“At its heart, this film asks – demands – that we reconsider our relationship to all animals” – Lisa Leeman
“Elephants are human animals; their emotional makeup identical to our own, their caring and compassion probably surpassing that of humans. They mourn the loss of a loved one just as deeply as we do, so it is not difficult to regard and love the orphans as one would one’s own child.”– Dame Daphne Sheldrick, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
One of the best documentary films of 2011 – Roger Ebert
By Jonathan Arkin
When Action Now+Network writer Jonathan Arkin mentioned that he’d like to interview his former USC film school instructor, Lisa Leeman, who had directed the recently released One Lucky Elephant, my immediate response was an enthusiastic “Wonderful!” I knew One Lucky Elephant was not only a moving human interest story, but an important film for its message about the emotional and physical perils of attempting to retrofit wild animals into our urban commercial world. This has long been a key issue for Action Now+Network, and has been expounded upon in numerous features on the site. This interview, I thought, would be another great opportunity to drive the point home.
But what I didn’t know at the time, was that Leeman’s personal philosophy, which was shaped by the ten year gestation of the film, reflects much more than a view on the dilemma of bringing wild animals into our world. Rather, with this film, she “wants to open hearts and minds to the possibility that we should reconsider how we regard, and treat, animals, and ultimately, the earth herself”. This perspective enriches the experience of the film for the moviegoer on two counts: it gives us the impetus to revisit our deep connection to all sentient animal life, and it offers us a challenge to redefine our own humanity through a renewed respect for their nature, their habitats and for their place on our planet.
In this context, Leeman’s interview is especially relevant because the elephants’ fate in our 21st century culture is so tragic. In the wild, they face near extinction at the hands of Chinese poaching cartels that have infiltrated the preserves and savannahs in central and east Africa, and the deforestation industries (logging and palm oil) in Indonesia.
In captivity, with few exceptions, elephants are viewed as chattel, and despite their extremely high intelligence and their human-like range of emotions, they are subjected to a life that Arkin appropriately describes in the feature below, as animal slavery.
The brutal methods used to capture and “tame” wild elephants for commercial work have been well documented both in film and in undercover video. In the last few years, activist organizations have been especially vigilant in their exposure of inhumane conditions in which elephants are kept in zoos or trained for use in performing venues like circuses and films. Recent lawsuits brought against the notoriously cruel Ringling Brothers Circus and Have Trunk Will Travel, have graphically illuminated the abuses that take place.
We know now that each ticket purchased for an exotic elephant trek or children’s ride, to a zoo or a circus or even to some films that feature animal “stars”, supports an industry that not only destroys the elephant family structure both physically and psychologically but it breaks the spirit of these gentle beings, just as surely as a life in chains and confinement would break a human.
An extraordinary exception to this heartrending scenario is the story of David Balding and his beloved Flora, so eloquently told by Leeman and her One Lucky Elephant production team. Balding adopted two year old, orphaned Flora, and developed a remarkable and loving relationship with her – a relationship that inevitably forced him to ask the painful questions about their lives together and to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to value and protect her.
NOTE: One Lucky Elephant has been nominated in the best Documentary category for an HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) Genesis Award. Be sure to watch the Award show on Animal Planet May 5 at 4:00 p.m. EST/PST and May 6 at 8:00 a.m. EST/PST. If you haven't yet seen One Lucky Elephant, you can buy the DVD at this link.
Arkin’s enlightening interview follows below.
ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT: ILLUMINATING THE ESSENTIAL DILEMMA THROUGH A LOVING HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND
This past year has not been a particularly kind one to elephants.
While it was widely reported by the Indo-Asian News Service that 1,500 elephants were killed in 2011 for their ivory – 300 in the African nation of Cameroon alone (other reports place the number at closer to 3000)– some of these large, majestic, intelligent animals are being subjected to a different kind of tragedy. Various forms of captivity, or animal “slavery”, in which they are primarily used or “trained” to entertain audiences for profit, has been quietly decimating wild elephant populations in another way: through the forced attrition and confinement of herds.
Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs that their plight is being addressed: activist organizations, assisted by strong online support and visibility, are taking direct steps to assist elephants in danger.
But nothing is as effective as a good film with a strong message, as they would say at USC’s film school.
In late 2010, Action Now Network reported on documentary filmmaker Tim Gorski’s compelling How I Became an Elephant , his earlier The Elephant Lady and the efforts of animal rights advocates to move these captive elephants into dedicated nature reserves.
Director, One Lucky Elephant, and Adjunct Faculty, Cinematic Arts,
University of Southern California
“I believe that real social change happens from the heart up to the head, not the head down to the heart” – Lisa Leeman, Director, One Lucky Elephant
“I’ve always been drawn to make films that have positive consequences for the planet and its inhabitants,” Leeman told Action Now Network. “The films I’ve made reach people through their hearts – I believe that real social change happens from the heart up to the head, not the head down to the heart.”
“[It’s] hard to think that maybe I’d made a mistake to take this elephant’s life and merge it with mine…..We needed another life for her. She needed to be an elephant. Not a dog. Or a daughter.” – David Balding, in One Lucky Elephant.
The Los Angeles-based director-producer always knew that films had the power to move people if the story and imagery were compelling enough.
“We need to get the word out about elephants,” Leeman said about her film, One Lucky Elephant, which was produced by three enterprising women – Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim and Miriam Cutler. “Our film helps audiences realize that elephants are remarkably intelligent, social, emotional creatures, with personality, who experience joy, sadness, are playful, mourn, get silly, etcetera. The more people that see our film, the better for elephants!”
Flora with Balding on his wedding day
Ten years in the making and released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, then on the Oprah Winfrey Network late in 2011, One Lucky Elephant tells the story of Flora, an orphaned African elephant who was “adopted” by a man named David Balding and trained to work in a small circus. The film traces Balding’s growing relationship with Flora, leading to an extraordinary bond that becomes a paradox as Flora’s craving for freedom also grows.
“[It’s] hard to think that maybe I’d made a mistake to take this elephant’s life and merge it with mine,” Balding says in One Lucky Elephant. “I guess I’m not one hundred percent rational about this.”
THE BIG PICTURE FOR ANIMALS IN CAPTIVITY: DOES ANYONE GET IT RIGHT?
And this very struggle between what is right for the elephant and what seems right, raises what is perhaps the film’s dominant question: Does anyone get it right when making decisions about animals in captivity?
The obviously kind-hearted Balding is movingly honest in the film about his own mixed feelings, as he discovers that elephants face dangers from poachers even in so-called “protected” preserves.
“There really aren’t any good options,” Balding says in the film as he mulls over choices to leave Flora at various shelters and preserves. “I could give her to a zoo, but I want her to have a better life than that…we searched a lot of different places, and none of them seemed right for Flora.”
I learned how elephants live in the wild and how rarely elephants’ needs are met in captivity…watching David try to find the best home for Flora was to see, finally, that she’s caught between two worlds and belongs fully to neither.
The two “co-protagonists” in this “10,000 pound love story” were designed to draw attention to the plight of elephants not through didactic or melodramatic cinema, but by the creation of strong character and the deft use of camera work to magnify important emotions.
Filmed in segments over that ten-year period, One Lucky Elephant follows the story of Flora and Balding’s poignant relationship. The film begins to focus on Balding’s realization that Flora would be better off in the wild, with her needs met and her instinctive social habits less curtailed. But as Flora’s career as a reluctant big-top star comes to a close, the dilemma over what to do, where to do it (and how), takes center ring.
Leeman calls One Lucky Elephant “a cautionary tale” about human manipulation of the natural world.
“As the story unfolded,” Leeman said in her director’s statement, “I learned how elephants live in the wild and how rarely elephants’ needs are met in captivity…watching David try to find the best home for Flora was to see, finally, that she’s caught between two worlds and belongs fully to neither. She was raised among humans, but they cannot fulfill her deepest needs; she needs to be with other elephants, but she hasn’t learned how to integrate with her own kind. She’s a fish out of water, whether with humans or with other elephants.”
One of the film’s more unsettling moments has Flora placed in a holding area near another, more dominant elephant. The sheer power that such large (10,000 pounds) animals exhibit becomes uncomfortably obvious as the two get confrontational–and yet another option for Flora has to be abandoned. A later effort proved more successful.
A CHARACTER DRIVEN APPROACH TELLS A UNIQUE STORY
Leeman, the director of innovative, intimate and probing documentaries such as Metamorphosis: Man into Woman and Out of Faith, says that she was not drawn into the project until actually coming into contact with Flora, and that the film did not begin to take its final shape until 2006, several years into the Balding-Flora saga. That year, media features had just begun to turn the public’s attention to the deep familial and social needs of elephants in the wild and the damaging impact of human intervention on them. Tim Gorski released The Elephant Lady and an influential feature article in The New York Times Magazine called attention to an elephantine, human-caused version of post traumatic stress syndrome that had been taking hold in elephant communities.
One of the producers of the film – and its composer, who Leeman said was instrumental in getting the project off the ground and into the can – is Miriam Cutler, who says that her colleague, Leeman, is “driven” and “heartfelt” in her approach to this and other emotional subjects.
“Originally I was the one who knew about Flora, since I met her as a baby,” said producer Cutler, who at the time was also the music composer for the circus in which Flora performed. “In 2000, David said he was going to retire her and send her back to Africa, so I got really excited about capturing her story in a documentary film. Lisa was one of the first people I called, because I know that when she works on a film, she instinctively hones in on the heart and soul themes of a story. She is very heartfelt and intelligent about those issues.”
What we have come to understand is that we need to change the human dominance model of how we exist on this planet, this model which is not working. We must acknowledge that we are just one species in the web of life – recognize we are part of this greater ecosystem. Until we do that, we are going to be in trouble. –Miriam Cutler, Producer
While working on the film, we all learned so much about the harm that’s done to animals in captivity. They are incredibly sensitive creatures, and Lisa was adept at mining and articulating all of that.”
Producer Cristina Colissimo, who also coordinates relief and fundraising efforts for Flora’s continued care on behalf of the filmmakers, agrees.
“Lisa is probably the hardest working director I know!” Colissimo said. “She brings her editor's eye to her directing style, which is heaven for producers. She also does her homework, creating a palette of information and emotion to draw from when interviewing her subjects.”
“I felt from the start that Lisa was the only director to do this,” added Cutler. “Because I didn’t want it to be a manipulative story. I wanted to get it through the heart. I wanted this to be from the point of view of a real character who happens to be an elephant. We grappled a lot with how to tell this story, for me it was always very clear that this would be a heartfelt story in which people would learn about these issues by closely identifying with the characters, and Lisa was very on board with that from the beginning.”
The character-driven approach seemed to resonate with not only the women who drove the film forward, but with audiences.
“We didn’t feel there were any villains in the story, we wanted people to find their own way in,” Cutler said. “Flora is not just some animal. Lisa has this way of getting to the heart of things. It’s not black-and-white – there is a lot of gray area here. She gives the audience that access to the grey areas that are more nuanced. She is also analytical, highly developed in each area and is easily able to switch. She is my ‘Method’ director. She is able to stay with the heart of things, but she is still so thorough…trying to understand the different aspects of a story.”
Flora at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
“It so interesting, this kind of work, it takes your entire life, so you want it to have meaning,” Cutler said. “That’s why people like us pick documentaries, ones that may have some impact.
What we have come to understand is that we need to change the human dominance model of how we exist on this planet, this model which is not working. We must acknowledge that we are just one species in the web of life – recognize we are part of this greater ecosystem. Until we do that, we are going to be in trouble. The more we try to control everything…to dominate, the more trouble we will get into.”
And the emotions that exist in the film seem to spill out to viewers as well, spiking fervent interest in the screenings of the film on OWN.
“Elephants are smart and emotional creatures,” Leeman said in a recent interview. “One of my greatest joys connected to the film was when an audience member came up to me after watching the film and said he’ll never look at elephants in the circus or zoo the same way again.”
Now, with OWN airing her work, Leeman told Action Now Network about her personal feelings regarding animals in the wild, while she shares with her producing classes the pitfalls of distribution and the plight of women directors in a male-dominated business.
“Remember the quote attributed to Gandhi – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” explained Leeman. “[My films] offer different ways to look at the world, different ways to be in the world…meditation, non-reactivity, a practice cultivating peace, happiness, equanimity…all of which the world desperately needs, as well as compassion, and realizing that all beings on the planet are interconnected and part of the same fabric of the being. That realization decreases aggression and the ease of seeing other cultures and other religions as ‘the other’ and the lesser.”
Leeman’s strong connection to meditative practice has also led her to focus on extraordinary individuals who teach and share, thus leading her to make her most recent films (Crazy Wisdom and Yogananda) about great thinkers and socio-religious struggle.
THE HUMANE SOCIETY AND ROGER EBERT: ULTIMATE ACCOLADES
One of my greatest joys connected to the film was when an audience member came up to me after watching the film and said he’ll never look at elephants in the circus or zoo the same way again – Lisa Leeman
Adding to the recent buzz surrounding Leeman’s film, One Lucky Elephant was just nominated for best feature documentary of the year at the 26th Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) Genesis Awards, which recognizes films that carry animal-friendly themes.
“I’m thrilled and honored that One Lucky Elephant is nominated,” Leeman said. “The Humane Society does such good and important work…to improve the lives of animals in captivity and the wild – and it’s great that the Genesis awards can bring further attention to [these] issues. We’re in great company [with the other nominees]. Being nominated will bring added attention to the plight of elephants. There are over 600 in captivity in North America, and most are living in circumstances that don’t meet their physical or emotional needs.”
She adds that those who have seen One Lucky Elephant have changed both their behavior and perspective after seeing the film, making her realize how important the cinema can be in raising awareness.
“I’ve said that the films I tend to make are ‘sideways social issue films, i.e., not necessarily straight-on advocacy films,” said Leeman, whose Crazy Wisdom is now in theatres, “but nonetheless, films that get at opening hearts and minds and helping us to see other people and other creatures unlike ourselves with compassion, understanding and acceptance. We’ve had so many people tell us that after seeing our film, they see elephants in a whole new light, and will no longer support zoos and circuses that keep elephants in captivity.”
Another special honor for Leeman was a nod from the preeminent film critic, Roger Ebert, who called One Lucky Elephant one the best documentary films of 2011. The film was also selected to be part of the American Documentary Showcase, a U.S. State Department cultural program that showcases American nonfiction films in countries around the world.
A CHARACTER DRIVEN FILM THAT ASKS US TO RECONSIDER THE WAY WE REGARD AND TREAT ANIMALS
Leeman is quick to point out that, although she is concerned with the welfare of animals and that her work has made her re-examine relationships with her own pets, One Lucky Elephant was not meant to be solely a “social issue film” but instead was designed to be character-driven. She believes that we need to self-examine our profound influence on nature much in the way David Balding does in the film.
“[The film] doesn’t have ‘experts’ decrying the mistreatment of elephants in circuses and zoos,” she said. “But at its heart, this film asks – demands – that we reconsider our relationship to all animals. I’ve become interested in more than simply showing that circuses and zoos are not good environments for elephants – I want to open hearts and minds to the possibility that we should reconsider how we regard, and treat, animals, and ultimately, the earth herself. That perhaps our impulse to dominate our surroundings, whether it’s one species or our environment, is misguided.”
Film helps spread the message. Activism helps get the information out. And much as we recognize the remarkable long-term memory of elephants, the message is not one that will be easily forgotten.
FACT: Elephants are one of the most intelligent, sensitive, highly social species of land mammal on the planet.
FACT: Elephants live in families led by a matriarch; the young bull elephants leave the family at the age of 12 or 13; the females stay together as a family unit for life. They roam in the wild up to 30 miles per day.
FACT: Elephants live up to 70 years in the wild. Their gestation period is 22 months, and calves nurse for up to two years.
A record number of large ivory seizures have been made globally this year, pointing to a surge in elephant poaching in Africa to meet Asian demand for tusks for use in jewellery and ornaments, according to an international conservation group.
Traffic, which tracks trends in wildlife trading, said at least 13 large-scale seizures of over 800kg of ivory were recorded in 2011, compared with six in 2010.
A devastating upswing in rhino poaching by criminal syndicates armed with helicopters, night vision goggles and silenced rifles is threatening to roll back more than three decades of conservation work that brought the species back from the brink of extinction.
Figures released by the charity WWF show that the number of rhinos shot dead in South Africa increased by 173 per cent last year, a trend that has seen poaching reach a 15-year high across the continent.