Title: One Lucky Elephant
Director: Lisa Leeman
Featuring: David Balding, Carol Buckley, Flora the Elephant and others
A lot of nature documentaries, or films that look at animals, focus in either-or fashion on their behavioral impulses or relationship to and interaction with humans, ignoring the potentiality of a more complex causal relationship. In other words, do human masters, even kind ones, make some animals sad? The heartwarming and thought-provoking new documentary ‘One Lucky Elephant’ tacitly asks this and other tough questions in presenting a look at a compassionate but aging pachyderm owner who’s searching for a suitable place to retire his circus elephant.
David Balding adopted Flora, an orphaned African baby elephant, when she was only two years old, and made her the central attraction of his St. Louis-based traveling show. After 16 years, however, Balding, beset with some health problems himself, begins to sense that Flora is no longer happy performing. Not wanting to merely sell her to a zoo or another circus, Balding first explores a tribal reservation in Botswana, but that falls through. While he beseeches Carol Buckley, the operator of a sanctuary in Tennessee whose organization does not take African elephants for fear of mixing them with their Asian elephant population, to change her mind, Balding makes arrangements to temporarily house Flora at the Miami Metro Zoo. An incident there, however, risks Flora’s extended stay.
Directed by Lisa Leeman, ‘One Lucky Elephant’ is an extraordinary movie about inter-species relationships, and the beauty, enrichment and, ultimately, constraints of those bonds. Beginning in the infancy of the new millennium, the movie showcases a seemingly impatient and at times unhappy Flora, stuck in her teenage years with no other elephant companions. As the film tabs Balding’s progress in placing her long-term and Flora’s adjustment to various new surroundings, however, it also smartly winds its way back a bit to 1984, showcasing Flora’s training.
Much to its credit, Leeman’s film doesn’t lean solely on the majesty or stirring wonder of its intimate proximity to this enormous, hulking animal, which chows down on over 400 pounds of apples, potatoes, carrots, bran, grass and other food per day. ‘One Lucky Elephant’ also devotes ample time and resources to capturing and exploring Balding’s conflicted feelings about owning and exploiting Flora, as well as the myopic limits of his own realizations. While Balding is extremely remorseful about having split up two-year-old Flora from her sister when he first purchased her, and also admits to broader feelings of regret related to Flora’s need to “just be an elephant,” he resists the professional diagnosis of Flora as having post-traumatic stress disorder. To Balding, it’s inconceivable that his occasional appearance for visits at Flora’s new home would or even could summon up intense feelings of abandonment and anger within Flora.
‘One Lucky Elephant’ spans an extraordinary amount of time, over a full decade, and this fact allows it to achieve a sort of natural, relaxed ranginess, without dawdling too long or foisting pat “conclusions” on an audience too soon. In fact, Leeman’s movie eschews black-and-white didacticism. Balding is seen to be a loving and devoted caregiver, but also ultimately simply unable to provide Flora with the sort of companionship she needs from others of her own kind. Their time together was beautiful, but it was destined to end. That’s a lesson with broader applicability to life, one of but several reasons that ‘One Lucky Elephant’ resonates so deeply. For more information, visit www.OneLuckyElephant.com.
Written by: Brent Simon