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Tribeca Review: “Checkpoint Zoo”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 7th, 2024

Still from CHECKPOINT ZOO. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Checkpoint Zoo (Joshua Zeman, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars 

Animals and children are the ultimate innocents, and seeing them suffer or die usually raises the stakes of any narrative where they feature. Time and again, those of us who think and write about movies hear from others how deeply the death of an animal (usually a dog or a cat) affects viewers, far more than the sometimes-brutal murder of countless humans on screens. Google it. There’s even a website,, devoted to the topic. 

Now enter the documentary world, where what we see on screen has (usually) actually happened, and the horror is further amplified. Such is the reality of Checkpoint Zoo, from director Joshua Zeman (The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52), which chronicles the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the start of 2022. More specifically, the movie examines the dangerous and selfless efforts of many people—most of them volunteers—to evacuate the animal residents of Kharkiv’s Feldman Ecopark behind the front lines (the park lies between Kharkiv and Russia’s army). It’s a harrowing exercise, and a heart-rending movie.

As well as an uplifting one. That these folks would risk their lives to save helpless animals, some of them large predators, gives hope that in spite of humanity’s long tradition of barbaric behavior, all is not lost. There is still good in the world.

Still from CHECKPOINT ZOO. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Though not within the current Russian leadership, led by the vile Vladimir Putin (who no doubt takes pride in being called out in this way by “the West,” as he tags all his enemies). Beyond the complete lack of any justifiable reason for his aggression towards a neighboring sovereign nation (spare us the whining about how “Ukraine isn’t a real country”), he encourages his soldiers to commit acts of terrorism. And that, apparently, includes attacking animals.

Zeman leads us in with a solid history of the Ecopark, founded by businessman Oleksandr Feldman as a place for locals—especially young children—to see and interact with animals. It seems like a nice combination of learning center and petting zoo. I am not the biggest fan of such places (animals rarely look happy within them), but given where we are in the evolution of our species, they may at times be the best way of preserving species otherwise under threat. We don’t normally think of the zoos themselves as a place where the animals will die violent deaths, however. Without the intervention of certain residents of Kharkiv, that would have been the fate of most, if not all, of the Ecopark critters.

The crew (a very small one, we hope) risks its own well-being by entering the trenches with the volunteers, who start with the less dangerous creatures, leaving the big cats for last (with wolves just beforehand). Beyond the hazards of dodging bombs, there is the real conundrum of how to keep the animals safe once they are out of direct harm’s way. Where will they go? Will other zoos take them? One temporary solution arrives when Feldman opens up his house, tennis courts, and other grounds on his property for the new arrivals (minus the large felines that would kill them all). The man also shows no hesitation to sell what he has to sell in order to save the animals. After all, he brought them to Ukraine, and so feels responsible.

Still from CHECKPOINT ZOO. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Unfortunately, some people do die during the movie, including one pulled into a cage by an extremely anxious lion. Others are hit by missiles. But does that stop the evacuation? Not one iota. There’s even a moving scene where the parents of a deceased child confront a captured Russian soldier, who breaks down in tears. War is terrible. Not that the leaders who cause them care about what happens to the folks on the ground.

It’s a moving tale, and one well worth watching. It does occasionally lean a little too hard into the obvious way that onscreen trauma can pull at viewer heartstrings, feeling unfortunately exploitative in those moments. This is an editing issue, but it’s hard to fault Zeman for wanting to show the worst and evoke a response. Still, he doesn’t need to push quite that much, as the overall situation speaks for itself. What these amazing citizens of Kharkiv pull off is a feat that deserves not only this powerful cinematic tribute, but a resounding cheer from around the globe.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

2 thoughts on “Tribeca Review: “Checkpoint Zoo”

  1. Wish I could vote!
    We saw the film yesterday and I’d give it a 5/5
    Josh is a magical director

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