The provocative documentary “Kangaroo — A Love-Hate Story” drills deeply into the complex question of why Australia’s beloved and iconic creature is also regarded as a dangerous pest that must be slaughtered and turned into everything from fancy fashion products to pet food and gourmet cuisine. In their examination of the kangaroo from cultural, environmental, economic and political perspectives, co-directors Mick McIntyre (“Aussie Rules the World”) and Kate McIntyre Clere (“Yogawoman”) have gathered high-quality testimony from experts and stakeholders on all sides of the issue. With glorious footage of kangaroos bounding through the Outback juxtaposed with graphic images of night-time “culling” of the marsupials, “Kangaroo” is guaranteed to prompt plenty of discussion when it hops into limited U.S. cinemas Jan. 19. Australian theatrical release is set for March 15.
Though the film does present views from farmers, kangaroo industry representatives and politicians explaining why numbers must be kept in check, there’s no doubt “Kangaroo” will be read by many viewers as eco-activist filmmaking. In the same way documentaries such as “The Cove” and “Blackfish” have altered public perceptions and official policies on marine ecology, this doc has the potential to help bring kangaroo welfare and management into much sharper focus in Australia and internationally.
McIntyre and McIntyre Clere utilize excellent archival footage and call upon interviewees including distinguished mammalogist and environmentalist Prof. Tim Flannery to establish a clear historical picture of the fascinating and vexing subject. The kangaroo, a symbol of Australia that’s emblazoned on Qantas airplanes, attracts millions of tourists and provides the nickname for national sports teams. According to respected aboriginal elder Uncle Max Dulamunmun Harrison, kangaroos are also “the first Australians.”
But since the arrival of European settlers in 1788, the marsupials, which far outnumber the current Australian population of 25 million, have been blamed for destroying the pastures of valuable livestock. The hopping vertebrate is impossible to control and contain without erecting 12-foot fences spanning hundreds of miles, which in turn affects a bigger biodiversity picture. The result is a supremely paradoxical situation whereby the kangaroo is classified as a protected species while also being subjected to the world’s greatest wildlife slaughter via “mitigation” licenses granted to farmers and professional hunters.
The question of how native kangaroos and introduced animals such as sheep and cows can coexist has proved intractable since it was first raised. While no single film could hope to provide definitive answers, “Kangaroo” deserves credit for presenting a wealth of informed opinions and impressing the need for a change of thinking if solutions are ever to be found.
What’s beyond doubt here is how the mass killing of kangaroos is carried out. Regulations demand a bullet to the head. Footage shot over many years by activists Diane Smith and Greg Keightly shows otherwise. The sight of hideously wounded animals dying in agony is powerfully intercut with images of shooters pulling joeys (baby kangaroos) from their dead mothers’ pouches and (legally) smashing their heads against the rear ends of pickup trucks. Many viewers are likely to be distressed during these emotionally confrontational and utterly essential segments.
Claims of threats made against Smith and Keightly are neatly threaded into the story of Mark Pearson, the first Australian politician elected from an animal rights party. After receiving scientific data about hygiene standards in the kangaroo meat industry, Pearson takes the findings to Russia. His meetings with local industry bigwigs result in further testing and a ban on kangaroo imports. A tasty element of political intrigue enters the picture during coverage of Australian lobbying to lift a long-standing ban on kangaroo imports in California.
Nicely shot and expertly edited by Wayne Hyett, the doc is set to a splendid score by David Bridie that evokes all the wonder and danger associated with the Australian Outback. All other technical aspects are on the money.