A quote from Dereck Joubert, the writer-director-cinematographer behind “The Last Lions” crystallizes the moral ambivalence at the heart of his wildlife documentary: “Understanding more about the hunt and the kill as well as our own feelings about life and death is what this is about.” For all the hardships and hostility the film’s lioness-protagonist endures, we realize that her – and her pride’s – lives depend entirely on the success of the hunt. That is, the death of another animal. Without death, life is impossible.
Narrated masterfully by Jeremy Irons, the documentary is a saga of survival in a pitiless environment. After rival members of her tribe kill her mate, a resilient lioness named Ma di Tau escapes with her three cubs from hostile territory in Botswana’s Okavango wetlands. Facing death and danger every step of the way, Ma di Tau finds refuge on a marshy island separated from the mainland by river systems. The island is also sanctuary for a herd of massive wild buffalo – a potential food source for Ma di Tau and her cubs, but also notoriously aggressive beasts.
Visually, “The Last Lions” stands above even the most accomplished wildlife documentaries you may have seen on HDTV. Using lightweight digital cameras – and filming over a six-year period – Joubert captures images of singular, breathtaking power. The musculature of a lion’s body; the terrifying bulk of an elephant seen from the point-of-view of a cub; or, most striking, a lion dying, alone on a plain, while thunderclouds roil overhead and lightning forks the horizon – all these images burn into the viewer’s memory.
Much of “The Last Lions” mid-section examines Ma di Tau’s learning how to hunt on her own, attempting one of many unsuccessful tactics. For all its care and attention to the problem, this section begins to feel bogged down by its repetitiveness since the net result of Ma di Tau’s labors is always the same: exhaustion and despair. It’s heartbreaking to watch her lone struggle, but Joubert saves the final irony for what happens in the aftermath of her first kill; the fate suffered by one of her cubs is too grim to even recall.
All the while, the lionesses from her former pride – including one named Silver Eye, so-called because Ma di Tau clawed out one of her eyes in the film’s opening skirmish – are on the prowl, intent on finishing Ma di Tau and her cubs off. Unexpectedly, though, Ma di Tau, toughened after her labors and hardships, finds herself in a position of power vis-à-vis her less resilient rivals.
In a sense, Joubert has crafted a perfectly streamlined, three-act narrative about tragedy and triumph in the wild – the kind you’d find in any Hollywood adventure yarn. Yet the viewer doesn’t feel manipulated, because, for one, a narrative arc is the most convenient and effective way to track Ma di Tau’s journey. For another, the contents of the narrative are entirely true and its message about what we must do to survive and persevere transcends genre and artifice.
“The Last Lions” is not an easy documentary to watch – a great deal of what Ma di Tau endures we can hardly bear – but it’s an important one. Not only because it shines much-needed light on the life struggles of Africa’s endangered wild lions, but it urges us to confront our feelings about the suffering and death, to reconcile Nature’s implacability with our human capacity for compassion. That it accomplishes this with tenderness and an unflinching eye makes “The Last Lions” an extraordinary achievement.
Directed/Written by: Dereck Joubert
Narrator: Jeremy Irons