An Apology to Elephants: TV Review

An Apology to Elephants Film Still - H 2013

An Apology to Elephants Film Still - H 2013

A succinct, graceful argument to save an endangered species.

Lily Tomlin’s eloquent HBO doc is a kind of Pachyderms 101, informed by compassion, outrage and a sense of urgency.

Lily Tomlin lays her cards on the table at the very beginning of An Apology to Elephants, the HBO documentary she executive produced and narrates. “I love elephants,” she says over the poignant sequence that opens the film. Setting up the doc’s central argument, director Amy Schatz contrasts footage of showbiz elephants lumbering off a train at dawn with visuals of the beasts in their natural element, the African savanna. If there’s one thing the filmmakers want viewers to take away, it’s that elephants don’t belong in captivity. 

Tomlin isn’t alone in her deep affection for the pachyderms. Their fans have had access over the years to a multitude of documentaries and books about them. For those familiar with any of those works, Apology offers nothing particularly new, and none of the astounding intimacy that makes nature docs so compelling. But the 40-minute film covers the basics — the matriarchal social structure, the intense and lifelong emotional ties, the appalling history of abuse — with energy and clarity, making for a concise overview and a convincing call to action. 

The talking-head interviews, with people who have devoted much of their lives to the endangered mammal — among them wildlife researcher Cynthia Moss, conservationist Joyce Poole and veterinarian Mel Richardson — are as succinct and impassioned as the judicious narration, written by executive producer Jane Wagner

Archival material is also effectively employed. It includes the film’s hardest-hitting element: footage of training routines at zoos and circuses that’s painful to watch. In order to learn how to entertain humans, the animals are tortured into submission with bullhooks and whips. The unspeakable mistreatment began in 1796, when a “specimen” was torn from its home and shipped to the U.S., the first of many elephants that would be put on display for an entrepreneur’s profit. 

Inspired by the intelligent beasts' unique grace and nobility, humans broke their spirit. It’s a story not unlike King Kong’s, and with no less tragic an ending; though the elephants have survived the ordeal, it has denatured them. And they continue to be a money-making attraction, which is why zoos continue to breed them — a practice that one expert eyes with profound ambivalence. 

Without specifically addressing the long-running controversy over the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant exhibit, the film spotlights protests at such facilities. The Oakland Zoo gets a nod for exemplary improvements that give the animals more than 6 acres for roaming — not much compared to their African treks, but a vast improvement over the cramped quarters in which most captive elephants are forced to spend their lives. 

According to former TV animal trainer Pat Derby, to whom the film is dedicated, “You can fix a zoo. You can’t fix a circus.” Derby, who died in February, co-founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and Apology includes what must be some of the last footage of the spirited crusader at the rescue group’s elephant sanctuary in Northern California. (It airs just days after the Los Angeles City Council paid tribute to her.) 

The images of hope and salvation are responses to the dire warning that runs through the documentary. But the sense of emergency remains. The film touches briefly on the flourishing ivory trade that makes tusks a hot commodity, noting that if African elephants continue to be poached at the current rate, they’ll be extinct in 10 years. Like much of what’s said in An Apology to Elephants, it’s a fundamental fact, plainly stated and brokenhearted.

Production companies: An HBO Documentary Films presentation
Director: Amy
Writer: Jane Wagner
Amy Schatz, Beth Aala
Executive producers: Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner
Directors of photography:
Alex Rappoport, Scott Sinkler
Jody Talbot
Tom Patterson