Laikipia is a Maasai village in rural Kenya where culturally ritualized transitions to adulthood find boys shaved and circumcised to become warriors and find girls … well, shuffled into marital traps, menial jobs or marginalized lives. In 2019, several dozen Laikipia women enlisted for tryouts to become wildlife rangers in their region – a conservation special-ops squad that stealthily tracks and traps poachers who target buffalo, antelopes, elephants and more.
Only 12 of the women will be chosen to advance into the full training program. Even then, they’ll be tired because the job involves constant walking and wee-hours vigilance. They’ll be stressed because the booming business of butchering wildlife never slows down. They’ll be endangered by a community of criminals with a legacy of violent retaliation. They’ll be asked to continue fulfilling their roles as sisters, wives and / or mothers. They’ll be sexually objectified by the men in the wildlife ranger corps whom they work beside. They’ll always, and often correctly, suspect that support from Laikipian men is a smokescreen for skepticism that they can do the job.
Austin Peck beautifully relays the stories of these women in Ranger, a stirring accomplishment for the documentary filmmaker. He balances the experience of their training exercises – under the watchful, and empathetic, eyes of a balding but brawny white man named Shane – with glimpses into their home lives and struggles, such as male neighbors threatening to take their homes by force while they are away in training.
For these women, life has been an endless parade of shakedowns and letdowns. Shane understands that physical fitness and weapons training are essential, but secondary, aptitudes if they are to be successful rangers. Above all else, the women must exude self-confidence to stand their ground, to balance activism and ambition with an aggressive drive to seize victory. When the women chosen for the full program learn of their advancement, it’s an emotionally overwhelming moment expressing the accomplishment and freedom their selection represents.
Ranger is full of unforgettable, and atypical, training exercises. The very first finds Shane locking tight hands and wide eyes with the women, bellowing “Yes!” at the top of his lungs and asking them to counter with “No!” Whether they respond with anger, sadness or fear is up to them. His rubric is whether he believes they are legitimately interested in summoning a resolve and reliance within themselves and with one another. Later, they must keep an even keel while the insults they wish least to hear are hurled in their faces.
Shane also asks them to squat, like Jackson Pollock over canvas, to create art reflective of their anger and anxiety and then, under the strains of death metal, pummel pads and pillows with primal screams and controlled chaos. It’s not a brutalizing endeavor, as they’re always given time to recenter and let this cacophony calcify into courage, strength and confidence. This is nothing less than women being allowed to own, and openly express, their pain in a productive, positive way for the first time. To watch it is to see exhilarating exorcisms of nervous and / or negative energy.
Focusing more on the tactical side of training, including a 62-mile endurance march that will take the women to the top of Mt. Ololokwe, the second half feels a bit more standard-issue. And frankly, you’ll want to see more of these women’s work in the field (of which there are only a few minutes near the finale). But Peck properly plays up the contrast between the male and female systems in this village, and which one seems primed to survive. Men are encouraged to abandon empathy and family rather than embrace it. Women reject the homogenization of the male warriors for a more ecumenical experience they bring to their training. Love for those left behind is considered a liability for men. For the women, it’s a sustainable wellspring of strength.
The male system is subjugation. The female system is inspiration. Ranger makes a persuasive case that in this place and space, as it should be in far, far more areas of the world, the future is female.
Ranger will screen during the 31st Heartland International Film Festival at:
- 6:15 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7, at Living Room Theatres, 745 E. 9th St., Suite 810, in Indianapolis
- 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Landmark Glendale 12, 6102 N. Rural St., in Indianapolis
Director Austin Peck is scheduled to be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A at both screenings.
Ranger will also be available to stream online from noon Thursday, Oct. 6 through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 (all times Eastern) through Heartland’s virtual platform.
Tickets are available at heartlandfilm.org/festival.