by Kristy O’Brien
There is something about being in nature that instantly calms you. Being surrounded by majestic towering trees or open skies instead of austere concrete seems to turn off the chatty mind and widen the eyes and ears eager to take in all the colors and sounds, be they subtle or bold. Becoming attuned to the multitude of these details can make us feel both insignificant as individuals but also deeply connected and integral to the process as a whole.
Artist Todd McGrain‘s beautifully crafted and poetic documentary Elephant Path/Njaia Njoku starts out much the same way, as an invitation to slow down and enjoy the natural rhythm of Dzanga Bai (Village of Elephants) in the Central African Republic (CAR).
There we get to witness a day in the life of several people passionate about studying and preserving the vanishing jungle elephants; Andrea Turkalo, an American field biologist, Sessely Bernard, a tracker from the local Bayaka tribe, Zephirine Mbele an eco-guard hired to fight off poachers and Nir Kalron, an Israeli who uses his military background to train the eco-guards when things really get rough.
But unlike most documentaries, this one isn’t heavy on facts. It is more about being in the moment and watching things unfold – both the daily intimacies of the elephants (described as ‘people’ by Andrea and Todd for their human-like traits) and the horrors that they face from poachers and civil war.
McGrain believes that “living in someone else’s shoes and feeling as though you are bearing witness can have a more profound effect on our behavior than information”. He wants the audience to feel as though they have been on a journey after watching his film and have had a direct experience with the wonders, sadness, hope and resiliency the African jungle offers.
Kristy O’Brien: How did you know you could make this film?
Todd McGrain: I really didn’t know I could make this film. I hadn’t made one before. But I had good access to the story. That was really the first step-access. I had that because I was working as an artist-in-residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, focusing my artistic work on birds.
In the far corner of that building there is the bio acoustics lab, where predominantly people study the calls of birds. But also housed there is the Elephant Listening Project (ELP). After a few days of study down there with the director of that program, Peter Wrege, I realized that events were unfolding in the Central African Republic and I had to jump on it. I had access to the story in a way no one else did.
Your cinematographer Scott Anger formerly worked for Frontline. He actually did a film about you called The Lost Bird Project. Is that what you mean by having access? Someone like him who could help you film this?
No it’s really access to the story and the characters. My friendship with Scott is essential. I would say that we made this film together. We both shot but he is certainly responsible for the best verite scenes. I mostly shot the elephants.
I think that was an important part, it was very poetic and calming to watch them!
It was calming for me, even in a war zone… a day or two out in the field filming those elephants – they slow time! They are just remarkable animals in the way they move and their pace, their cadence.There is even some footage that looks as though it’s in slow motion. Even the water they walk in looks as though it’s been thickened and slowed by their presence.
They are just incredible! There couldn’t be a more unusual shaped animal and still they emit, for a lack of better word, a kind of humanity and the best of humanity.
Since this was your first film, did you have to learn how to work a camera and produce?
My first day of shooting I struggled with figuring out how to turn the camera on so it was really square one. But because of The Lost Bird Project I had a good friendship with Scott. He’s got a lot of experience working in war zones, so as a field producer he just kept us safe and moving forward in difficult situations.
Did you ever expect to get the kind of footage you did of a poacher’s trial and the Seleka rebels coming into town? It’s pretty amazing!
We arrived thinking that the rebels had left the region. We were greeted on the shore (in the dugout canoe that we had taken up the Sango river) by Seleka at gunpoint. It was completely unexpected. They weren’t particularly threatening because I think we were such a curiosity. Really everyone had left except for the local people, of course.
We shot this film in five trips and tried to time those trips to be there early enough to get some periods of peace and to be able to enjoy the elephants.
And then going in with Nir Kalron. That gave us access. So he is both a character and a real facilitator of us getting in to Central Africa while the war was going on. We just kept the best track of the news that we could and tried to be there at pivotal points.
Were you ever uneasy about filming the rebels?
I was uneasy. But there is something about using a camera that separates you. I know people talk about this a lot but there is something about the presence of a camera that gives you a psychological distance from the world around you. The other thing was that the Seleka honestly felt that they were the new commanders of the region and they wanted us to record that fact that they were in control.
I don’t think that they were quite aware of how threatening they seemed to us but more importantly to the residents. They wanted to assert authority and they really did come in as an occupying force but they immediately wanted to be accepted as the powers that be. And they did see the camera as a way of being able to tell the world that they may have been a rebel movement that took over the country in a coup d’etat but they were now in charge of the country and were going to start behaving like the government.
The Seleka took over around 2012. I thought it was very interesting that while you included the dates and times of events in the film you didn’t include the years. Was this to show that the turmoil is constant and ever present with just the names changing?
That’s right, that was what I was thinking. In fact we could almost tell the exact same story today. The Seleka are still in Central Africa. They have been pushed to the north but still are threatening the country. There is still an unstable capital. They have a revolving door of presidencies.
Dzanga National Park in Bayanga is very, very remote. It’s the farthest southwest corner of the Central African Republic. Normally the political conflict stays in the capital region. But the instability means that conservation officials and parks have a hard time getting any traction because they have no management from the central government. So even if the rebels had pulled out of Bayanga, the sort of failed state of CAR means there is no broader infrastructure to keep the elephants safe, to keep the park running.
Are the people you featured in the film still there?
Andrea has left. She is now in the states working at the ELP trying to sort out her 23 year database of elephants. They are also publishing her research.
Everyone else in the film still has a stake in the region. Sessely of course still lives there and has no opportunity to get away other than to flee into the forest. I think they are still spending a lot of time in the forest as opposed to their homes on the edge of town. Zephirine is still working as an Eco-guard and they are more or less keeping the park patrolled. Nir is no longer working in that specific area but he’s doing a lot of work in Africa.
What surprised you most about the elephants?
Forest elephants are not at all habituated. We’ve come to think of elephants through the lens of domestication in a way. We see photographs of baby elephants being feed with bottles. We see Asian elephants being ridden and trained to entertain but forest elephants are completely wild. So when you are on that platform witnessing them you are really witnessing wild behavior that is quite rare to see.
And I think this is the most remarkable thing about them is that you could be 10 feet away from a forest elephant, which puts you in real danger, and you could not know it’s there. They absolutely disappear into the forest.
Over 60% of the forest elephants in that region have been killed since 2001. Did you see any changes in the environment? Is it obvious that they are missing?
Some of the numbers of elephants in Bayanga are going up a bit. The reason for that are refugee elephants. They are quite smart and they gravitate towards areas that are being protected.
On the periphery of that great forest in Central Africa is a lot of poaching, farming, mining and timber. In the places where that is happening the elephants are pulling out and moving into more protected (obviously as you saw in the film, not completely protected) areas that are designated as parks. As the numbers go up, as to be expected, there is a little more conflict between people and elephants, like the elephants getting into gardens.
I personally didn’t see the decline in the forest from there not being enough elephants but that is happening in a lot of other places where there is more mining and timber. It’s a real problem for the indigenous people because the elephants do keep the forest open. Without them it’s an enormous amount of work to get through what I’ve heard referred to as the green abyss. You just move through absolute dense overgrowth.
The Bayaka don’t have a friendly relationship with the elephants. They are very cautious about being anywhere near them, especially in the forest. But they do realize that those elephants are out planting trees that they need. They make those paths and plant the trees along the paths. The foraging they do is really dependent on the elephants being there.
Who is buying ivory?
I wish I knew so I could tell them to stop! I do know that traditionally the ivory that forest elephants have was very popular in Japan because It’s harder and has a pink glow. So it holds great detail. It is a remarkable material to carve.
I think at this point much of the trade is illegal, so it’s hard to know exactly who is doing the buying. It’s quite a bit like the drug cartel world where there is a very, very long chain of ivory changing hands. I suspect most of it is bought in China. Even as China makes moves to make it illegal the trick is to convince consumers not to get it. For sure it is the demand side that is creating the poaching.
Is ivory just used for decorative items?
There is no practical use for ivory except for the elephants. It is a traditional carving material but traditions can change. One of the weird and kind of surreal things about all of this is that eventually every tusk that an elephant grows will fall to the ground and the elephant will decay around it as that tusk lays there.
The problem isn’t necessarily that we love ivory or that it is unavailable. The problem is that humans are sort of rushing to the gold mine. They want to kill the elephant to get the ivory. It’s kind of a bizarre thought, eventually all ivory will be available because animals die! If they all died of natural causes we could collect the ivory and enjoy it’s beauty. But humans just aren’t built that way. We don’t manage that kind of resource very well. It’s just best that we decide we are not going to carve ivory any more and get it out of the market completely.
As a sculptor have you been inspired to create elephant art?
A sculpture I have in mind is an elephant with his trunk up in an endless column into space. I’d love to see these animals reach into the future. It will be such a shame if we lose forest elephants.
I also think they need their story told because very few people understand that there are three species of elephants. Everyone is aware of Asian elephants. Savannah elephants get quite a bit of coverage, Forest elephants are really unknown. As Andrea said, we can argue, they are by far the cutest. They are rounder and a little smaller. They are gorgeous!
Agreed! What is next for you, will you continue making films?
I think I will. I’m looking at trying to find a new angle around ocean health. It’s a very compelling subject.
How did you get so involved in protecting the environment?
On some level I’d like to be working as an artist in a way that is free of agenda. I love abstract art, I love working in what could be described as pure design but staying aware in this era meant that while my hands were busy modeling clay or holding a camera my mind is inevitably preoccupied with the risks we are facing environmentally.
What artists try to do is combine their thoughts with their actions. If you are making a film or doing a drawing, the thing you are thinking or concerned about is going to become the compass to that craft. It really was a very organic shift from art for art’s sake to art with a cause or to reveal what I feel are the central concerns for us today.
What would you say to someone who is too afraid to watch this because it might be too heartbreaking to know what is happening to the forest elephants?
I certainly kept this in mind when I was editing the film. I think we are always better knowing and there are things we can all do. We are much more motivated to do them if we stay aware.
I don’t watch horror or violent films because they disrupt and interfere with my desire to be passionate in my real world. In this film I strive to do the opposite.
I tried to show some degree of suffering but also show the persistent will of the people in the story who are dedicated to studying and preserving these species. They remain an inspiration to me.
It’s true 60% of forest elephants are gone. The 40% that live just need to be seen. I shot a lot and edited as carefully as I could but to be honest, you can’t go wrong filming a forest elephant. They are perpetual ballet.
To learn more please visit the ELEPHANT PATH website.
Director of Cinematography Scott Anger writes, “In 2015, during a month-long production trip to the Central African Republic for the documentary film, ELEPHANT PATH, I took time to make still photographs of park rangers undergoing intensive, military-style training to combat illegal poaching.” Here is the powerful photo gallery.
“Elephant Listening Project” has a menu bar linking to many other resources.
One upon a time Kristy O’Brien worked in film and animation in LA. Currently she is a freelance writer specializing in interviewing authors, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Really, it’s just an excuse to ask a lot of questions, a favorite hobby since childhood (just ask her mom). Her most recent work can be found on medium.com/@kristyobrien