Back to IndieWire

Guest Post: Filming Elephant Landmine Survivors Walk on Prostheses is No Small Feat

Guest Post: Filming Elephant Landmine Survivors Walk on Prostheses is No Small Feat

The Eyes of Thailanddocumentary tells the true story of Soraida Salwala’s quest to help two elephant landmine survivors, Motala and Baby Mosha, walk again on their own four legs by building elephant-sized prosthetics. Narrated by Ashley Judd, the film premieres on April 28, 2012 at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Soraida’s love for elephants began early. When she was 8-years old, Soraida saw an injured elephant lying on the side of the road because a truck hit it. As her family drove past, she asked, If the elephant was hurt, why couldn’t he go to the hospital?

Not getting an answer she liked, in 1993 Soraida opened the World’s First Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, Thailand. Little did she know that her hospital would develop a niche for treating elephant landmine survivors.

By comparison, I did not know I would be an “elephant person” until I met Soraida and two elephant landmine survivors, Motala and Baby Mosha, at her Elephant Hospital in 2007. I was in Thailand filming a theatre company, but one day I stumbled into FAE’s Elephant Hospital with my video camera. Soraida welcomed me, talked with me on camera, and then took me to meet Mosha and Motala. At that point, they had saved their lives, but they did not know if they could help them walk again.

Upon my return home from the two-month trip, I began logging all the footage from FAE’s Elephant Hospital and I started to weep. The elephants were so brave and trusting after humans had mutilated them by planting landmines. I found it unacceptable to live in a world where endangered species, humans—really any sentient being—step on landmines. I knew I would never be able to write a check big enough to solve the problem, but, being a filmmaker, I could make a film about it to start the conversation and inspire people to join the cause.

Over the next three years, “The Eyes of Thailand” documentary began to take shape. In August 2009, Soraida invited me to film the Prostheses Foundation’s attempt to build Mosha and Motala prosthetic limbs. This was a very ambitious undertaking because the Prostheses Foundation didn’t know whether it would be strong enough to hold their weight, and Soraida didn’t know whether the elephants would accept it. In the end, both elephants accepted their artificial legs and I left in August 2009 thinking I had a happy ending to the story.

However, in 2010, two new elephants stepped on landmines, so I went back to film an epilogue that featured the new victims.  That also gave me an opportunity to travel to Vientiane, Laos to interview landmine experts who were attending the first Cluster Munitions Convention.

I would love to say I thought about the style of “The Eyes of Thailand” during production, but I was a run-and-gun one-person band for most of it due to budget constraints. At that point, the film was primarily funded through donations and IndieGoGo campaigns, so I couldn’t afford to fly a DP over with me. Consequently, I directed, produced and filmed “The Eyes of Thailand”, so my role behind the camera literally was “behind the camera”. Nevertheless, in 2009, I hired a local camera operator, Liam Morgan, for two days when the elephants were getting their prostheses because I knew I needed a second camera for coverage. Otherwise, I was wearing all the hats out of necessity.

After we shot the leg-building footage in 2009, I knew we had a strong “quest” story arc, so it was a matter of gathering archival footage and organizing the video footage in a way that best told that story. In 2010, Producer Tim VandeSteeg and Screenwriter Tim O’Brien came on board and it was great to have a team assembled to help tell this amazing story of sacrifice and perseverance.

Filming in a foreign country is always a challenge, but my most harrowing experience was in 2010. In order to film a UXO (Un-exploded Ordinance) Specialist detect and explode a landmine on camera, I had to sign a release that stated the basic release of liability—but I had to give them my blood type, supposedly so if there was an accident, they could give me blood transfusion in the field. The group was leaving without me, so I signed it, grabbed the camera, and went for it. This was one of those experiences that you tell your mom about after you do it.

In 2007, I knew I had stumbled upon a story I couldn’t let go, but witnessing the elephants take their first steps on their prostheses was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After nearly five years of production, “The Eyes of Thailand” will have its world premiere on April 28, 2012. I cannot wait to share it with the world.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: News and tagged , ,