging documentaries including the Oscar-winning Free Solo and The Rescue, skillfully spotlight another impressive subject, conservationist Kris Tompkins, who has worked tirelessly with, and now without, her husband Doug to buy up land in Chile and Argentina to designate as national parks.
Wild Life introduces Kris’ story by showing headlines of Doug’s untimely death in an accident in 2015. What ensues is equal parts environmental chronicle and a tale of romance, charting Kris and Doug’s separate paths to prominence and their shared devotion to philanthropy. Kris’ determination to ascend a mountain within a park she and Doug created serves as a background narrative the film frequently returns to, filling in Kris’ history and the depth of her partnership with Doug through footage and interviews, including with Doug himself over the years.
Most profile documentaries tend to shine a favorable lens on their subjects, but this film has the evidence to back it up. Kris and Doug are people who feel a deep connection to the land and who realize that their wealth of resources allows them to actually make a difference. The notion of “buying land to save it” is one that strikes some, particular within the South American governments whose cooperation is needed, as suspicious. But Kris emphatically notes that “whatever the scorecard, we’re losing,” referencing the minimal impact of saving even several million acres a year in comparison to what is being lost, especially in a mining country like Chile. It’s far too easy to distract from the conversation, calling them “ecobarons” who are allegedly evicting farmers from the land they have bought. Doug in particular is irritated by allegations that, among other untruths, he and Kris are working on behalf of Israel to subvert the Chilean government with their planned national park.
Wild Life celebrates the outdoors and the importance of nature by showing their value and how meaningful they are to this remarkably generous couple and their friend and partner Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who is interviewed extensively during the film. These aren’t executives who are just professing something for public relations reasons, but instead who feel passionately that their work should reflect their values (Chouinard’s recent donation of his entire company to combat climate change is a jaw-dropping example of this). There is a selflessness to what they do that many won’t be able to comprehend, but this film offers the clearest window to understanding while still humanizing them so they don’t seem entirely angelic and flawless.
There is a beautiful contradiction between the grandeur of what Kris and Doug seek to do and the intimacy of their relationship. As she hikes up to the highest peak in their park, Kris asks why she and Doug never climbed their mountain together. Shots of the two of them flying in a small plane over gorgeous valleys and bodies of water are complemented by a sweet montage of inside-joke love notes Doug left for Kris. The origins of their romance, following Doug’s aggressive pursuit of Kris after his divorce from his first wife, are laced with humor, and it is clear that both of them had a lasting impact on each other and all those they met.
Wild Life is largely archival but flows smoothly, enhanced by interviews with Kris from after Doug’s death. Her ecological warnings are stark and unsubtle, and this vivid and striking documentary highlights the natural wonders that exist and the worsening conditions that threaten to erase them from existence. Vasarhelyi and Chin guide another exhilarating and emphatic look at the world around us and the way in which one set of individuals is choosing to make a difference.
Picturehouse will distribute Wild Life theatrically beginning April 14 in major cities and will be available to stream on the National Geographic Channel on May 25 and Disney+ on May 26.
Photo: National Geographic