The Leonardo DiCaprio Election

By  · Published on November 7th, 2016

The Ivory Game and Before The Flood present urgent cases in time for tomorrow’s historic presidential election.

Thank goodness for Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the planet’s biggest movie stars, for continuing to give a damn about our planet. Last year’s deserving Best Actor Oscar winner may not be in front of the camera this year with a big Hollywood flick, but his name and star-power are behind a pair of cinematic efforts that drive environmental awareness and call civilians to action towards building a sustainable future. Two brand-new documentaries that have been available to stream as of last week put the actor’s commitment to protecting the environment and wildlife into sharp focus. Streaming on Netflix, The Ivory Game (directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani and executive-produced by DiCaprio), takes on illegal ivory trade operations in Africa that threaten the elephant population with extinction. The Fisher Stevens-directed climate change documentary Before The Flood, available to stream for free on National Geographic before tomorrow’s historic U.S. presidential election, follows DiCaprio as he travels across 5 continents and the Arctic and speaks with scientists, activists and world leaders to dissect the complex issue of climate change.

Though vastly different stylistically, both documentaries sidestep the traditional ‘talking heads’ method in building their respective cases, and instead, put the audience at the heart of the action while constructing their stories. And they both cover vital topics to consider when casting a vote tomorrow, as our voices will not only contribute to the future of this country, but also, to the future of our planet. On one hand, we have a presidential candidate who denies climate change by repeatedly calling it a hoax and whose sons go big-game hunting with no regard to the survival of wildlife. On the other, we have Hillary Clinton, who has a concrete plan to expand upon Obama’s environmental policies and who, in 2013, launched a partnership with “Save the Elephants” with her daughter Chelsea Clinton and through the Clinton Global Initiative.

So let’s take a closer look at both of these documentaries. Davidson and Ladkani’s The Ivory Game is highly accomplished filmmaking (one of the best documentaries I have seen this year) in the way it seizes the viewer’s attention through a constant ascent of suspense and tension. It is in fact partly a thriller that trails the filmmakers on a 16-month journey while they travel across Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, and break down the wildly complex, dark and illegal scheme of ivory trade into its pieces. They approach this corrupt business, which, if not stopped, can cause the elephants to go extinct in 15 years, from a myriad of angles, while wisely splicing the perspective of various stakeholders into their narrative. We follow activists, investigative journalists and intelligence officers as they battle a multibillion-dollar industry, and fight against an oftentimes-unknown enemy. Among the film’s subjects are Craig Millar, who works for the Big Life Foundation in Kenya, Chinese investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang (who lead the film’s most captivating segments) and Georgina Kamanga, the head of intelligence at National Parks and Wildlife in Zambia. We also follow Andrea Crosta, an investigator from the site Wildleaks, who films ivory stores across China (where ivory trade is legal) with a hidden camera. The Ivory Game links the brave efforts of these individuals around the common cause of protecting the lives of elephants that are murdered at a staggering rate of one in 15 minutes, and pursues a villain known with the nickname Shetani (The Devil); the notorious poacher with over 10,000 elephant kills under his name. It is simply thrilling, heartbreaking stuff; especially when the filmmakers necessarily confront the viewers with rotting corpses of magnificent, majestic elephants and crushed members of their tribes, lamenting over the murder of one of their own.

In Fisher Stevens’ Before The Flood, the horror comes from not the thriller-style filmmaking (this is quite a conventional watch), but from the direness of cold hard facts. At the heart of the film is host DiCaprio, who worked on this project around his shoot schedule for The Revenant, which also underscores men’s impact on earth. He comes across not as an intimidating movie star, but as an approachable, casual and curious everyman who spells out stats and facts in digestible ways, and sums up what he learns through his conversations with opinion leaders in simple, clear-cut language. We watch him talk to President Obama, and even Pope Francis (who is known to vocally call for action to battle climate change), as two of the most prominent figures to provide their perspectives on the topic. But the film’s most effective interview proves to be Sunita Narain, a sustainable development advocate and environmental activist from India, who challenges DiCaprio on America’s vast impact towards accelerating climate change due to irresponsible lifestyle choices and mass consumption.

Other interviewees – which include Johan Röckstrom, a Stockholm University Professor, and Climate Scientist Michael Mann – all support the same narrative that while humans collectively contribute towards the destruction of planet earth, they can also make life-style changes that can significantly cut down their damaging individual impact. One way the film spells out is reducing our consumption of beef, which is at crisis levels across the United States. One interviewee says the simple act of switching from beef to chicken can halve our carbon footprint, as raising chickens doesn’t destroy lands the way raising cattle does (while it also doesn’t produce methane). With Before The Flood, Fisher Stevens effectively breaks down a complex and multi-pronged topic into digestible segments of information with urgency and aims to translate our collective concern into action.

Once again, you can stream The Ivory Game on Netflix and Before The Flood on National Geographic, before you hopefully vote for the only candidate who is committed to preserving our planet, its wildlife and resources.

Related Topics: ,

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.