The Chances of the World Changing

Everything can be found in New York, right? At least, it could until Richard Ogust was forced to dismantle his collection of twelve hundred of the world’s most endangered turtles. His plan was to resettle these animals on a former farm in New Jersey and create the largest colony of endangered reptile species in the world. That’s the story told in the remarkable film The Chances of the World Changing, which will be shown nationwide on PBS this July.

As many of the world’s turtle species disappear because, among other reasons, they’re being harvested for soup in China and Southeast Asia, a dedicated group of turtle enthusiasts spread out across the United States has tried to maintain viable populations of the most threatened species. For a decade, Richard Ogust was one of that group, harboring increasing numbers of turtles in his Manhattan loft, but in 2003 his ark was sinking. Kicked out of his penthouse apartment, he made plans to put together a turtle institute like no other, with the world’s leading turtle experts to help him.

With long, contemplative shots and cool electronic music, the film alternates between turtles swimming in tanks, with curiously expressive faces, and Richard in despair, packing turtles in boxes and tanks and pitching his tent in a cornfield in New Jersey. He’s a former writer whose life has become devoted to turtles ever since he rescued his first diamondback terrapin, a creature he bought out of a tank in a Chinatown restaurant. “You have to figure out how to have your life and to keep your life,” he says. Anyone who has ever been swept up in an impossible dream, or longed to make a difference, will find resonance with his efforts.

Sometimes it seems as though the film is too long and too much camera time is spent on Richard; the viewer begins to feel like a therapist watching a brave man slide into depression. Yet the intensity of the film also grows on you. It is seamlessly put together: you’ll see turtles craning their necks and listening to people, turtles smiling, turtles dancing, turtles chewing lettuce. They’re a fine contrast with the world of humans and our warehouses, lawyers, and concrete. “I hope this film isn’t about me,” says Richard. “It’s the turtles that matter. The only real difference is if something happens toward their conservation.”

David Rothenberg has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years.  He is the author of Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, also published in England, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. It was turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.  His following book, Thousand Mile Song, is on making music with whales.  It was turned into a film for French television. As a composer and jazz clarinetist, Rothenberg has eleven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by JazzizMagazine in 1995 and a record on ECM with Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  His latest book on insects and music, along with a companion CD, was published in April 2013 by St. Martins Press under the title Bug Music.  It has been covered in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, on PBS News Hour and on Radiolab.