SIFF 2019 Review: ‘Kifaru’

Rating: A-

Kifaru in Swahili means “rhinoceros” and this is a documentary film about one specific male rhino named Sudan and the men devoted to his care.  This is director David Hambridge’s debut film and he does a wonderful job presenting a subject that is ultimately sad—the pending extinction of rhinos—but offering us moments of beauty and even a smidgen of hope for the future.  He puts a face and a personality to a species that is fighting for its very existence.

The rhino in this film, Sudan, is special as he is the very last male of his subspecies—northern white rhinoceros—in existence.  Sudan is 45 years old, very old for a rhino, and during his lifetime thousands of his species had been massacred just for their horns.  Sudan himself had once been in a European zoo, but had been returned to spend his last years in Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Rhino Conservancy, in the care of several caretakers, with vast fields for his habitat.  Besides him, at the time of filming there were two female northern white rhinos there and about 140 black rhinos. 

The lives of the keepers and the lives of the rhinos are intertwined throughout the film.  These dedicated caretakers, though highly appreciated by those in the conservation world, are not themselves overly respected in their line of work by other Kenyans.  Despite this, they spend 10 months of the year with the rhinos, getting two months off to see their families.  We meet many of them.  The youngest keeper Jo Jo becomes involved with rearing an orphan baby rhino called Ringo.  This rhino is brought into the enclosure with Sudan and brings new life to the old rhino. It is beautiful to see them together.  The caretakers walk amongst their charges, playing with them, petting them, talking to them.  These scenes are uplifting.  We also hear about efforts to amass genetic material to clone Sudan and other rhinos in the future.

One thing I learned shocked me in the film:  China had lifted its ban on rhino horn!  If this doesn’t change quickly, all rhinos are destined to a quick extinction.  Several quotes from the caretakers, especially James Mwenda, touched me:

“Being a friend of an animal means being a friend of a living being that will never look you in the eyes and tell you “thank you.”  It is a burden given to us by the world.”

“Extinction is the definition of human extremes of greed.”

“Gradually and slowly man is also aiding in his own extinction.”

And lastly,

“We will never fill the emptiness of Sudan’s death but for future generations we must never forget what extinction looks like.”

Kifaru is a poignant film that hopefully will do something to wake people up from their complacency about the many extinctions of species in the 20th and 21st centuries. I highly recommend it.

This movie was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: SIFF