Dir: Lena Karbe. Germany/France. 2022. 81 min.
In 2013, when rhino poaching in South Africa‘s Kruger National Park reached an all-time high, an all-female anti-poaching unit was founded. They were named the Black Mambas; over several years, the team expanded to employ some forty-five women from nearby communities, providing a lifeline to families at a time of high unemployment. The level of rhino poaching has dropped dramatically. But this Lena Karbe documentary isn’t quite the uplifting story of women’s empowerment and the triumph of conservation that it might seem at first glance. Karbe gradually steps back to reveal the colonial structures that are still, very firmly, in place and that act as a barrier between women and any aspirations they might have to advance their careers.
When wildlife sanctuaries were founded, it was done without considering the needs and rights of black people.
This is the feature debut for Karbe, who has previously served as a producer on several projects and directed Chinese Dream, a mid-length TV documentary about African emigration to China. black mambas is a shrewd, low-key film that follows three well-chosen characters – new recruit Naledi, working mother Qolile and ambitious Nkateko – while gradually revealing some pretty uncomfortable truths about the power dynamics and institutional racism in their environment of work. More festival screenings are likely, both at documentary-themed events and those focusing on women’s issues.
We are introduced to Naledi at the very beginning of the film when she first dons her camouflage-style Black Mambas uniform. “I’m so proud of myself,” she beams. But his journey, like the film itself, is cut short by the pandemic. When we meet her again, a year later, a lot has changed. The impact of Covid-19 on tourism has had a ruinous effect on the local economy. Poaching “bushmeat” in the reserve is, says Nkateko empathically, sometimes the only way a relative can feed his family. “We fight with white people because they use our stuff,” says an anonymous poacher, pointing out that when the wildlife sanctuaries were founded, it was done without considering the needs and rights of black people.
What hasn’t changed, however, is work. Naledi and his colleagues walk the same seven-kilometre stretch of perimeter fence every morning, undergoing the same quasi-militaristic training from the predominantly white, male leadership team. Naledi’s initial enthusiasm seems to have been subdued. Nkateko, meanwhile, is highly motivated. She, alone, supports her family. Following the premature death of her father, she assumes the role of protector. In the future, she would like to train as a safari guide. But capable and unflappable as she is, her immediate supervisor micromanages and talks to her. He has a flowery face and an old-school attitude: “I knock them a little bit,” he says of the Mambas who come to work with him. He teaches them “how to manage a bank account, not to lie, how not to be a drama queen”. He adds, by way of explanation, “They are all girls…”
Black Mambas founder Craig Spencer clearly values women more, but even so, his comments suggest the all-female anti-poaching squad may have been designed primarily as a marketing tool. “I don’t want soldiers,” he insists, adding that he encourages recruits to wear lipstick and earrings. “Women bring values to this field,” he adds vaguely. Finally, however, there is a moment of insight: Spencer admits that the park is the “last Bastille (sic)” of the old white colonial mindset and that “it can’t be a dead end job for a mamba”. It’s a realization that may have come a bit too late for some of the disillusioned and demotivated women on the front lines of poaching in Kruger National Park.
Production companies: Karbe Film, Day For Night
International Sales: Autlook Filmsales GmbH [email protected]ms.com
Producers: Lena Karbe, Jan Vasak
Screenplay: Lena Karbe, Tristan Coloma
Director of photography: Mateusz Smolka
Editing: Georg Michael Fischer
Music: Rémi Alexandre