The first person Matt Goldman met in Kenya was a Samburu tribesman named Innocent.
The second person he met was Liz Gilbert.
“Who’s that?” he thought to himself of the lithe brunette standing on a dusty airstrip, waiting to greet him and a film crew as they hopped out of a private plane on the Tanzanian border. “What’s she doing here?”
Most immediately, she was friends with his traveling companions, Mr. Goldman explained last week during a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. In the larger picture, she was much more.
He just didn’t know it yet.
Several days later, the director was killing time in his lodge’s lobby when he picked up the photography book “Tribes of the Great Rift Valley,” a 5-pound tome of black-and-white pictures celebrating the traditional tribes living in the 3,500-mile landscape—the proud, majestic warriors of the Maasai and Samburu, the Mursi with their jutting lip plates, the guinea fowl-painted faces of the Karo, the bull jumpers of the Hamar, and the Batas, known as the honey seekers of the forests.
“What struck me about it was the difference between what you see with your own eyes and what the photographer saw,” he recalled. “And that made me say, ‘This is a true artist,’” he said of the photographer.
Mr. Goldman flipped to the cover and read the author’s name: Elizabeth L. Gilbert. Then, it all came together.
He wanted to know her. He needed to know her. When he heard she was looking for a cinematographer for a film project, he jumped at the opportunity.
“To be honest, she wasn’t very interested in me. We come from such different worlds,” he said. “I had to make the case that I was her man. And I did.”
On Sunday, October 13, their 75-minute film, “The Last Safari,” will make its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival at East Hampton UA. It offers a look into near-extinct, age-old African traditions as Ms. Gilbert returned to the Rift Valley to visit the tribes she had photographed a decade earlier.
“She said, ‘Look, I just want someone to document this journey,’” Mr. Goldman said. “She didn’t really know why.”
But a conflict arose when he said to her, “You’re the star. Let’s just get one thing straight. You’re the subject of the movie.”
“No, I’m not the subject of the movie,” she had said.
“Yes, you are. Don’t be crazy,” the filmmaker told her. “If we’re doing this, we need a narrator. And it’s going to be you.”
Ms. Gilbert visited Africa for the first time in 1985. She was 17, traveling on a school trip against her will, she recalled last week during a telephone interview from Texas, where she opened her retrospective photography show, “The Histories of Africa,” on October 1.
“Of course I fell in love with it,” she said. “It speaks to some people. There’s a greatness in nature that we often don’t get to experience. I think it’s forgotten.”
She returned to the Dark Continent in 1991, after graduating from Parsons The New School For Design, where she met artist and part-time Montauk resident Peter Beard. She stayed with his family in Kenya and applied to every news outlet she could, marketing herself as a photographer living in Africa.
By age 22, she was working for Time magazine, photographing genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. By age 28, she had covered five civil wars.
She saw a reality she couldn’t have imagined. A reality that didn’t line up with her romantic vision of Africa. A reality that wasn’t inciting the change she wanted to see. A reality she didn’t want to preserve.
“You can imagine the scale of the suffering and violence and horror in these places. And it went completely unanswered. That led to my personal feeling that I was serving no function,” Ms. Gilbert said. “I just lost faith, I suppose. As frightened and naïve as I was—I had seen many of my friends killed—I decided I would do something that could have more immediate resonance. And it could be something for the Africans. I came up with this idea to go out and see this beautiful part of Africa.”
That mission has shaped Ms. Gilbert’s life for the last 15 years, she said, photographing more than 22 tribes across the continent. In 2011, she returned to show them what she had done.
On a shoestring budget, the couple hired a crew from Nairobi to help her screen a slideshow of more than 200 photos in remote African villages—places where the tribes had never seen photos of themselves, she pointed out—over the course of an ambitious, three-week safari.
“Oh no, it wasn’t easy. We wanted to kill each other,” she said. “It was horrible. It was grueling. But there were moments that made it all worth it, like seeing James, a boy I had sponsored through school.”
She first met James Ole Mpusia in 1999, shortly after his circumcision, while she was working on her first book, “Broken Spears: A Maasai Journey.” Dressed in traditional garb at age 12, he explained to her that he was not to be a murran, or Maasai warrior. Instead, he was going to school. He would be the first educated member of his family.
As shown in the film, “The Last Safari,” the first words out of her mouth when she saw James again were, “Oh my gosh.”
“Ten years ago,” James said, dressed in a collared white shirt.
“Look at you!”
“Ten years ago,” he repeated, smiling.
He invited her inside and explained that he was now a father of two.
“Where are your children? Are they around?” she asked.
“The first-born is in school.”
She struggled to hold back her tears. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I can’t believe it.”
Then, James’s youngest son shuffled into the room. He was just a toddler.
“When you left, that was some 10 years ago …” James said.
“I’m a mess, I’m sorry,” she cried, covering her blue eyes with her hands.
“And actually, you really touched my heart and my family members,” he continued. “They were happy about you. And actually, everyone was remembering you and praying for you. But one day, I knew she was coming back.”
The world she had once known was gone, he explained. The Maasai warriors no longer existed, he said, and it was not due to genocide, as it was in Somalia and Rwanda. It was their choice.
So when Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Goldman—who split their time between Nairobi and Brooklyn—encountered them on their journey, they were heartbroken. Some of the tribal traditions were legitimate, the director said, but the vast majority were tourist traps.
“Yeah, it sucked, to be quite honest,” he said. “There was a part of Liz that couldn’t embrace it. I was really pushing for that objective point of view. I said, ‘We can’t not show this. This is the story.’”
But as he delved further and further into the culture, Mr. Goldman felt his domestic partner’s internal conflict. It was a challenge to make certain ceremonies feel authentic, he said.
“You have 1,000 teenage warriors who have lived in the bush and have killed and eaten meat for seven years,” he said. “And they suddenly see this guy with a camera. It was like having 1,000 extras and they all wanted to talk to you at the same time. It gave me a window into how Liz presented the whole culture with her lens. There’s a disparity between two viewpoints: the reality versus the fantasy.”
Ms. Gilbert looked at her book assignments as time capsules—much like a yearbook. However, nothing was staged for her benefit, the photojournalist said, and she stayed true to her rule of never paying for a photo, unless it was shot in her studio.
“I think the truth is made of a thousand different pieces,” she said. “I picked up the piece that was a very idealized version of traditional African life for my books. People leave the film with a lot of mixed emotions. It’s unsettling. You’re sad to see it changing. You’re elated to see it changing. It’s all the things that change is.”
She paused, and continued, “Whether this is reality or fantasy, or whether change is good or bad, I would say, ‘Here it is. You decide.’”
“The Last Safari” will make its world premiere on Sunday, October 13, at 2:15 p.m. at East Hampton UA. An additional screening will be held on Monday, October 14, at 5:15 p.m. at the Sag Harbor Cinema. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.