Will 'The Elephant Whisperers' shine light on elephants, indigenous communities?

19 March,2023 09:47 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Mitali Parekh

Oscar-winner The Elephant Whisperers presents an opportunity for conversation about whether the elephants and indigenous communities have won anything

The Elephant Whisperers explored the relationship between man and animal, told through the story of Bomman, Bellie and Raghu

As she accepted the Oscar for her short documentary, The Elephant Whisperers, director Kartiki Gonsalves said, "The documentary allowed me to speak about the sacred bond between us and our natural world - for the respect of indigenous communities and the empathy towards other living beings we share our space with... Thank you to... Bomman & Bellie for sharing their sacred wisdom..."

Bomman and Bellie being the folk who raise orphaned elephant calf Raghu, and through that endeavour, find each other and build a life together. Gonsalves documented their lives in the forests of the Nilgiris since 2017 and the resultant 39-minute documentary, won India its first Academy award in the category.

And though she thanked them in the speech, and in the interviews that came before and after the win, there have been suggestions that the film could have done more than be a "linear story" about the affection shared between the man and animal. And the cynical have also pointed out the there is very little detail about these "indigenous people" in the film itself, though Gonsalves said in her interview to this paper (January 29, 2023 ‘I have never seen a happier elephant*) that she wanted to give the indigenous people of the forest a voice by capturing their symbiotic relationship with their habitat, their knowledge of how to raise calves, the reservoir of natural remedies and medicines to use for them, and their ability to mimic the elephant*s natural life as much as possible. "This is why we chose not to have a narrator; it*s Raghu and Bomman telling their story," Gonsalves had said then.

Producer Guneet Monga (in pink sari) and director Kartiki Gonsalves at the Oscars

But what did the film tell us about them? The details of the people or tribe are missing and their relationship with the forest is captured only in one - albeit breathtaking - shot of tribals gathering honey from a comb growing on the underside of a cliff. Who are Bomman and Bellie*s people? How did they inherit this knowledge, over generations, about caring for elephants? Is it passed on to the next generation? Do they like doing it? What would their livelihood be otherwise? Will the Oscar change anything for them?

One of the first voices of dissent was that of journalist, poet and activist Jacinta Kerketta who belongs to an Oraon Adivasi community. She tweeted, in Hindi, roughly translating to, "The harmonious coexistence between humans and elephants is under threat due to mining. Stories of human-animal relationship have won the country accolades, but if the winners stand with those fighting for forests, land, and water, then that is true appreciation and respect of this life."

We sought out voices of dissent that were loud on the Internet, but found they preferred to speak softly, and anonymously, in person. Their concerns are valid: They did not want to cast a shadow over a winning moment for a colleague, and their country. Criticism would also risk coming on the radar of mighty decision makers and facilitators - Sikhya Entertainment produced the documentary, and Netflix distributed it. A grudge could stonewall future projects for any filmmaker, no matter how constructive and neutral their opinion be.

"Frankly, I thought that All that Breathes by Shaunak Sen [nominated for both the Oscar and the Bafta] was more deserving," a national and international award documentary maker told us. "It*s commendable that the film evokes sympathy without being a bleeding heart project, but the narrative is too linear. Bomman and Bellie came across as just compassionate people who lived in the area, employed by the Forest Department. A little more about Bomman and Bellie as indigenous people, their tribe, their collective livelihood would have helped. It left me wanting more." She also wants to know how the film will better their lives as tourists throng to meet Raghu, Amu, Bomman and Bellie.

Not to forget that the elephant, one of the five umbrella species (hero animals selected for making conservation decisions because this will affect other species in the ecosystem), is a naturally charismatic subject. "Would a story about a couple*s relationship with a gharial gain the same momentum?"
she wondered.

It*s true.

A hardened part of us exercised our imagination and replaced Raghu with a Husky, and suddenly, the documentary film became an elaborate Instagram reel by Disney. Many of the filmmakers we reached out to, and there were more than a dozen, sheepishly admitted to have not watched the film. We suspect this was easier to admit than to give an off colour opinion.

Cannes prize-winning filmmaker and photographer Amit Madheshiya, while emphasising the film was most-deserving of its accolades, said that discussions about agency and representation of the subject should be encouraged. "It*s a tricky subject the world over," he said, "and filmmakers such as Brett Story, and documentaries such as Welcome to Chechnya have done it well."

So what is the right way of doing this? With community leaders refusing to go on record, we asked activists and journalists working in Indigenous and
environmental spaces.

"Positionality is everything," said one environmental journalist speaking to mid-day. "There is an immense power differential to be aware of when we*re stepping out with our big Nikon lenses, attempting to extract stories or traditional knowledge which can be used in different ways. There is a gulf you sit across from as a privileged commentator as opposed to someone actually dealing with extraction [of stories, resources] on a daily basis. We must ask questions about our gaze and who benefits from it.

The first step, she says, is to consult and take consent at every stage from the community. When a newspaper reported that 54-year-old Bomman had not yet watched the documentary as he was too busy caring for two orphaned calves, Kartiki clarified on Twitter that, "Bomman and Bellie were the very first people to watch the documentary at a special viewing by me. They live in the core area of the forest and do not have access to streaming channels."

Showing it to the community before it goes up, consulting them on how they are represented are the first steps. "[Then ask] Would you like to come along [and tell your story yourself]? We are always going to be the outsiders who have the privilege of returning to where we are, but we have to be careful about not replicating the same exploitation and erasure of our subjects* stories or identities to serve our narratives or misusing their trust."

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