Film Review: The Anthropologist

Documentary about a single mom anthropologist studying global climate change with her teenage daughter in tow covers the worlds of both science and parental emotion.
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As sometimes happens with documentaries, history may have overtaken The Anthropologist, a highly human look at a single mother field scientist and her teenage daughter as they globetrot to study the effects of climate change. With a climate change denier having been elected president three days before this film's general release, abetted by two houses of Congress who believe science is a liberal conspiracy and will soon have Supreme Court rulings to "prove" it, the hard data and the real-world observational studies here may well go by the wayside. As for the fact that the film shows firsthand rising sea levels, flooding ground water and melting glaciers, they'll chalk it up to, I dunno, that Mother Nature is a libtard and maybe Muslim. And gay.

Dr. Susie Crate, an associate professor of environmental and cognitive anthropology and human ecology at George Mason University, is a youngish spitfire with a 14-year-old daughter, Katie Yegorov-Crate, whom we see grow to college age through the documentary's years. Much of what makes The Anthropologist so watchable is seeing Susie's work through Katie's typical-teenager eyes. It's adorable seeing the usual push-pull of teen-parent love and irritation, but the understated love they share is undeniable. It helps put a human face on the science—as do the voice-of-God inserts by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of the legendry Margaret Mead, describing what anthropologists do and how they do it. Sitting in a chair, presumably at her home, Bateson draws parallels between Mead's work and Crate's, without necessarily mentioning Crate specifically—allowing Crate to become an exemplar anthropologist, a stand-in for all.

Bateson explains that, unlike other animals, humans are "not born with innate behaviors—what we call instincts. We learn what our parents know. Anthropologists study learned behavior of human beings—what we call culture." Sure, we may have a genetic aptitude for piano from our piano-playing parents, but not all humans do—while birds are born knowing how to make a nest.

Crate mère et fille travel together to the Sakha Republic, Siberia, where Susie "went native," as she says, and met her ex-husband. Katie has a lovely and welcoming extended family in this rural community of subsistence farmers, where they depend on hay to feed their livestock. But now many hayfields are flooded because the permafrost below the soil is melting as Earth's temperature increases. Lakes have increased by three-and-a-half times.

When Katie is 16, the two journey to tiny and isolated Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific, just a few feet above sea level. They meet with Claire Anterea, an activist doing climate change workshops funded by, of all things, the Catholic Church. "We will have no land to call home if the sea keeps on rising," she says. "We will have no identity, culture, language, people" if dispersed. Ironically, the local priest at Kiribati's Abaiang Island won't let Anterea do her workshop—not because he doesn't believe in the rising sea level, which is pretty obvious to anyone studying the data or seeing the increasingly less effective seawall, but because she's scaring people, he says. He concedes the island will eventually be gone and that its people likely will have to migrate.

The rising sea level does and doesn't bother some Virginia lobstermen with whom Crate speaks back in the United States. As practical men who live on the ocean's bounty, they speak their understanding of how the climate has changed: They're not making those 2,000-pound catches per trip anymore, since the water is too warm. Yet one religious man (and it's always religion, isn't it?) believes humans are probably responsible for climate change and says that this is the way God wants it, that the Bible says something about how all the seasons will run together and it's God will. Or perhaps the Bible was just talking about Miami or Southern California—you never know when things get transliterated from Aramaic to ancient Greek and Latin and then to English.

Crate runs into the same religious shrug in their final stop: Huaraz, Peru, where some of the world's most ancient crops grew, at least till recently. Meeting up with the well-named, hardcore medical anthropologist Patricia Hammer, Crate speaks with a farmer who says few varieties of potatoes now grow there, with the evocatively named Puma's Claw among those gone. But, hey, he says, preparing for the apocalypse, it's God's will. Science, fortunately, isn't quite dead yet, and in an example of human adaptability, his village created a communal trout farm so that the community can get enough protein to eat.

And while science is, indeed, the crux of The Anthropologist, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, it also provides a loving look specifically at women working in scientific fields. As Bateson says, women observe and interact with the world differently than men do. It's hopeful seeing some of the next generation of women anthropologists, such as Hong Kong-born Isabella Chan, getting her master's at the University of South Florida. We leave the movie with that possibility that the recalcitrant Katie may even follow in mom's footsteps.

Oh, and in case we seem a bit dire in our opening paragraph, consider this: Since at least 2013, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has worked to defund, undermine and disparage the National Science Foundation. Because it's important not to have solid, objective, unbiased science. If science is solid, objective and unbiased, after all, people might get the wrong ideas and want to help protect the Earth based on clear, quantifiable data and not, say, on Republican magical thinking: "La-la-la! Not listening! Not listening! Mon-sannnn-toe-ohh!"

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