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New York Film Fest: Kathryn Bigelow's small film on a big topic

New York Film Fest: Kathryn Bigelow's small film on a big topic
At the New York Film Festival, director Kathryn Bigelow premieres a three-minute animated film about elephant poaching. (Annapurna Pictures)

In her recent work, director Kathryn Bigelow has shown a flair for the maximal, taking on epic characters and big subjects such as the futility and meaning of foreign wars. "Zero Dark Thirty" was a nearly three-hour look at a globe-hopping quest over the course of years. "The Hurt Locker" found a man on a tense, Sisyphean journey into and back into conflict-ridden Iraq. Both were neo-verite affairs meant to make the viewer feel the grit and hot breath of war.

Her new film is, in one sense, the opposite of all that. "Last Days," which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, is a three-minute ditty — animated, no less — that takes on the sad subject of elephant poaching in Africa.

But the film is also of a piece with those Oscar-decorated triumphs. Like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker," "Last Days" has a filmmaking rigor. The story is told backward, "Memento"-style, a neat formal trick that also comes with a wordplay payoff. And like her other features, it traces the unexpected tentacles of fundamentalism; as we're told, the global demand for tusk trinkets not only gives poachers an incentive but it also funds violent groups including Boko Haram and the Lord's Resistance Army.

"I guess 'The Hurt Locker' is an informational film about an underreported subject, and this is an informational film about an underreported subject," Bigelow, characteristically understated in assessing her own work, said in an interview.

The idea for the film occurred to Bigelow after meeting Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative event. The Clintons described a trip to Africa in which they learned of a slaughter by cyanide poisoning of elephants in the wild. Bigelow decided to make a film.

She opted, though, to make it animated instead of live-action to offer a "mediated layer" between the viewer (and herself) and the horrible cruelty of poaching. She also said she contemplated a full-length feature but felt there was no time; as she notes in the film, with nearly 100 elephant killed every day, some experts predict elephants in the wild will be extinct in as few as 11 years.

Instead, she and writer Scott Z. Burns (with "The Bourne Ultimatum" as a writing credit and "An Inconvenient Truth" as a producing one, no stranger to big global entertainment and socially conscious causes) worked with a team of animators and other creative people over nearly a year, slipping in the work among other projects.

Last weekend, Bigelow gave the film its debut at the New York festival and brought out a team of activists and even a prosecutor to talk about the problem, some of whom noted that, since elephants are loyal creatures and literally big targets, slaughtering them in the wild is a particular act of cruelty.

Bigelow said that she hoped "Last Days" would galvanize those both more and less interested in animal rights. "These elephants are ATM machines for these groups," she said, even as she noted that "we are no longer on a slowly gentle downward slope. We are at the end days of the world's largest terrestrial beast."

With plans for a potential online rollout as well as other events at festival appearances, Bigelow and  producer-financier Megan Ellison (the two also collaborated on "Zero Dark Thirty") hope that the movie will spread the word and prompt activists and citizens to object to the tusk trade on multiple fronts.

"Last Days" is notable from a filmmaking perspective too. With feature films time-consuming and hard to finance — and with new digital platforms offering more distribution flexibility than ever — the film shows that there are other ways for directors and their fans to get fixes between projects. ("Twilight" shorts are, in their own way, an example of this.) For fans of Bigelow, "Last Days" will prove a compelling taste of the director's work as she develops a movie about the rescued soldier Bowe Bergdahl and an adaptation of the nonfiction post-9/11 shooting-spree book "True American."

"Sadly there's no way to make extinction go backward," the film reminds us via on-screen text at its conclusion. Movies like "Last Days" make sure the cause, and Bigelow's career arc, keep moving forward.

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