Vegansaurus Double Features!   »

 Welcome to the first biannual, I mean regular, installment of Vegansaurus Double Features, your ticket (ha, oh man am I off to a good start!) to vegan-interest cinema. “What?!” you might ask. “Here’s a handy FAQ,” I say.

Q: Why movies?
A: Because I ran out of gardening things to talk about and I am a highly respected film critic.

Q: Why vegan?
A: That’s a stupid question.

Q: Why double feature?
A: Because the New Yorker always reviews two movies at once, and Vegansaurus, as is evident, is basically the new New Yorker: lengthy articles, thoughtful detachment from political issues, and bougie ads for weird hats.

OK! Enough with all your silly questions. In this issue, we look at two new amazing documentaries about humankind’s complex relationship with animals and nature.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, the first full-length from biologist-turned-documentarian Jessica Oreck, is a beautiful film that uses Japan’s national obsession with insects as a way to explore larger questions like how we think of ourselves in relation to nature. Don’t let the profundity scare you off: even though this documentary is swarming with insight about haiku, Japanese and Western cultural differences, the urban/nature dichotomy, and the nature of beauty (to name a few!), it’s also incredibly easy on the eyes, featuring inventive cinematography that really captures the wonder of its protagonists–-beetles, larvae, moths, and crickets, especially. And for your ears, there’s an impressive soundtrack of J-pop and experimental Japanese electronic music. All of this is to say: this is a film that works on multiple levels, and one of the best documentaries so far this year. It’s playing RIGHT NOW at the Kabuki in San Francisco through July 15 (Thursday!); I highly recommend it.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo Trailer from Myriapod Productions on Vimeo.

I had the chance to see Ms. Oreck present the film in Los Angeles a few months ago, and she had a lot to say about the film. She thinks that Americans have a lot to learn from the Japanese and their perspective on and appreciation of nature, but acknowledges that, as with all societies, there are a lot of contradictions in that relationship. Vegansaurus readers will probably immediately think of The Cove here. What Beetle Queen shows, however, is how “appreciation” of beautiful insects in Japan has led to both an interest in protecting and restoring their natural habitats and the less-benign commodification of all things insect-related. Yeah, it’s cute that Japanese kids play videogames about insects. But commodification has also led to insect collecting of both live and dead bugs, both bought and captured. Japanese pay bundles of yen at large conventions for big beetles to keep as pets, and pinned insect collections are popular hobbies. So, be warned–-for insect lovers, this film isn’t always uplifting.

The tangled relationship between collecting animals and habitat preservation is also at the core of Ghost Bird. Ghost Bird is the long-awaited sequel to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring everyone’s favorite weird-eyed actor Forest Whitaker as a hit man who uses samurai techniques. Just kidding, it’s a documentary on the supposed rediscovery of the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker. But whatever—same difference!

This truly majestic woodpecker, maybe the most stunning bird that has ever lived in the United States, was thought to have become extinct over half a century ago until a kayaker in an Arkansas swamp caught sight of one in 2004. Ghost Bird outlines what turned out to be the most ambitious, and costly, species recovery campaign in history, fueled not only by excited birders, but by the community where the bird was spotted (which experienced booming economic growth from the ensuing tourism), politicians, and research teams from prestigious universities. While the archival footage of the ivory-billed woodpecker alone is worth the price of admission, the story behind its rediscovery unfolds like a satisfying mystery (or, if you’re a dorky birder, maybe the most exciting, cargo-pants-staining mystery you’ve ever seen), full of dubious motivations and shady characters.

It’s a complex tale, to be sure. Especially interesting is that, like Beetle Queen, Ghost Bird show’s how man’s obsession with a beautiful animal has led to both its collection (and, in this case, destruction) as well as prompting preservation efforts. The scientists working on the “case” use drawerfuls of stuffed specimens of the bird to verify sightings-–specimens collected long ago by other scientists and amateur birders because of the bird’s rarity and beauty that, one researcher admits, contributed to the bird’s extinction.

While Ghost Bird isn’t quite the visual spectacle that is Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, it tells an amazing story. Anyone interested in animals, preservation, and Forrest Whitaker should seek this one out!

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