Even if it doesn’t entirely succeed, there is something admirable about Ashley Bell’s documentary, “Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story.” The piece follows Bell who is accompanying elephant rescuers in Thailand as they attempt to move an ill elephant 500 miles to a sanctuary.
Bell serves as director, one of the writers, and a producer on the film, and while she is able to get to the emotional core of the journey and the plight of Asian Elephants, the film never gets much beyond that emotional core to act on the audience on an intellectual level. Those watching will indeed feel bad about the treatment elephants undergo, and will certainly reconsider any thoughts they may have about attending circuses with elephants or riding on elephants, but it is never broad enough to fully engage the viewer. It is sweet and touching, but not broad.
Part of the issue certainly stems from the film’s presentation. Bell puts herself at the center of the whole affair. She provides voiceover throughout to tell the viewer what is going on, interviews individuals involved, and is regularly seen on screen reacting to the events taking place. The result is that the viewer feels as though they are tagging along on Bell’s journey towards knowledge and enlightenment, and there is a lingering fear that while what is presented is unquestionably horrible, the viewpoint is myopic. We see that these experts—like sanctuary owner and activist Sangdeaun Lek Chailert—are people Bell knows or those whom she meets via the folks she already knows. There isn’t a discussion with outside individuals; there isn’t a look at the wider region with someone outside Bell’s circle.
Consequently, while she may be 100% accurate in everything she says and feels and does, and those she speaks to may be equally correct, the movie still leaves itself open for deep questioning. And, if those elements aren’t 100% accurate, well, that would make the situation even worse.
On a personal level, I do not believe that Bell has been duped by those to whom she is speaking and with the facts she presents. I don’t not believe that experts will emerge who will suggest, as with a Gwyneth Paltrow Goop product, that the science here is awful or even downright dangerous.
However, as a matter of filmmaking, the argument is weaker for not defending itself against such attacks. The film, I believe unintentionally, has the whiff of a vanity project about it as opposed to it simply existing to educate those interested and convince folks to get involved.
Now, I know that I’m verging away from criticism here when I speculate about Bell’s motives for making the movie, but I do so only because in the case of a documentary the filmmaker’s intention is more important than it otherwise might be. Perhaps it is too Mulder-y of me, but when I watch “Love & Bananas” I want to believe. I want to believe Bell and everything she shows us and tells us. But, there is simply too much room left for skepticism.
Visually, some of the shots of the elephants, and the cruelty inflicted upon them, are beautiful/horrifying. When things go awry, like a cameraman hiding from a running elephant, “Love & Bananas” is at its best, reminding us all that these majestic creatures are wild animals and that this is an unscripted work. It is also downright fascinating at moments, and the journey of this one sick elephant is a harrowing adventure.
“Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story” is a documentary worth seeing, and one worth believing, but it isn’t the terribly well constructed.
photo credit: Abramorama