Review: ‘Life and Other Problems’ – A Documentary Laden with Questions but Lacking in Insights Begins with the Demise of a Giraffe

Max Kestner’s contemplative exploration of its titular themes offers little beyond serene clichés concerning age-old philosophical questions.

Life and Other Problems

Documentaries, inherently driven by curiosity, typically see nonfiction filmmakers approaching their subjects with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, whether they be individuals, locations, or events. However, as evidenced by Max Kestner’s “Life and Other Problems,” curiosity alone may not suffice. Structured around the director’s fascination with profound questions concerning life and consciousness, the film traverses realms of philosophy, biology, and evolution, yet struggles to unify its diverse inquiries. Despite its eagerness to draw parallels between humans, the microbes within us, and the animals in zoos, the documentary fails to progress beyond aimless exploration of its thought-provoking themes.

At the onset of Kestner’s film lies a pivotal moment that captured global attention in 2014. It revolves around the Copenhagen Zoo’s controversial decision to euthanize Marius, a 2-year-old giraffe under their care. This incident, which raised profound questions about the value placed on different lives, serves as a catalyst for the filmmaker’s exploration. Bengt Holst, then the scientific director of the Copenhagen Zoo, candidly articulates his rationale for euthanizing Marius. From a genetic standpoint, Marius was deemed “surplus,” and his presence was deemed unnecessary for the captive giraffe population. Despite international outcry and appeals from zoos and conservationists worldwide, Holst staunchly defends his decision, offering a clinical explanation to Kestner’s camera.

The “Marius incident” serves as the catalyst for Kestner’s quest to grapple with a question both simple and profoundly complex: What is life? Early on in the documentary, he muses that life may begin around birth and end around death, setting the tone for his exploration. Throughout the film, Kestner engages in self-guided inquiries and converses with experts from various fields, including ecology, evolution, marine biology, microbiology, neuroscience, and consciousness studies. While these discussions prove somewhat intriguing and often stimulating, there’s a subtle disconnection between the immediate issues raised by Marius’s death and the deeper philosophical musings regarding the essence of life.

Shuttling between the immediate concerns raised by the Marius incident and the broader, more abstract philosophical inquiries proves to be more jarring than enlightening. While Marius’s death prompted reflections on animal rights, speciesism, and the ethics of zoos, Kestner’s focus shifts towards exploring interconnected questions about free will, the “mystery of life,” and the universal “life force” that animates all living beings. He frequently draws from Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1907 book, “The Intelligence of Flowers,” suggesting that consciousness may extend beyond humans to encompass flowers, fungi, and animals.

The diverse array of experts Kestner interviews holds the potential to spark a captivating discussion. However, instead of delving deeply into each subject, Kestner attempts to weave together disparate elements and interdisciplinary queries, resulting in fragmented inquiries. His questions to interviewees, such as “Is the giraffe related to microbes, like we are?” in response to a provocative proposition regarding the scientific ambiguity of defining life, highlight the documentary’s struggle to unify its themes effectively.

Marius’s presence looms large throughout the film, yet his death and the subsequent public dismemberment at the zoo seem disconnected from the discussions Kestner engages in with experts on evolutionary biology and cellular consciousness. The filmmaker’s attempt to establish a continuum between small organisms and humans, between ancient genes and contemporary life, comes across as trivial amidst such profound and longstanding questions.

This fragmented approach to complex and enduring inquiries, which have occupied the realms of biology, philosophy, and ethics for centuries, is also reflected visually in the film. Scenes focusing on Marius resemble a news-heavy archival piece, featuring broadcast segments, newspaper headlines, and sterile interviews with individuals involved, creating a sense of chronicle rather than genuine inquiry. In contrast, the film’s exploration of vast landscapes—arid deserts, lush forests, and dynamic oceans—serves as a backdrop to Kestner’s conversations with scientists, adding depth to their discussions often held in labs and research centers.

Kestner’s insatiable curiosity is evident throughout the film. His unbridled appetite for exploring fundamental questions about humanity’s place in the world infuses the documentary with a sense of childlike wonder, leading to intriguing discussions. However, the lack of rigorous analysis prevents any single insight from coming into clear focus. Instead, Kestner’s exploration of life, both mundane and profound, becomes increasingly diffuse as the film progresses. Rather than presenting a cohesive mosaic of ideas, the documentary feels more like a haphazard attempt to connect loosely related sources without a strong organizing principle.

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