The decline of Asian elephants is a catastrophe easily illustrated in broad strokes with bullet points written out in dripping red Chiller font letters. Love & Bananas, a documentary directed by Ashley Bell, opens with such a primer on Asian elephant declines, accompanied by animated infographics and grim statistics. Though they’re highly adaptable and can survive in a variety of climates and environments, the elephants have been completely wiped out in western Asia and China. Thailand, however, holds out hope for the species, as domestication — and, sadly, abusive practices — are embedded into the culture.
Here, Bell drills down to the personal level with a focus on two particular individuals: Lek Chailert, a kindly woman who operates a refuge for Asian elephants, and Noi Na, a seventy-year-old elephant rescued from a trekking company that gives tourists elephant rides through the wilderness. The abuses of these animals start during calfhood, when the young elephants are isolated from their parents, locked in cages, and tortured with hooks until they fear the mahouts more than they love their mothers. Even the elephants who make paintings for tourists are broken in this way.
Chailert transports Noi Na hundreds of miles in a truck to the refuge, and Bell captures the tension of this harrowing trip: The obviously terrified Noi Na becomes dehydrated, requiring constant attention from mahouts holding on to the sides of the truck. This is the meat of the film — even small efforts to rectify human misdeeds cause suffering to animals, and Bell seems aware of this balance of consequences.
Noi Na’s subsequent acclimation to her new home in the refuge is hopeful, but Chailert’s bravery, sacrifice, and manifest love are the only redemption the film holds out for humans.
Love & Bananas
Directed by Ashley Bell
Opens April 27, Landmark 57
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 24, 2018