Release: Thursday, December 8, 2022 (Netflix)
Directed by: Kartiki Gonsalves
Starring: Bomman; Bellie; Raghu; Ammu
The Elephant Whisperers made history at the 95th Academy Awards by becoming the first Indian production to win the award for Best Documentary Short Film. It is the first time since 1979 that the nation, the second most populous on earth, even got a seat at the table in this category. The recognition may be a long time coming but this enlightening and heartwarming exploration of man’s relationship with nature is a real winner.
Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, who spent years getting to know her subjects, The Elephant Whisperers takes us inside the Theppakadu Elephant Camp, an expansive stretch of forest in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu originally purposed in the early 1900s for timber logging but has since become government-protected land dedicated to rehabilitating and nurturing orphaned and injured elephants. Situated inside the larger territory of the Mudumulai National Park, the camp also serves as a popular tourist destination where visitors can feed and ride the majestic animals.
Lucky for us, The Elephant Whisperers provides much more than a casual meet-and-greet and doesn’t require advanced bookings to get in. We are introduced to caretakers Bomman and Bellie, distinguished for their efforts in successfully raising not one but two elephant calves — the coconut-loving Raghu and his younger sister Ammu. The film charts the course of how the two (human) stars met and how their own relationship has been strengthened over the months and years, while also touching on the heartache and loss that permeate their pasts.
What makes The Elephant Whisperers special is the profound sense of connectedness Gonsalves manages to capture, on scales both large and small. The film is full of tender moments that prove the stunning cache of trust the kindhearted mahouts have built up through time and dedication. Some scenes are quite powerful, whether it’s the presence of animals as Bomman and Bellie tie the knot, or the way Ammu expresses emotion with her trunk — a particularly moving gesture in the context of a heartbreaking development.
That connectedness extends to cultural and ecological aspects. As members of the Kattunayakan community, a foraging tribe native to the southern regions of the country, Bomman and Bellie are committed to the same tradition and labor as their ancestors and contemporaries. Through generations the Kattunayakans have maintained a symbiotic relationship with their environment, subsisting on the bounties of the forest while also protecting it and its inhabitants. Invariably there’s a dark side to this uplifting story, as we see how the ravages of climate change threaten not just Bomman and Bellie’s way of life, but the delicate, harmonious balance that exists amongst the flora and fauna of the reserve and well beyond.
In only 40 minutes The Elephant Whisperers provides a wealth of eye-opening information. Bomman and Bellie’s parental responsibilities are sometimes dangerous, always demanding and seem never-ending. What becomes clear quickly is this untraditional child-rearing is far from a thankless task, and seems therapeutic for a couple who, now in middle-age, have suffered their share of loss and heartache.
Moral of the Story: Deeply moving and featuring some gorgeous imagery, The Elephant Whisperers takes a positive and uplifting approach to a subject that could easily be told another way. Kartiki Gonsalves touches upon some of the issues facing people like Bomman and Bellie, but prefers to keep the emphasis on celebrating their unique dedication to these wonderful, incredibly intelligent animals. A highly recommended watch.
Running Time: 41 mins.
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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com
My favorite of the Oscar-nominated Documentary shorts. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I know winning the Oscar means a lot more, but I’d like to think my recommendation helped. 😉
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It was your summary of the short film programs that steered me to this, when I saw it was available via Netflix I was all over it. I wanted to review more of these, but in the end just decided to single out this one. It was a wonderful watch.
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Thanks Tom, I’ll look for this.
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It’s an outstanding way to spend 40 minutes in my book! I think you’ll love it as well Fraggle