Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
Austin Alternative Screen Scene
Children marvel, and adults reel, at the latest innovation in digital neurochemical exploitation: TikTok.
While there’s a knack to getting the algorithm to separate wheat from chaff, one popular niche on the platform, proximate to the slice-of-life genre, is that of professionals working jobs. Digging deeper reveals the sub-subculture of screen printing. There’s something inherently engaging about watching a craftsman simply be proficient at their given work, and I myself have fallen down a rabbit hole or two learning the minutiae of different inks, surfaces, and processes to realize a graphic design. What I did not expect, however, was for two such designers to turn around and introduce me to the world’s most endangered marine mammal on the planet—then don their sea legs and try to save it.
The Last Vaquita sees brothers Ed and James Harrison journey from their native UK to join the appropriately-named Sea Shepherd (if manatees are “cows of the sea,” then perhaps vaquitas are sheep?) in waters west of Mexico on its mission to save the porpoise from extinction. The Harrisons are graphic designers and screen printers by trade, and their unlikely alliance with ocean conservationists began with a passion between the brothers to harness “the natural curiosity that people have as children,” inspiring them to create a series of prints on endangered species. That pursuit leads them aboard their vessel of choice as they work both at home and in the field (read: ocean) to achieve their goals.
The brothers’ understanding of graphic design principles makes for arguably one of the sleekest-looking documentaries at AniFab, complete with seamlessly integrated 2-D graphics, standalone or superimposed over b-roll. Their unique angle at the subject is everything: their printing acumen adds a unique twist to the familiar conservation doc tropes that, admittedly, grow tired when shown back-to-back-to-back in festival screening blocks. Their visual instincts lend the project a polish few others possess. And their background as respectful enthusiasts—not experts–actually works in their favor, allowing themselves to function as audience surrogates in teaching about the vaquita as they themselves learned of its situation.
It’s not the most technically exhaustive study of wildlife, and it may place style over substance from time to time, but The Last Vaquita sets out to tell a specific story through a unique lens and does so beautifully. It makes creative use of familiar material, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and brims with a genuine passion for making a difference through art. What’s not to love about that?