Affecting documentary carries water for pachyderms

One Lucky Elephant

on June 10, 2011 by John P. McCarthy

One Lucky Elephant chronicles a circus owner's efforts to do right by his star attraction. Moving and informative, the documentary doesn't attempt to downplay the complexity of issues arising at the juncture of human and animal behavior. Although it's billed as an interspecies love story, the experienced filmmakers successfully balance advocacy and entertainment. Breaking up may be hard to do, but keeping people and wild animals apart as the planet shrinks is the more serious challenge. As it rolls out theatrically on its path to the small screen, this understated movie will turn many animal lovers into activists, while enlightening both champions of animal rights and those who, if they give them any thought at all, would count every captive creature as fortunate.

When One Lucky Elephant begins in 2000, David Balding, the proprietor and ringmaster of a small St. Louis-based circus, has decided it's time to part ways with his namesake attraction, an African elephant named Flora. He realizes she's unhappy and doesn't enjoy performing in "Circus Flora" anymore. With her behavior growing more "mischievous," he knows she needs a different kind of social interaction. Despite being coddled (relative to other circus animals, that is), Flora's loneliness is palpable and Balding regrets adopting only one orphaned calf 16-years prior. He first considers sending her to a safari camp in Botswana, where she'll be closer to her native habitat, if not fully in the wild, and can enjoy the company of other elephants. When that falls through, he pursues other options, including placing Flora in the Miami Metrozoo until he can wrangle her a spot in a Tennessee sanctuary that only takes Asian elephants.

Balding and Flora's separation saga plays out over ten years and takes an emotional toll on various humans and pachyderms in their orbit. Different interpretations of Flora's behavior over that period emerge. Is she, as sanctuary owner Carol Buckley believes, suffering from PTSD after having watched her mother killed and then being forcibly removed from the wild? Is she reacting to the dominance training that she, like the vast majority of captive elephants, underwent? Is Flora a woman scorned, chafing at having been abandoned by Balding? Or is she simply a normal elephant with a moderately obdurate personality? It's probably a case of all of the above.

Made in fits and starts over the course of a decade, One Lucky Elephant doesn't pretend to fully address these and other pertinent issues. Yet there is enough time to investigate a few more thoroughly, or at least provide a fuller picture. For instance, director and co-writer Leeman incorporates footage of elephants on rampages (the only sequence viewers may find disturbing), yet withholds vital information about Flora's aggression. She reveals it in a manner seemingly designed to encourage sympathy rather than comprehension. And, for better and worse, only one or two "experts" are heard from. It's a relief not to endure a pack of talking heads; conversely, there's room for more objective analysis. It's true that in the end we can only speculate about what's best for Flora, but in the process of hearing her story, and that of the well-intentioned Balding, we can also learn a great deal about the circus and zoo worlds, and about tensions within a community of people who have devoted their lives to another species. At the movie's center is a relationship you don't need to be an elephant whisperer, zoologist or even an animal lover to apprehend. Near the end, Balding summarizes it thusly, "I loved her and she loved me. It's as simple as that." The equally simple and profound take-away from One Lucky Elephant is that the best thing we can do is let Flora be Flora. Captivity has unknown negative consequences and we probably ought to avoid it unless the goal is to save a species.

Contact: Cristina Colissimo (310)951-2995
Director: Lisa Leeman
Producers: Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: June 8 NY; June 24 LA


Tags: Lisa Leeman, Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim

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