A fascinating look into two environmental struggles

The Riverrun Film Festival has come and gone, leaving in its wake a grab bag of intriguing stories of both the fiction and non-fiction varieties. Here are just two of the many, many wonderful entries they brought to the public at large…


The playful yet poignant Rodents of Unusual Size takes as its subject matter nutria, which sounds like a dietary supplement but is in fact an invasive species of rodent that is causing severe damage to the ecosystem of Louisiana. But like any documentary worth its weight in swamp rats (which, according to the film, is roughly 20 lbs per full grown adult), Rodents pulls back to investigate the community at large that has to deal with this very real threat, eventually revealing itself to be a portrait of survival against all odds… a story that, in the end, applies to the humans and rodents alike.

A sequence magnificently narrated by Wendell Pierce and animated to resemble a pop-up book sets the tone. Pierce, whose sonorous tones place it somewhere between pure exposition and a fable, explains the origins of the nutria and how it came to infest LA, a tangled web of events involving the son of the inventor of Tabasco sauce, a booming fur coat industry, and a hurricane. Pierce is a presence that’s missed throughout the rest of the film, which, after the opening moments, mostly allows the people to speak for themselves.

None speak more frequently or more colorfully than Thomas Gonzales, lifelong resident of Delacroix Island, LA.

As goes his story, so goes the story of Delacroix.

Coming from a long line of fishermen, all of whom also made Delacroix Island their home, circumstances have forced Gonzales into the (relatively) lucrative nutria hunting game. A bounty of $5 per tail is offered in an attempt to thin out the nutria population, whose bottomless appetite (they can eat pounds of vegetation per day) has a massively deleterious effect on the landscape, slowly turning it into one big swamp.

Now, $5 doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize the number of nutria running around the islands are estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000,000. Shots of a fresh kill being casually tossed onto a massive pile of nutria corpses appear so often that it basically counts as a recurring visual gag. Nutria hunting is essentially the only trade left on Delacroix Island (one enterprising youth is killing them to pay his way through college!).

We meet still others, each dealing with the pests in their own way. There’s one Michael Beran, an animal control employee charged with clearing the nutria off of country club grounds. He wryly notes that the poor hate the nutria for their invasive, damaging ways; but the richer people in the area, not having to deal with them directly, often wind up defending the omnipresent pests and sabotaging the traps he sets out to get rid of them.

He also named his hunting dog George W. Bush, so… there’s also that to consider.

Another man actually keeps a nutria as a pet, only to later reveal that he still kills thousands of them every year regardless.

There’s the exquisitely named Cree McCree, who with her Righteous Fur fashion company, is attempting to resurrect the fur trade in a more modern and ethical manner.

But in the end, it always comes back to Thomas Gonzales, the beating heart of this film. He’s the person we spend the most time with, and the person whose story gives the movie its emotional heft. His relentless perseverance in the face of unimaginable catastrophe marks him out as either a fool or a champion, but above all, he proves himself to be a survivor.

Blessed with a rollicking score by the Lost Bayou Ramblers that rips when it needs to rip and mourns when it needs to mourn, Rodents of Unusual Size is both light and at times deeply moving, a view into a world most of us have never known — one that was here long before us — and pays a deep, admiring tribute to the people fighting to make sure it’s here long after us.


“Our life depends on the forest.”

The Guardians shares with Rodents a view into a world that seems worlds away from modern society, perhaps even moreso: the main location of Donaciano Ojedo seems a place out of time, where the kids play marbles instead of video games and there are almost no signifiers of the modern world, save what seem to be some hand-me-down T-Shirts and repurposed plastic soda bottles used for irrigation purposes. It’s almost shocking when we spot a a fleet of trucks in the background of a shot.

Disconnected from society at large as Donaciano Ojedo is, still it plugs away, attempting to serve a vital purpose the effects of which spread outward from them to the world at large: The citizens therein have taken it upon themselves to be the guardians of the forest.

Donaciano Ojedo is a Mexican nature reserve dedicated to the preservation of the monarch butterfly, whose population has dwindled precipitously in the past twenty years, from 1 billion to 33 million, due to the effects excessive deforestation. And The Guardians is the fascinating story of the people who have chosen this life, though sometimes it seems like they never had a choice at all.

Much of the story is viewed through the eyes of Santos, a former logger turned trout fisherman/avocado farmer in the off season. He oversees the regular meetings where his fellow citizens debate the merits of their work and try to find a way to both service the environment and also make enough money to survive… two goals which. at times, seem very much at odds.

These meetings are some of the most interesting sections of the film, where civil if occasionally contentious debate arises over who is allowed to cut down trees, and how much, and what the penalty is for not sticking to the rules. It’s clear that the economic margins of survival for the people are under constant threat, and despite their noble intentions, it may not be a sustainable mission.

The film takes place over the entire cycle of monarch migration, as the guardians fight off outside threats from loggers as well as from the unfeeling forces of Mother Nature herself (who at one point do a number on Santos’ avocado crops); they do what they can to make sure there’s still enough forest for the butterflies to return to.

As one might expect, directors Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran put in the effort to ensure that we as viewers get a good glimpse of what’s being fought for and what stands to be lost if their efforts fail: the imagery of the forest is oftentimes breathtaking, clouds of tens of thousands of butterflies hanging from branches like fully bloomed leaves; a forest that remains green in all seasons, unyielding and eternal; and more than that, the children who will one day inherit whatever is left.

As the movie puts it, “We are only passing through life, and who will be the owners of the forest?”

There is great beauty on display, both in the designs of nature and in the quiet, vivid lives of the people, who dance and feast and play soccer, but who are also on guard 24/7 against those who would harm the forest. And while there are certainly bumps along the way (scarcity of water threatens to become an issue and a shocking twist of fate involving Santos is particularly sad and disturbing in its implications), the final images of the films are ones of solidarity. It is not an easy life, but it is a necessary one and The Guardians illustrates that very well indeed.

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