Review: ‘The Chances of the World Changing’

"The Chances of the World Changing" profiles a private conservationist whose obsessive maintenance of a particular critter group -- in this case turtles -- makes his own life increasingly unmanageable. The pic's lyrical tenor may attract further fest gigs, with offshore specialty broadcast also possible.

Like last year’s arthouse sleeper “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” “The Chances of the World Changing” profiles a private conservationist whose obsessive maintenance of a particular critter group — in this case turtles — makes his own life increasingly unmanageable. This guy’s plight is less involving, however, because Eric Daniel Metzgar’s film raises so many questions it fails to answer that one eventually suspects less-than-full disclosure — a problem for any advocacy documentary. Nonetheless, the pic’s lyrical tenor may attract further fest gigs, with offshore specialty broadcast (it’s set for PBS’ “POV” series next year) also possible.

Over the last decade, 50-ish Richard Ogust acquired some 1,200 turtles and tortoises, many endangered species rescued from Southeast Asian food markets. His spacious Manhattan flat became a virtual holding tank. During the pic’s progress, fellow tenants force him out (though it’s unclear why).

Officially homeless and declaring bankruptcy, he rents a New Jersey warehouse as a temporary measure, hoping to raise funds for a turtle preservation and education institute. Even while living in a tent, he facilitates importation of another 400 animals, which gets him into further trouble with government agencies.

Though attractively assembled, docu’s portrayal of Ogust as a self-sacrificing idealist avoids addressing so many essential issues — including the filmmaker’s own obvious close involvement with the subject — that the viewer inevitably begins to suspect a whitewash.

If Ogust is broke, how can he feed and house hundreds of animals? (At one point, it’s noted he spent $500,000 over five years on this pursuit — would it be too vulgar to divulge where that money came from?) Do the charges (including unacceptable animal living conditions) levied against him by the New Jersey Dept. of Fish and Wildlife have any validity? No authorities are interviewed here.

Why do we only meet (just fleetingly) other turtle collectors, and no one else in Ogust’s life? We’re told he gave up a career as a writer to dedicate himself full-time to this turtle obsession, but learn absolutely nothing else about his background. Ogust’s good intentions aren’t in doubt, but the film’s obfuscation inadvertently raises the possibility that he might be his own worst enemy.

“Chances” doesn’t provide any real educational insight regarding turtles and tortoises beyond stressing they are being slaughtered and endangered worldwide. And the fact that the protag’s final interview sequences were shot at an amusement park makes no sense whatsoever.

These credibility gaps are unfortunate, because the docu has the nugget of a real human interest story as well as an ecological one, and its quiet, nature-rhapsodic feel — in its handsome lensing and in Eric Liebman’s lyrical score — is refreshing.

The Chances of the World Changing

Production

A Merigold Moving Pictures, Pigeon Post Pictures production. Produced by Eric Daniel Metzgar, Nell Carden Grey. Directed, edited by Eric Daniel Metzgar.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Metzgar; additional camera, John Hager, Nell Carden Grey; music, Eric Liebman; sound, Red Room Post. Reviewed at San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, May 21, 2006. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Richard Ogust.

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