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Checkpoint Zoo Review: Animals Without Borders

The face of a lion behind bars in the film Checkpoint Zoo

Checkpoint Zoo is a harrowing documentary that offers an abundance of heart for animal lovers and those passionate about the war in Ukraine.

Director: Joshua Zeman
Genre: Documentary, War
Run Time: 103′
Tribeca Premiere: June 6, 2024
Release Date: TBA

Imagine needing to transport a large, dangerous animal, like a bear or a leopard. Now imagine needing to do this with almost 5,000 animals, with a dwindling supply of anesthesia and inadequate transport. Now imagine doing all of this in the middle of a war zone, with enemy forces within striking distance, and you have the documentary Checkpoint Zoo

Filmed in the early days of the war in Ukraine, Joshua Zeman’s movie follows the Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, as its employees try to rescue the animals from Russia’s invasion. Since the Eco park is only 30 kilometers from the Ukraine-Russia border, it quickly becomes an early target, and the film shows the myriad of struggles to get the animals to safety. We’ve seen a number of documentaries chronicling modern-day Russia, and its invasion of Ukraine, like recent Oscar winners Navalny and 20 Days in Mariupol, but Checkpoint Zoo offers a new angle of war which can often go overlooked.

Zeman composes the film with mostly cell phone footage as the employees and volunteers assess the increasingly dire situation, lending a more grounded, intimate feel to the situation. Indeed, there is a point when the Ecopark gains global attention and international press begins covering their plight, but the homemade footage helps us get to know the people that know and love these animals, and understand why they’re risking their lives for them. Indeed, anyone with a soft spot for animals – like myself – can be easily moved by the hardships faced by these creatures caught in the crosshairs, regardless of how the film can occasionally feel extraneously padded.

A camel is led into a truck in the film Checkpoint Zoo
Checkpoint Zoo (Noah Media Group / 2024 Tribeca Film Festival)

It’s easy to surmise that the Ecopark could have simply been left behind, and the employees could simply have left the animals to fate. But these are people who have dedicated their lives to the care of the animals, and see them as more than fodder for our entertainment. The zoo’s owner and founder goes to great lengths to ensure the animal’s safety, including relocating more than enough of them to his home, and selling his vast collection of priceless wines, in order to pay for the employees’ salaries and the animals’ food. There are a number of heartbreaking, avoidable tragedies for both the humans and animals within the film, but somehow, the Ukrainians press on, regardless of the risks and dangers.

As the war rages on now, more than two years later, the events of Checkpoint Zoo become more and more vital. Putin’s invasion has affected the lives not just of Ukraine’s soldiers, but the innocent bystanders, and the animals who care for them. Though the film plays out mostly how you would expect, this does not make the events depicted any less a barometer on our human capacity for empathy, as the best movies do. As Mister Rogers famously said when reflecting on traumatic events, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Checkpoint Zoo premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 6, 2024. Read our list of 15 films to watch at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival!

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