Directors: Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
Awards: Nominated for Best Science/Nature Documentary and Best Narration at the Critics Choice Movie Awards in 2018 and for outstanding narration at the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2020.
The slaughter of Elephants particularly on the African continent is such a painful subject that in a way, I dreaded seeing the film but now I have no regrets. Filmed over four years in the expansive Tsavo East and Amboseli Ecosystem the film is the story of ‘Athena’ the Elephant Queen and her herd during the terrible drought of 2009 in Kenya. I am glad the film spared the audiences the scenes of carcasses of poached elephants in Kenya during the time of the filming.
The Tsavo East National Park is one of the largest parks in Kenya measuring about 13747 square kilometers. The park lives up to its reputation of being the ‘Theatre of the Wild’ and is lush, wild and harsh all at once. About two years ago, I visited the park and was amazed by the teaming wild life but especially by the presence of elephants almost everywhere, even right outside the campsite!
The film took eight years to complete inclusive of almost four years of shooting in some harsh and unforgiving environments. The directors could have filmed in Amboseli or Samburu, where finding elephants would have been much easier, but only Tsavo offered the range of bullfrogs, dung beetles and other smaller characters to explain the ‘cycle of life’ in nature.
The directors cleverly used the waterhole as a focus point to show how insects, birds, amphibians, tortoises and other living creatures depend on each other, live off each other and survive because of each other rather than in spite of each other. It took the directors two years to identify the right group of elephants they wanted to film. After some nerve, shattering experiences the crew quite accidently bumped into ‘Athena’ the matriarch and her herd right outside their mobile kitchen! Mark Deeble in an interview with ‘Travel Africa’ said, ‘in the end it was she who found us.’
The directors and crew filmed through some very rough and rocky terrain and flew through dust storms, thunderclouds and torrential rain in order to capture the journey of the elephants and their surroundings. The crew spent time cramped in a specially designed steel box below ground enabling them to film the elephants at toenail height as they came to drink at the waterhole. The first 30 minutes of the film or so is spent exploring ‘the Kingdom’ of the Elephants as the directors liked to call it to give the audience a feel of the habitat of these magnificent creatures; and the eco-system they lived in before the drought sets in.
Huge credit must go to Mark Deeble who wrote the screenplay which when narrated by American actor Chiwetel Ejio is a work of art. I loved the musical score like the helicopter sounds of the beetle scenes and was tickled by the humour around the adventures of ‘Steve’ the duck.
The film reaches its crescendo as we witness the epic migration of Athena the Queen and her herd to another place in search of water as their ‘Kingdom’ gradually dries up. The leadership of Athena, her caring and sensitivity to the needs of others and her determination to ensure the survival of the herd is breathtaking and all consuming. Tragedies and emotion mark their journey through a landscape that is bone dry and ravaged by sandstorms. The dried up vegetation made the journey even harder as the young ones needed to be nourished and protected from the harsh sun and heat.
When the herd finally does make it to their destination, the adults drink, the young frolic and the different herds commune in a majestic depiction of celebration at the end of a migration. Here we meet the age mate of Athena – ‘Satao’ a male elephant from another herd. Athena and Satao’s greeting each other in a symbolic ‘hand shake’ of the trunks is magnificent, emotional and be-fitting for such an occasion.
However, the tribulations of Athena and her herd are not over as they quickly realize that quenching their thirst is all very well but that they could soon die of hunger, as most of the vegetation has dried up. It is the heroism, leadership and experience of Athena the Matriarch that ensures the survival of her progeny.
If ‘Lion King’ set the stage of an epic African tale of wisdom, perseverance and determination; then the ‘Elephant Queen’ provides the sequel in a tale of epic heroism, leadership and sacrifice. The African continent survives because of its spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ – you are because we are. The heroic stories of communities right across the continent striving to save its wildlife from the savage attacks of western greed and civilization, is the reason why we shall survive as a continent with our rich natural resource of minerals; fauna; wildlife; rivers, lakes and mountains; and the people.