Look to the Helpers — CHECKPOINT ZOO at Tribeca Festival

No Rest for the Weekend
5 min readJun 18, 2024


by William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the saddest chapters of the 21st Century to date. A madman bent on world domination (or at minimum the full restoration of the former Soviet Union) decides that an independent nation that used to be under his forebears’ thumb is getting too close to Western civilization and joining NATO, so he annexes the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and eight years later launches a full-scale attempt to take over the country once and for all, quashing his closest and most vocal critics. It truly is heartbreaking to witness the disregard for peace, life, and democracy that has unfolded over the last two and a half years, and which unfortunately has no end in sight.

We’ve seen countless stories of the horrors on the ground as cities are destroyed, cultural landmarks burned, and masses of civilians casually slaughtered. Stalwart journalists and filmmakers from around the world have risked life and limb to tell the truth about what’s going on, especially as Russian state media works tirelessly to suppress all forms of independent reporting within the war zone. This year’s Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, was one of many such harrowing first-hand looks.

Directed by Joshua Zeman and making its global debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Checkpoint Zoo is another crucial entry in the ongoing battle to bring this catastrophe to the world’s attention. Equal parts inspirational, terrifying, gut-wrenching, and tense (sometimes all in the same sequence), the film shows that there is still good in this world, as a group of volunteers comes together despite the danger to rescue those who cannot help themselves.

Located just north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is Feldman Ecopark, a sprawling wildlife garden with over 5,000 animals encompassing more than 1,000 species, as well as educational programs, rehabilitation centers (for both animals and humans), and even on-site housing for some of the employees, like Vitalii, a recovering addict. Oleksandr Feldman, multimillionaire founder of the park and a member of Ukraine’s parliament, says that everything he’s built over the course of his career was so that he could create the Ecopark as a haven for animals, with whom he’s always had a loving relationship.

Upon the launch of the invasion in February 2022, Ukraine was thrown into chaos. Kharkiv is a mere fifteen miles from the Russian border, and as the shelling begins Feldman Ecopark finds itself in No Man’s Land, situated squarely between that boundary and the Ukrainian Army’s front line. With electricity cut off and infrastructure devastated, caring for the thousands of animals becomes all but impossible, and the animals begin to starve and become increasingly panicked and aggressive.

It is then that a group of volunteers, including a young man named Tymofii and his brothers and friends, take it upon themselves to help out any way they can, providing medical supplies and food for the workers and the animals, and raising awareness of the Ecopark’s plight on social media. We see footage from numerous outlets, from MSNBC to the BBC to Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, providing coverage. When things become even more desperate, however, the almost impossibly insane decision is made to evacuate the animals from the zoo, first to Feldman’s property (it’s refreshing to see an altruistic millionaire in a documentary), and then to other zoos around the country. The crew has very limited supplies: just a couple of vans with no cages and only a few people with the proper expertise, but the resolve is there to do right by them. Things get particularly tense when it comes time to move the predators, as the extreme conditions have rendered them even more ferocious and deadly than they’d normally be.

The scale of this operation is a sight to behold, and as the various players relate, it takes a certain degree of craziness to even attempt it. Most of us would run in the opposite direction and seek whatever shelter and security we could. These volunteers know the risks, and like the soldiers fighting the battles outside their walls, feel a camaraderie that compels them to leave no one behind, no matter the cost. As one volunteer puts it, “There’s the smart choice, and then there’s the right choice.”

We as an audience see the scale of the destruction as up close and personal as possible. When the workers spot a Russian drone flying overhead, they time their efforts to avoid the imminent missile strike. On several occasions the incoming blasts force the crew to take cover and reassess after the bombings cease. During a particularly thrilling in medias res opening (aided by a killer ambient score from Anne Nikitin) where the zoo workers have but five minutes to move a semi-sedated male lion from his cage to a waiting truck, a member of the crew is asked to set the camera down to lend an extra pair of hands in lifting the large cat into the vehicle.

Sadly, like any good war story, there are tragic casualties, and the film does not shy away from them, apart from some blurring of graphic images. There are losses in this mission, both animal and human, and it rips your heart out to know it happened. But it is essential that we face this trauma. Part of the reason why war movies are so compelling is that they provide an unflinching look at history that can’t be conveyed in the pages of a textbook. This film pulls no punches in showing us reality as it unfolds, so that history is not sullied by propaganda or nostalgia after the fact. There’s a particularly jarring scene involving a captured Russian soldier that has to be seen to be believed.

All of this coheres into a fairly obvious metaphor about how animals and people aren’t all that different, but it’s so much more than that. We feel a kinship with the natural world around us, and when the order of that world is obliterated, those who can help feel a compulsion to do so, regardless of who needs it. This world is precious, and must be protected from those who would destroy it for their own gain, and a film like Checkpoint Zoo is a necessary reminder that great things can be done when good people come together in common cause. In the midst of an atrocity like Putin’s invasion, it’s even more important to keep that sense of hope — and humanity — alive.

Originally published at http://behindtherabbitproductions.wordpress.com on June 18, 2024.



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