Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 5, 2019

When Lambs Become Lions; The Elephant Queen

Filed under: Africa,Ecology,Film,poaching — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Long before the African elephant became the poster child of wildlife preservation and ecology activists, I became aware of their precarious condition when I saw John Huston’s “Roots of Heaven” in 1958. Based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conducted nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa, it was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

In my 2014 review of the film, the first time I had seen it since 1958, I wrote:

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

This week I saw two new documentaries filmed in Kenya that rekindled my interest in the preservation of the African elephant. One, titled “When Lambs Become Lions”, opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on November 22nd and at the Village East in NYC on December 6th. It is the story of poachers like the kind that were the villains in Huston’s film on one side and the game wardens on the other who have orders to shoot to kill any poacher. What gives the documentary particular interest, beyond the question of the elephant’s survival, is that the two main subjects of the film—a poacher and a cop—are cousins and very close. The other is titled “The Elephant Queen”, a family-oriented portrait of a herd led by Athena, a 50-year old animal ruling over a matriarchy that faces death from a drought rather than from poachers. It premieres on Apple’s new streaming service meant to compete against Netflix and Amazon Prime for $4.99 a month.

The films complement each other. They help to show both the importance of the elephant to the Kenyan ecosphere and the utter waste of a precious living natural resource as a result of the vain consumption of ivory for chintzy carvings sold to the Chinese nouveau riche,

We first meet the poacher in “When Lambs Become Lions”, who is only identified as “X”. He comes from a family that has been poaching for decades, including his father who was killed in the act by park rangers when X was only a child. Not having the stomach to see an elephant killed, he has an underling named Lucas carry out the act using a bow and arrow laced by poison drawn from a frog. It seems likely that these poachers are drawing upon tribal traditions that go back for centuries just like some American Indians who kill whales. However, when such practices become monetized in a society dominated by severe poverty, they are much more capable of leading to extinction.

X’s cousin Asan is a prime example of such precariousness. He and his fellow park rangers haven’t been paid for two months. When a government representative meets with them, they want to know when they will be paid. He shrugs his shoulders and tells them that he has no idea. He adds that if this does not meet their needs, they can find another job.

In a conversation between X and Asan, we learn that the park ranger had also been a poacher earlier in life. We soon begin to understand that both occupations, breaking the law and enforcing it, come with risks. The poacher risks being shot down by a ranger while the ranger has to risk penury because the Kenyan government will not live up to its fiscal responsibilities. Towards the end of the film, we see the new president Uhuru Kenyatta making a speech about the need to save the elephants, topped off by the burning of $150 million worth of tusks. One wonders why he can’t act decisively to keep the police force paid on time, especially since they are probably not making very much money to begin with.

During the film, Anas’s wife gives birth. One wonders how close she came to being denied basic health services because Kenyatta’s Ministry of Health officials stole nearly $50 million of funds allocated to the national free maternity program. In a society dominated by illegality, can anybody be surprised that those on the bottom imitate those at the top?

In an interview with director Jon Kasbe, who spent three years embedded in both X and Asan’s social milieu to gain their trust, he is asked if why the film did not result in a call to action, as is typically the case with documentaries about elephants or rhinoceroses facing extinction because of tusk poaching. He answered:

We hope that the film challenges the existing conversation around poaching. We can’t focus on the preservation of animal life without considering the economic realities and perspectives of the people who have shared land with these animals for a long time. While it is not an overt message in the film, we feel the story can point attention to the lack of proper pay, resources, and training given to wildlife rangers. These rangers are expected to live in the bush 26 days out of the month and oftentimes don’t have basic necessities like boots, clean water, food, or blankets. I spoke to many hunters who said it would be much harder to bribe rangers who had better work conditions. In fact, many poachers claim they would consider switching sides for good, if it meant stable pay and proper resources.

“The Elephant Queen” is a throwback to the heavily anthropomorphized Walt Disney documentaries that I grew up watching and loving as a kid. Athena, the matriarch, is always being described by narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor as “worried” or “sad” about some threat to her family’s well-being. There are also touches that smack of video and audio editing meant to entertain a child or early teen. When a dung beetle narrowly misses being stepped on by an elephant, we hear it squeak in alarm. I am no dung beetle expert but I doubt that any sound like that every came out of a dung-beetle’s mouth. The video editing is less egregious. It is obvious meant to draw out the full drama of an African elephant’s odyssey in search of water and food, even if it sometimes has a “staged” quality.

All that being said, it is a great documentary that like “When Lambs Become Lions” is a labor of love. Co-Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years in close proximity to Athena’s family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that was prime territory for poachers until the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation partners beefed up security.

Essentially, the film might be subtitled “The ecology of a waterhole” since 90 percent of the film shows the web of life that an elephant and a water source can nurture. The waterholes are home to elephants, bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish, and terrapins—all of which are captured in minute detail by Mark Deeble’s camera. The elephant defecates and the dung-beetle rushes up to siphon off a ball of the stuff that he can then stash away for future meals. It is absolutely captivating.

Whether or not you decide to become an Apple TV+ subscriber is up to you. I would only urge you to take out a trial membership just so that you and your children—if you have any—can see a powerful film about a creature that was placed on earth not to furnish tusks to the poaching industry but to keep the humble dung-beetle and all other creatures both large and small alive and healthy.

 

1 Comment »

  1. Your title says “The Queen Elephant” but the movie is “The Elephant Queen”. You should fix that.

    Comment by Janet Avery — November 9, 2019 @ 12:09 pm


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