The film opens with grainy black-and-white video footage, as a camera shakily makes its way through trees at night. Discernible: a pickup truck and, briefly, a kangaroo caught in a spotlight. The camera operator is agitated, fearful. You might joke, “Ah, Australian Blair Witch Project,” but this new documentary is much more horrifying. Shots ring out, and this kangaroo and others nearby are killed. Thousands more such kangaroo deaths occur each night.
Mick McIntyre and Kate McIntyre Clere’s new documentary, Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story, examines Australia’s truly confused relationship with its signature animal. The creature’s image is synonymous with the country, and yet, as the film’s title suggest, the kangaroo’s existence is deeply polarizing. One interviewee divides the kangaroo’s role into three categories: pest to be eradicated, resource to be exploited for profit (meat and leather), and sacred animal, deserving of protection.
Unsurprisingly, the kangaroo’s troubles began with Australia’s colonization by northern Europeans. The new settlers brought sheep and cattle, and considered kangaroo destructive interlopers on the precious grazing areas. (Among the ironies, it is the kangaroo that has adapted to thrive in the continent’s harsh environment.) Thus, kangaroos were killed as “agricultural pests,” often rounded up into pens and shot by the hundreds. Carcasses were left to rot, or processed as pet food.
Lest you think this is how things occurred in less enlightened times, Kangaroo is here to set you straight. Kangaroos are still legally eradicated as agricultural pests; farmers can hire professional “roo shooters,” who use trucks, spotlights and rifles as depicted in the opening video. Others are killed, in the wild, to supply meat — much of it still goes to pet food, but there’s a movement to market better cuts domestically and to large overseas markets, such as Russia and China. The hides are converted into leather. (Are your name-brand sports kicks made of “k-leather”? That’s kangaroo.)
The filmmakers check in across the spectrum, from meat-processors and farmers to animal-rights activists and scientists. Politicians have their say, whether it’s in favor of increasing the market for a uniquely Australian product, or seeking better preservation of the animals. Viewers also get two images of kangaroos — alive and hopping across the range, or dead and mutilated. The sensitive should take note: The film contains explicit footage of kangaroos — even baby kangaroos — being shot, dismembered and left gravely injured.
Like The Cove or Blackfish, Kangaroo is a muckraking work that advocates a clear position for better management and treatment of Australia’s kangaroos. Having previously known little of the kangaroo “industry,” or how contentious the animal’s presence is in its native land, I admit the film left me startled. It likely will jolt you, too.