Friday, June 10, 2011

No Dumbo

One Lucky Elephant
Directed by Lisa Leeman
Produced by Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Written by Leeman and Colissimo

In the heartwarming but clear-eyed documentary One Lucky Elephant, the title pachyderm is Flora, who has lived most of her life as the lead attraction of the Flora Circus run by David Balding. David considers Flora a close family member ever since he adopted the orphaned elephant 16 years ago.

Although Flora has been David’s circus star since her arrival, he senses that this is no longer a life for the elephant: she no longer wants to perform. But returning her to Africa is out of the question also, since she would never survive in the wild after spending so much time with human companionship. David explores other options to let Flora leave the confines of the circus ring, but those options are limited.

Like the circus, the zoo is not a good fit for wild animals, especially a five-ton elephant which needs room to roam. There’s an elephant habitat in, of all places, Kentucky, and it’s run by a close friend of David’s, but she only accepts Asian elephants (apparently Asian and African elephants do not get along). So David decides to take Flora to the Miami Zoo, which will accept her into their elephant habitat.

Director Lisa Leeman unobtrusively perceives the contradiction at the heart of her film. David’s adoption of Flora, although humane and justified at the time, contributed to the dilemma she’s currently in: she is stuck in the middle between the tame life she has led with humans and the wild life she needs but is ill-equipped to handle.

David’s blind devotion to Flora is also a cause for concern, which comes to the fore when he leaves her at the Miami Zoo, and Flora stomps on and seriously injures a worker. David calls it an “accident,” like an earlier incident recounted by the elephant’s circus trainer and the victim, a woman who, after being thrown to the ground from a tree by Flora, had broken several ribs. Although there were extenuating circumstances (David was not there and strangers should not have been allowed near Flora in his absence), David’s belief in a 10,000-pound wild animal’s “innocence” shows that he is fallible and, well, human when it comes to making decisions about an animal he loves.

With admirable doggedness, director Leeman spent ten years filming Flora and David, from Flora’s final circus appearance in 2000 through David’s selfless attempts to find someplace allowing her the freedom she needs. By chronicling Flora and David’s ultimate separation in a sympathetic but unsentimental way, One Lucky Elephant perceptively recognizes how our treatment of wild animals in an increasingly overcrowded world has real-life consequences: not only for our emotional well-being, but for the animals’ very survival.

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