What happens to a circus elephant when it’s time to retire? After 16 years in the spotlight, Flora, an African elephant living in St. Louis, must find a new home, and David, the circus owner who has cared for her all these years, must say goodbye to the animal he thinks of as a “daughter.” The road to Flora’s retirement, however, is a difficult and emotional one. While David finds himself drawn into the current debate in the animal rights community over the ethical treatment of elephants, Flora must adjust to living among other elephants for the first time ever. Ten years in the making, One Lucky Elephant is a remarkable achievement. Eschewing easy sentimentality, the film beautifully captures the delicate love between David and Flora, but it also doesn’t shy away from examining the problems and mysteries posed by keeping wild animals in captivity. It’s a complicated, fascinating issue, and there are no clear answers for anyone involved, least of all David and Flora, two extraordinary individuals you’ll never forget. [Synopsis courtesy of LAFF]
One Lucky Elephant
(USA, 2010, 83 mins, HDCam — Frame Rate 29.97)
Directed By: Lisa Leeman
Writers: Cristina Colissimo, Lisa Leeman
Producers: Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Co-Producer: Miriam Cutler
Executive Producers: Elizabeth Zox Friedman, Greg Little
Cinematographers: Sandra Chandler, Neil Brown, Shana Hagen, Cristina Colissimo
Editors: Kate Amend, Tchavdar Georgiev
The filmmakers on coming to the story of Flora, the African elephant and circus star…
Lisa Leeman (director): My dear friend Miriam Cutler, a composer who specializes in docs and who co-produced and scored this film, has been the resident composer for Circus Flora since its early days. Miriam was fascinated watching Flora grow up in the circus, and when she heard that David Balding wanted to retire Flora — his 18 year-old African elephant, the star of his circus and sort of his surrogate daughter – – and send her back to Africa, she thought it would make a terrific film, and started calling documentary directors she knew. I have to confess, when she first called me, I passed. I told her I didn’t do ‘animal films’ (I’m interested in how we humans treat each other). Miriam partnered with producers Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim, and they all talked me into going to St. Louis to shoot the last weekend of Flora performing at the circus. That was ten years ago, May 2000! Of course, the story turned out to be as much about humans as about animals – the film is really about how we humans see animals and our relationships with them. And maybe a little bit about how animals might see us….
Cristina Colissimo (producer/writer): We wanted to tell the story of Flora’s journey back to Africa, but that plan took a detour which potentially put the production of this film in jeopardy. Our team had to move on to other gigs, but I was hooked. I had to tell this story. So between writing screenplays, my producing partner Jordana Glick-Franzheim and I bought a Canon XL-1 and we kept on filming for nearly 8 years. We had arranged for Flora to temporarily live with the small herd of African elephants at Miami Metro Zoo, the zoo my father had founded. Flora’s financial needs quickly began to outweigh that of the film, so I founded a non-profit, Ahali Elephants, and began fundraising for her future as David and I continued the search for a permanent home for Flora. You’ll have to see the film to find out what happens! By 2008, Jordana and I had raised close to $200,000 for Flora, but not a penny for the film. Being the true orchestrator that she is, Miriam Cutler finally convinced Lisa to come back on board. Lisa cut a fantastic trailer that immediately captured the attention of our friends and now executive producers Greg Little and Lizzie Friedman. With the funds to finally complete the film, we filmed for another full year and edited for about the same time, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On structuring the film’s unique story…
LL: I was clear from the start that this should be an intimate, character-driven film – that through David and Flora’s story, we could learn about the lives of elephants in captivity, and get to see up close a unique cross-species relationship. Elephants are very social creatures, and Flora and David had really bonded over the years.
I see David and Flora as equal protagonists. This meant no ‘voice-of-God’ narration – information had to come organically from the characters and the story. This was sometimes challenging, because most audiences, including me, don’t know much about elephants. We’d have work-in-progress screenings, and people would want all sorts of information put in the film – how long do elephants live, how much do they eat, how much does it cost to keep an elephant, etc. Ultimately, we succeeded in finding the right balance to achieve the intimate and emotional feel, with just enough information about Flora’s elephant-ness to keep audiences satisfied.
What were your biggest challenges in developing the project?
On interspecies relationships…
CC: We as humans have been fascinated with the profound inter-species bond that can exist between man and animal since the beginning of time. Today, the popularity of YouTube videos like the emotional reunion of a lion and the two men who raised him, are a testament to this. I think David and Flora’s story taps into this desire. Sometimes we describe our film as an interspecies father-daughter love story — we hope it will appeal not only to animal lovers, but to audiences who can identify with what it is like to raise a child.
Leeman on her film inspirations…
LL: A lot of films. “Rashoman,” because of the very different points of view of the people in our film. “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” as a lovely example of an intimate character film about humans and animals. “The Tiger Next Door,” about a man in Indiana who keeps tigers in his back yard. And the Danish film “The Swenkas,” a beautiful doc which uses the device of a fictional vagabond storyteller to poetically narrate the film. I had our storyteller sequence all storyboarded out, but ultimately, we didn’t need it, and instead, David leads us through the film.
On the team’s future projects…
LL: I’m currently co-directing a feature doc for theatrical release about the renowned swami Paramahansa Yogananda with Paola di Florio. He was a great Indian mystic who brought spiritual yoga to the West in the 1920s. Our film explores the power and influence of yoga in the world, its origins in India, how its modern-day practice has brought East and West together, and how it teaches us to balance the ever-present inner struggle between the soul and the human ego. I’m just wrapping producing a feature doc, directed by Johanna Demetrakas, about the influential and controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who was called both “the bad boy of Buddhism” and “one of the greatest spiritual teachers in the 20th century.” On the surface, these two spiritual teachers seem as different as night and day, but they both gave their lives to helping bring people to enlightenment or self-realization.
CC: I’m very interested in cause-driven projects that inspire audiences to get involved in the issues we face globally and in our every-day lives. I’m currently finishing a polish on The Big Dump, a high-concept cause-driven comedy spec script, then completely shifting gears to adapt the memoir “Where War Lives: A Journey Into the Heart of War” by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Watson. As a producer, I have a few other projects in development with my partner Jordana Glick-Franzheim, a mini-series based on the book “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations” by Georgina Howell; and a reality romance-empowerment series based on the New York Times best-selling book The Surrendered Single. I also have another documentary feature in development that’s confidential at this point, but I can say that we have an Academy Award winning director attached and could be described as a follow up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”