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Independent Film Festival Boston 2016: ‘The Anthropologist’

Spry and crisp, The Anthropologist is a solid documentary that avoids bearing the weight of the austere pessimism surrounding climate change.
2016-10-01

The looming threat of global warming (or, in more neutral terms, climate change) has been strangely divisive despite the fact that it is a near universally agreed-upon phenomenon among environmental experts. The Anthropologist (screened at the International Film Festival Boston), which follows anthropologist Susan Crane and her daughter Kathryn Yegorov-Crate as they visit communities profoundly affected by climate change, approaches the issue from a different direction. Rather than tackling climate change as the abstract, data-driven phenomenon that it’s often painted as, the film gets down and dirty, showing the struggles of various people affected by climate change adapting to their changing worlds.

It’s a smart move. By focusing on the human stories, the directing trio of Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger frame the issue in a way as to shed light on the changing realities of people living in a thawing Siberia, on sinking Pacific Islands, and living among the melting Andes. A brief scene even finds Susan talking to residents of the Virginian coast who, perhaps, have a telling insight when they state their uncertainty about climate change as an issue of faith. When you can’t really see the doomsday effects of climate change, why should an average person believe?

The film, however, is by no means a polemic for climate change action. Though it’s clearly sympathetic to the cause, it feels first and foremost like an exploration of the anthropological profession in the face of outside events that pose existential threats to a myriad of cultures. Framed as the journey of Kathryn growing up as the child of a globetrotting scientist, The Anthropologist doesn’t get bogged down with things like data or strategies for change.

On the one hand, this is a disappointing move, since it limits the film from having that oomph of hard science behind it. There are moments, like a visit to a glacial researcher’s home, where ominous portends of water crises are mentioned, but it’s a human-centric doc through and through. The story of Kathryn and Susan is juxtaposed with an interview with the daughter, herself an anthropologist, of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, who offers her own insights into the role of anthropology. The recurring sentiment expressed in both of the film’s narrative centers, then, is one of resilience and adaptation.

Even when Kathryn and Susan are in Kiribati, an island nation whose government fears the land will be overtaken by rising sea levels that would leave them as “the equivalent of a floating coconut in the Pacific Ocean”, the prevailing mood is one of hope. When asked about strategies for survival, a priest on the island tells the anthropologists that their best hope of survival is to emphasize youth education in the hopes of getting their children jobs overseas. The emphasis on humanity’s adaptive capabilities is touching, but completely at odds with the cataclysmic overtones of climate change.

For all of its reassurances, The Anthropologist doesn’t feel like it’s tackling the issues of climate change with the necessary severity. That being said, it’s a valuable contribution to the dialogue. By making it a human-forward film, the directors do a good job of revealing the scale of the issue and the impact that unrestrained climate change would have on communities in the places that climate change would affect most.

The crisp filmmaking and the fun, comic writing and editing make the film eminently watchable and entertaining — the banter between Kathryn and Susan is the kind of playful mother-daughter dialogue that sitcoms break their backs trying to emulate. It’s a good film. It may not be handled with the rigor that climate change activists would like to see, but it’s an entertaining way of putting a human face on a problem while still providing enough important facts to promote thought.

RATING 7 / 10
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