"That's why elephants kill people. They don't want to be where they are." ~ When Elephants Were Young
I was fortunate to catch this incredible film at this year's Palm Beach International Film Festival where it won Best Documentary, and while my intent was always to release my review just before World Elephant Day which is on August 12, I did not expect to wait so long to write it. But here I am, late July, over three months since I screened it, finally sitting down to write my review. You see, this film is very dear to me and I had to let it all sink in before I shared my thoughts.
Even after all this time, the image and the sound from the film that stays with me and still brings me to tears is that of elephants in chains. Kind of an oxymoron if you think about it. This large majestic animal forced to entertain people; sentenced to a life of captivity all in the name of money. There are only 4,000 Asian elephants left in the country - half of which are in captivity. According to experts in the film, wild elephants can be extinct in 30 years if things don't change. Can the memories of life in the wild as baby elephants these animals retain, help them with their reintroduction and overall survival?
In When Elephants Were Young, co-writers and directors Patricia Sims and Michael Clark expose the plight of Asian elephants. The documentary film, narrated by William Shatner, centers around the street-begging "business" and tourist camps in Bangkok. It tells the history of keeping elephants, a centuries-old tradition. Asian elephants were previously used in warfare and then in the logging industry. However, when logging was banned, 2,000 captive elephants were left unemployed. Under these circumstances and with a grave loss (95%) of habitat due to rice fields mixed with financial hardships of the Thai people, elephants, seemingly unable to be released back into the wild, became a profitable business. To this day, captive elephants remain the number one tourist attraction in Thailand earning billions of dollars a year.
This life is not natural for these elephants and there are obvious risks to both the elephants and people. Although it is currently against the law to beg in the city streets with elephants, outdated laws filled with loop holes give way to weak enforcement of protective laws. I found it interesting that even those that live within the city of Bangkok disagree with the villagers who still use elephants in such manners. Yet it is often out of love and pity of elephants that many will pay to feed them or see them perform, perpetuating the cycle. Ironically, the Thai people also do not understand the role elephants play in regenerating their forests - a crucial factor for their own survival.
The star of the film is a young female elephant Nang Mai who, like 50-100 other baby elephants every year, was stolen from her mother in the wild to be used. Her keeper is a young man named Wok who is struggling to help support his family. Every day he and Nang Mai walk into the city with a bag of sugar cane to beg for money from those willing to pay for the opportunity to feed her. The bond between the two is undeniable, but, there is nothing right about this situation. I wanted to be understanding of the cultural history behind the use of elephants. But I could not be. None of this is okay.
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The film, which was shot over the course of five years, is an important one for our generation and crucial for the survival of elephants worldwide. It was an emotional challenge as viewers learn of the "breaking" ceremonies that occur shortly after a calf is taken from its mother, destroying his spirit and creating a submissive role for the animal. But there is hope. The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which was founded in 2002 by the Queen of Thailand, works hard to purchase elephants from villagers under the condition that the families do NOT buy another elephant. The elephants are then released in the Sublangka Wildlife Sanctuary, another Royal Family project that plays a critical role in releasing Asian elephants back into the wild. According to Sims, eight elephants are expected to be released on this year's World Elephant Day.
The good news is, although you will undoubtedly shed a sad tear or two, not even the filmmakers were prepared for the beautiful end of Nang Mai's story. When Elephants Were Young has breathtaking scenery, haunting music, and masterful cinematography. It will be shown in select theaters and available online August 12 in celebration of World Elephant Day.
SIDE NOTE (from the film): It is still legal to trade "domestic" ivory in Thailand. HOWEVER, this policy is widely used to illegally sell African elephant ivory. Eighty-percent of carved ivory trinkets that are legally sold in Thailand under the guise of being from Asian elephants, come from the illegal African ivory trade.
**Statistics and other factual information mentioned in my review are from the film When Elephants Were Young**
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