‘Checkpoint Zoo’ captures the risky rescue of an entire zoo amid the war in Ukraine

Filmmaker Joshua Zeman didn’t tell his parents that he was traveling to Ukraine in the fall of 2022, just months after Russia had launched a full-fledged military operation in the country. So when his phone kept pinging while on location, he knew it wasn’t them.

It was the app used by many locally that tells users when a bomb is incoming.

“I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Zeman, director of the upcoming film “Checkpoint Zoo,” told CNN in an interview. “We went and wore flak jackets and helmets and we were there filming and bombs were going off, the whole nine yards.”

The notifications went off so frequently that the crew had to turn them off at times, hoping to earn a moment of silence until the inevitable sound of the bombs exploding miles away from their filming location broke it. Both the bombs and the notifications were a constant reminder to Zeman that he was trying to make a movie during a 21st century war.

Zeman made multiple trips Ukraine to capture footage for “Checkpoint Zoo,” a documentary that tells the story of the harrowing rescue of thousands of animals that were trapped inside Kharkiv’s Feldman Ecopark zoo amid the conflict. It will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on June 6.

The story in his film, he said, was too important not to tell.

The victims you never see

Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022 launched an assault on Ukraine by land, air and sea. The ongoing conflict, over two years later, has since left tens of thousands of troops and civilians dead.

The Feldman Ecopark facility, located in Kharkiv near the Russian border, became one of the unwitting casualties of the war when the heavy fighting in the area left the park’s 5000 animals with little food, water and caretakers. But after the park’s founder, businessman and philanthropist Oleksandr Feldman, posted a video to his social media pages asking the world for help, resources were sent and a group of volunteers showed up to help bring the animals to safety.

Six people died during the evacuation, including a 15-year-old boy.

Volunteers help push a camel onto the truck so that he can be successfully evacuated from Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, Ukraine. - Carol Guzy/Ghost Robot
Volunteers help push a camel onto the truck so that he can be successfully evacuated from Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, Ukraine. - Carol Guzy/Ghost Robot

Zeman first learned of Feldman Ecopark’s animal rescue after he saw a video of a Chimpanzee named ChiChi wandering around Kharkiv’s Freedom Square. Intrigued, he was determined to find the Chimp’s origin story, which led him to learning the full scope of Feldman Ecopark’s animal evacuation.

Soon thereafter, Zeman connected with a representative for the park and traveled to Kharkiv with his crew to film.

“This is a film about the unintended victims of war that you don’t quite see,” Zeman said.

Zeman reconstructs the events of the evacuation in “Checkpoint Zoo” using interviews conducted under the constant threat of artillery fire while on the ground in Ukraine and footage filmed by volunteers.

Led by a team of heroic zookeepers and volunteers, the film highlights the people who risked their lives to save the animals of Feldman Ecopark.

But getting there was no easy task.

Zeman spent 12 hours at the Warsaw border on his way into Ukraine trying to explain to border officials that his luggage was full of film equipment. Peppered with questions about why he was trying to cross into Ukraine and what he was trying to film, Zeman attempted to explain that he was not a journalist, nor was he heading to the front lines – a concept that he remembers being confusing to officials.

“‘We’re going to film a zoo,’” Zeman recalled telling officials at the time. “That just blew everybody’s mind at the border.”

In what ultimately turned into a five day trek from Warsaw to Kharkiv, the filmmaker was finally on-site to capture footage of the park, which was beholden to the scars of war and empty of the 5000 animals that were re-homed to safer havens across the country months prior.

'Checkpoint Zoo' director Joshua Zeman. - Jennifer Manville/Ghost Robot
'Checkpoint Zoo' director Joshua Zeman. - Jennifer Manville/Ghost Robot

“It was crazy that this was going on,” Zeman said. “I spoke to so many people whose lives had been impacted…It was horrific what was going on and coming from the United States, coming from New York, it’s just shocking.”

The language barrier at times presented a challenge. Zeman relied heavily on his translator to relay his questions and the subject’s answers. But, he said, “I just knew that the story was important and that the people were important and what they were saying was emotional.”

The footage

Feldman, a Ukrainian businessman and Jewish philanthropist, first opened the park in 2011 with the initial vision that it’d be a small park for children to play with animals, according to producers of the documentary. It eventually evolved into a sprawling facility that housed everything from moose and kangaroos to lions and monkeys. Feldman Ecopark also focused on rehabilitation and instituted programs for special needs children and for people struggling with addiction.

During the evacuation, Feldman and his team relocated a significant amount of the animals from the park to his nearby home. In the film, Feldman’s home – full of animals – is highlighted as he tearfully speaks about his connection to them and his quest to save them.

The human cost of Feldman’s grand effort was spoken about by many in the documentary but shown in graphic detail through the story of 15-year-old Denis Selevin, who was killed in a strike on the facility’s grounds.

In one scene, the child’s father, Vitalii Selevin, confronts a Russian prisoner of war who was captured by the Ukrainian military following the strike.

“This is the blood of my child,” Vitalii Selevin tells man the restrained in the clip, after kneeling down to show him his bloodied hands. “How am I supposed to feel about you?”

A volunteer for the animal evacuation at Feldman Ecopark helps direct the high-risk<br />rescue amidst the debris of Russian missiles in Kharkiv, Ukraine. - Carol Guzy/Ghost Robot
A volunteer for the animal evacuation at Feldman Ecopark helps direct the high-risk
rescue amidst the debris of Russian missiles in Kharkiv, Ukraine. - Carol Guzy/Ghost Robot

Denis Selevin had died just minutes before this encounter. He had been at the facility that day helping evacuate and feed the animals when the park had come under fire by Russian troops.

“The footage was unbelievable, it was shocking,” Zeman said. “It was also amazing too because it happened on the last day of the evacuation. It’s like a script.”

Zeman said he didn’t even realize they had this footage at the time. He and his team knew at the time that Denis Selevin lost his life and thought they’d have to tell his story through photographs. So when an editor first uncovered the footage, Zeman said he felt that it was “very important” that they spoke to his parents on their next trip to Ukraine.

“I was surprised that they agreed to speak on camera,” he said. They ultimately agreed, according to Zeman, because “they wanted the world to see what war can do.”

It’s a sentiment that is consistent through each testimonial featured in “Checkpoint Zoo.”

Andrii Tyvaniuk, a Feldman Ecopark employee who helped with the evacuation says at one point in the film that “not all animals are animals, and not all humans are humans.”

“But many animals are humans,” he continued. “And a whole lot of people are animals.”

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