"We didn't want to make a dry documentary that was more like a lecture. We wanted to tell a story of human movement."—Producer Paul Ashton
At the climax of The Real Eve, a Discovery Channel documentary about human evolution, five Chicago locals undergo a genetic test to track their mitochondrial DNA markers. A Cree Indian and a Greek émigré both discover, in a moment that seems to stun both, that they share a common ancestor 30,000 years ago. The event is a reminder of why racism is so stupid: there is no such thing as racial purity. We are all in one another's woodpile.
The Real Eve wants to put a human face on the evolutionary process, making our development as grand a story as a John Jakes generational epic. It is a maternally-driven epic: mitochondrial DNA is passed through the mother (so much for a real Adam). In fact, the discoverer of mitochondrial DNA tracking is a woman (oddly interviewed here in a moving car). Where anthropology could only theorize how humans might have migrated from Africa and evolved into modern form, DNA markers have confirmed our origins.
The documentary traces nomadic movements from East African coastal fishing cultures to the South Arabian coast (around Yemen), where "Eve" arrives around 80,000 years ago. From there, her daughters split up, some heading north into the Fertile Crescent and then Europe, others heading east into India and China. We are shown tales of struggle and survival: how ancestors of the Samang in Malaysia fled from a monstrous volcanic explosion, or how rafters deliberately braved shark-infested seas to settle in Australia. We see more disturbing aspects of our behavior: how nomads arriving in Germany wiped out the Neanderthals, genetic cousins already living there, or how early settlers in North America purged rival migrants crossing the Bering Strait.
Through the course of 90 minutes, The Real Eve tries to cover a lot of ground about human similarity and difference. Why variations in skin color? How did inbreeding among small migratory groups affect DNA variations? Narrator Danny Glover offers the scientific evidence in a relaxed manner, like an uncle telling a story rather than the grave narrator of a traditional science documentary. He is joined by friendly and articulate scientists (many women and non-whites compared to old-style docs) filmed in casual situations.
In fact, if The Real Eve has a noticeable drawback, it is that the documentary might almost be too casual. The recreations of scenes from human history are dramatic in their own right, and the DNA and archeological detective work is presented briskly, with clear and concise explanations for a lay audience. But director Andrew Piddington (whose usual gig is television detective thrillers) wants to kick it up a notch with rapid editing, extreme close-ups, flash pans, and other jarring tricks. Sometimes this becomes irritating and distracting. Otherwise, Artisan's presentation of The Real Eve looks fine. While parts of the documentary look over- or underlit and some scenes are conspicuously shot on video and transferred to film, this is all par for the course with television documentaries and usually does not detract from viewing. The film is matted to 1.66:1 and given an anamorphic transfer, smoothing out most of the inherent defects in the source material. Extra material is sparse though: two brief behind-the-scenes segments (one focusing on recreating the Toba volcano explosion; the other on our African origins) that aired as bumpers on the Discovery Channel.
I am unsure how much replay value a standard documentary like The Real Eve might have, outside of the classroom. But on its own terms, it is well worth a look at least once. Given how important understanding our differences and similarities is, how much violence we do to one another because we fail to find our common ground, The Real Eve offers an engaging and informative look at the real face of human evolution. We may have walked awfully far on our journey, but there is still a long way to go.
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