Nobody will ever accuse Elizabeth L. Gilbert of being an imperialist exploiter. Her photography books documenting Africa’s vanishing traditional customs are truly passion projects rather than commercial endeavors. Yet, her well intentioned tour of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley often leads to frustration over the course of Matt Goldman’s documentary, The Last Safari (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival.
A former war photojournalist, Gilbert turned her camera towards more uplifting visuals, for the good of her soul. Convinced many of the diverse local ceremonies and customs would not survive the encroaching modern world, Gilbert set out to record them for the sake of art and posterity. Mindful many western photographers and filmmakers had exploited the images of various tribes, Gilbert resolved to seek out her former subjects, so they could see the results, along with their fellow tribespeople. For many, it would also be a rare opportunity to see their distant neighbors in the great valley. At least, that was the idea.
Hiring a big city crew, Gilbert heads out to show her special slide show throughout the valley, with Goldman, her filmmaker-significant other in tow. Even though her exhibition team consists of native Kenyans, it quickly becomes apparent Gilbert is the best equipped to make their trek. They might be Kenyan, but they are as urban as New Yorkers.
When Gilbert reconnects with her former subjects, they are uniformly delighted to meet her again. As she stages her presentations, she sometimes finds receptive audiences, who genuinely appreciate what she is trying to do. Others are disinterested at best. In fact, it is often the western Gilbert who appears to be the exploited one, as fast talkers and community councils more or less shake her down.
At times, Safari undercuts the lingering baggage of Rousseau, reminding viewers you can find both the best and worst sorts of people in even the most remote corners of the globe. Yet, Goldman spares himself least of all, appearing almost exclusively at his whiniest moments.
To his credit, Goldman nicely conveys Gilbert’s love for the continent and its people as well as the reciprocated affection for her amongst her friends and colleagues. For style points, he adds some ironic flare when contrasting their journey with Henry Hathaway’s great white hunter movie, also titled The Last Safari.