Sundance 2024 Review: “The Battle of Laikipia” Outlines a Conflict Where the Cows Can’t Come Home

The word “reparations” is never brought up in “The Battle of Laikipia,” but it’s an idea surely lurking in the back of anyone’s mind who may be living on resettled territory as Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi’s fascinating doc unfolds, making the ongoing strife in the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya a conflict with implications far beyond the country’s borders. That is not what the Samburu pastoralists that the co-directors train their lens on in the engaging doc actually are asking for, yet the question comes up when the indigenous tribe is struggling to survive after climate change has forced those without title to any property in search of land with enough water to sustain themselves and their cattle and increasingly they are considered trespassing on private property when ranchers and preservationists, predominantly of white European roots who settled the plateau a century earlier, are putting up stronger protections on their real estate when droughts have made resources precious.

It’s a situation without any clear or completely fair solution when as Maria Dodds, the owner of the 8000-acre Kifuku Ranch, argues convincingly that she has as much claim to being a Kenyan at this point as anyone when her family has been living in the country for four generations. She, along with her adult son George, consider themselves to have had generally good relations with the pastoralist tribes in the past, though Matziaraki and Murimi witness now violent threats being made towards anyone coming too close to their ranch, with local police being enlisted and seemingly all too eager to confront the Samburus. While “The Battle of Laikipia” centers on a standstill, the co-directors have the freedom of movement to expose the issues preventing a compromise, seeing legalities less of an issue than the unwillingness of seemingly reasonable people to engage, growing to have distorted versions of one another when there’s little interaction beyond confrontation.

A drought goes on for over two years making all involved more desperate, but it’s the lack of any productive dialogue that starts to look like it’s really putting everyone at risk and Matziaraki and Murimi do well to illustrate the different cultural attitudes that prevent a detente when the pastoralists, constantly on the move, have few possessions to worry about while that’s all Maria and George appear concerned with, insulated with their land from actually seeing what impact they’re having on others. One of the most keenly observed scenes in the film actually becomes a BBQ at the ranch where those who need not worry where their next meal is coming from complain over the bullying they’ve been on the receiving end of throughout the years when antagonized by pastoralists, and while not without merit, the presence of the pastoralists staving off starvation as their cattle begin to die off only moments earlier reminds that while there are hurt feelings amongst those who own land, there are lives on the line for those with little else to their name. Although finding such conflicts like this around the world is sadly not too difficult, “The Battle of Laikipia” is rare in depicting where exactly the stumbling blocks to a resolution when there’s no common ground, except of course the literal firmament that should have no single owner in the first place.

“The Battle for Laikipia” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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