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An Entertaining Look at the Fossil Trade

The proliferation of billionaires — with trillionaires reportedly soon to come — has raised a lot of questions in world politics. But one question has been around as long as wealth itself: What can an individual actually do with that much money? A new answer arises in “The Bones,” proving that the rich will always break fresh ground in the realm of luxury expenditures. Even for the man or woman who “has everything,” there may still be unfulfilled need for a reconstructed Triceratops skeleton dating from approximately 67,000,000 B.C. Think how it will look in one’s Great Room! That’ll show arrivistes whose trophies are from mere living species.

Yes, there is an actual market for such things, as Jeremy Xido’s documentary feature suggests — though it does not take us into the homes of such collectors, who presumably would rather not advertise their acquisitions. It used to be that dinosaur artifacts were dug up for scientific study, then preserved for natural history museums. But now paleontologists must vie with a deep-pocketed commercial sphere where the potential for huge profits can tend to loosen any moral scruples. Premiering at CPH:DOX, this breezy introduction to a complex subject sprawls across the globe from excavation field to academia to auction house. More an entertaining sampler of related issues and colorful personalities than any sober exposé, it should have broad appeal for programmers seeking nonfiction content both educational and humorous. 

As one observer here says, the “fossil trade” has existed for at least 300 years. But it is not a surprise to learn that interest in dinosaurs — and the revving up of tie-in commerce — experienced a big jump following the release of the first “Jurassic Park” film 31 years ago. Ever since, commercial diggers have grown more numerous and aggressive, to the dismay of scientists who now frequently find potentially valuable excavation sites “destroyed” by careless amateurs. One local Moroccan interviewed says that “in a good week,” he might make $40 mining the Sahara for fossils. At the other extreme, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen (dubbed “Sue”) found up to that point wound up sold by Sotheby’s for $8.3 million in 1997. Twenty-three years later, a similar item (“Stan”) fetched nearly four times as much. 

Some of these giganti do end up in museums. But others vanish into the realm of private collectors whose identities often remain hidden. Either way, those end points typically arrive after a convoluted long process “The Bones” can only somewhat illuminate, as there are so many variables. Laws in the countries of origin may have little power in the country of receipt and/or sale. We learn that while in Canada’s Alberta province only the government can truly “own” a fossil, in many other places the rules are vague or ill-enforced enough to create a “free-for-all.” (That term is used by one expert here to describe the U.S.’s policies, or lack thereof.) 

Such inconsistencies encourage smuggling, accidental or deliberate misidentification of artifacts, and constantly rising prices. They also sustain innumerable middle-men like Francois Escuillie, a French entrepreneur who prefers to think he’s built “a niche between science and commerce” — though he’ll admit some paleontologists call him “a thug.” Seen at his sizable fossil warehouse or attending a huge annual gem, fossil and mineral convention in Tucson, he’s viewed here as a sort of wacky, lovable ne’er-do-well uncle; Ramachandra Borcar’s original score begins to frolic whenever he’s onscreen. 

But such slippery characters are the bane of researchers like Nizar Ibrahim, who find themselves in a “race against time trying to see how many of these treasures we can rescue for science” before they get damaged or sold for private profit. The breadth of the legal grey zone across nations means that while Escuillie has been repeatedly investigated by Customs officials, even had his pieces and passport confiscated, he’s also repeatedly won the court cases against him.

“People think it’s world heritage. They confuse morality with law,” he grouses at one point. But many artifacts in western museums are now a discomfiting vestige of colonialism, and officials in places like Mongolia and Morocco want their heritage back. The shifting sands of human politics, economics and more continue to disturb these bones more than did the intervening 80 million years since some last strode the earth. Their proper care and study seems of particular urgency to scientists now, because after all, dinosaurs and 21st-century humanity have something in common: living in an epoch of mass extinctions and climate change. As one observer notes in parting here, “No species lasts forever.” Gulp.

Xido (“Death Metal Angola”) surveys this tangled territory with a sensibility that is equal parts early Errol Morris in its attraction towards idiosyncratic individuals, and dispassionately sleek “National Geographic”-style edutainment. The dramatic landscapes visited in North America and Asia are captured to fine widescreen effect a team of camerapeople. A bonus in the smoothly accomplished assembly are a couple CGI animation sequences (not from “Jurassic” films) illustrating what long-gone creatures of both land and sea would have looked like. 

“The Bones” is nonjudgmental, suggesting that the pursuit of science is a nobler cause than that of shekels, but not necessarily disagreeing with those who argue they can co-exist. A whole movie could be made about ways in which the “fossil trade” has frequently crossed into illegality — this is not that movie. Xido is content to size up the different sides, casually weighing their conflicts yet refraining from assignment of any particular blame. 

The result may well strike your average paleontologist as settling for charm where it ought to indict. Nonetheless, the film’s multinational sweep has enough ballast to leave you more concerned about the state of the prehistoric record than you were going in … and to make tens of millions of years suddenly shrink in the larger scheme of things. 

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