For longtime fans of filmmaker Jessica Yu’s documentary work, the shadow puppets that first greet audiences of her latest film “The Guide” by way of shadow puppets will come as a welcome reminder of her 2004 profile of the artist Henry Darger, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” while the introduction shortly thereafter of Tonga Torcida, an aspiring teenage docent at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique will seem like an ideal followup to her last film “Last Call at the Oasis,” which was an urgent overview of the world’s diminishing fresh water supply.
It’s a mix of old and new that isn’t limited to just behind the camera as Tonga crosses paths with the 82-year-old Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who comes to the park in search of rare creatures, primarily consisting of insects that can only be found in the environs of the Great East African Rift Valley, a place where much of the wildlife was decimated by the Mozambican Civil War from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Yet Wilson finds something else unique in Tonga, who translates for Wilson and has the extraordinary opportunity amongst those his age in his region to pursue an education, though to do so he would have to leave the park to attend a university. Tonga’s considerable expertise makes him the perfect host to lead Wilson — and by extension, the audience — through the wilderness dotted with waterfalls and gorgeous shrubbery, all captured elegantly by cinematographer Bob Poole, but it also serves to show what a difficult decision Tonga is faced with considering he’d have to leave one of the few conservation projects in Africa that holds great promise as well as many questions.
Although Tonga naturally has trouble making up his mind, Yu certainly doesn’t during the assured 40-minute short that combines the filmmaker’s ability to access and convey fascinating personal stories while gently bringing out the underlying political ramifications of the subject. She ably tracks the evolution of Gorongosa as American philanthropist Greg Carr has bolstered its fortunes in recent years, but demonstrates how the park’s future will ultimately be entrusted to locals such as Tonga, and how the mere act of Wilson’s visit, which is punctuated by schoolchildren finding a species of bug that the biologist can’t identify, instills hope for the poverty-stricken region. The mood is kept light, as exemplified by the sun-dappled photography and Jeff Beale’s uplifting score, but like its engaging main subject, “The Guide” aims to spark a larger conversation and is energized by the possibilities.