Ta Opre’s Killing the Shepherd is an illuminating glimpse into a remote Zambian community dealing with starvation, poverty, and loss of wildlife. Opre explains in his booming narration that the African country was once overflowing with leopards, elephants, lions, and more. The documentary observes how members of a small village participate in poaching—not because of a machiavellian desire to slaughter innocent animals, but out of desperation to feed their families. This is a perspective on the polarizing subject that is rarely seen.
It is humbling to get a firsthand look at a native community that does not have the technology or comfort that we take for granted, such as the ability to get food on an app with the swipe of a finger. Opre draws comparisons between the Zambians and ancient man in a beautiful sequence with cave drawings lit by a blazing fire that depict humanity’s prehistoric relationship with hunting wild animals for food.
Killing the Shepherd is also a fascinating portrait of a strong female leader (America should take notes). A quiet yet mighty tribal chief strives to save her damaged community where there is impoverishment, no education, alcoholic men, and girls as young as fourteen impregnated and married to older men. The villagers’ candid interviews reveal the challenges and differences of those who live in the African wilds.
Opre also focuses on the company Makasa Safaris and its wealthy white owners, the Norton family. On the surface, their relationship with the chief fulfills the typical white savior narrative that only rich, white outsiders can reform tribal communities. But Makasa does provide schools, clinics, and loans for the Zambians to start a business; they also show fishermen new techniques to catch more fish and stop over-harvesting. All of these efforts help feed the village and revitalize the once-thriving flora and fauna.
Opre’s film combines standard talking heads with gorgeous cinematography of the rugged African plains and villagers working the earth. These stunning, slow-motion visuals underline humanity’s harmony with nature—its simplistic beauty and the effort it takes to survive by living off the land. Killing the Shepherd is an exquisitely shot documentary that tackles a controversial subject with gripping honesty and gives audiences a fascinating inside look at a vastly different culture.