Anyone who loves elephants (and if you don’t, I want nothing to do with you…seriously) is bound to adore Ashley Bell’s deeply affecting documentary about efforts to save the Asian elephant. The film’s focus is on one elephant in particular: 70-year-old Noi Na, seen being rescued from a miserable life giving rides to tourists in Thailand. Depicting the endless cruelties perpetrated on these magnificent animals while delivering a moving feel-good story in the process, Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story is guaranteed to not leave a dry eye in the house.
Bell, also an actress who’s appeared in such films as The Last Exorcism and Novitiate, details the horrific methods designed to train the animals for lives in servitude. The primary one involves separating a baby elephant from its mother and putting it in a confined space known as a ‘Pajan,” or “Crush Box,” where it is beaten and tortured until its spirit is essentially broken. We see one such animal whose eye was put out by someone with a slingshot. “People, people, people,” decries a conservationist upon seeing the damage.
Other than Bell, whose wide-eyed delight upon encountering the elephants is infectious, the film’s central figure is Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, an endlessly empathetic Thai woman who has devoted her life to saving Asian elephants. Her advocacy resulted in her being declared an enemy of the state by her country and becoming estranged from her family. The government later embraced Lek after her work became internationally celebrated and she was declared a “Hero of Asia” by Time magazine. Her family, sadly, did not.
When Lek becomes aware of Noi Na, a partially blind elephant whose owner has agreed to let her go, she and Bell travel across the country to bring the animal to Lek’s Elephant Nature Park. That’s easier said than done, as the abused elephant fiercely resists being loaded onto a truck. That torturous process is followed by a hazardous 480-mile drive in which the truck’s occupants could easily be injured or killed if the elephant became panicky or passed out. The latter becomes a distinct possibility when Noi Na suffers heatstroke along the way.
Thankfully (spoiler alert), Noi Na arrives safe and sound to her new home and, after a period of adjustment, begins to thrive, even exhibiting elephant-style expressions of joy for the first time. It turns out the park contains some 45 elephants handicapped in one way or other, victims of everything from poachers to landmines to simple human cruelty.
Love & Bananas strongly argues against the use of elephants for such things as giving rides to tourists and performing in circuses. What gives those arguments their moral force is the animals themselves, demonstrating intelligence, sociability and emotion. Lek articulately guides us through the process of understanding them better, offering explanations for their behavior that includes crying and covering up their dead with leaves. The sight of a group of blind elephants happily kicking a large ball around a field is enough to make you instantly open your wallet and make a large donation to the organizations prominently featured in this heartwarming film.
Production company: Campfire
Director: Ashley Bell
Screenwriters: Ashley Bell, John Michael McCarthy Fernanda Rossi
Producers: Ashley Bell, John Michael McCarthy, Ross M. Dinerstein
Executive producers: Steve Bannerman, David Casselman, Pam Casselman, Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist, Samantha Housman, Leandro Marini, Roddy Tabatabai
Directors of photography: John Michael McCarthy, Tabatabai
Editor: John Michael McCarthy
Composers: Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist