Love & Bananas (but mostly elephants)

B+ Documentary
Directed by Ashley Bell

The title Love & Bananas, along with the photos used to promote this documentary (including the ones below), suggest a joyful movie about the loving relationship between humans and elephants. And yes, there is a good deal of upbeat, lovable footage about these giant land mammals. But that’s only a part of what Ashley Bell’s film is about.

For most of its runtime, Love & Bananas examines the horrible relationship between humans and elephants, and it’s not the four-footed creatures who behave badly. Unlike dogs or horses, elephants are wild animals, captured by people and tortured into submission. Once broken, they’re forced into either brute labor or show business.

Elephants are intelligent animals, social, empathetic, and self-aware. They mourn their dead, and often cover them.

Okay, back to the movie.

Director Bell puts herself on screen quite a bit, which I usually don’t like in a documentary – especially when that director is a white American and the film was shot in a developing country (Thailand in this case).

But Bell is smart enough to make herself the movie’s sidekick, playing Dr. Watson to the amazing Lek Chailert.     Chailert grew up in a family that exploited elephants for a living. She made a 180-degree turnaround, broke off with her family, and devoted her life to running an elephant sanctuary and trying to stop the exploitation.

A native Thai, Chailert talks to Bell and the camera in English so broken that the film uses subtitles to get over her difficult pronunciation. Bell wisely chose to keep her rough grammar in those subtitles – allowing more of her personality get through.

In the film’s strong middle section, Chailert and Bell must transport a 70-year-old, blind elephant across hundreds of miles from a commercial trekking camp to the sanctuary. If you’ve ever had problems getting an angry cat into a carrier for a trip to the vet, you can image what it’s like to put a multi-ton beast, who has known only cruelty from humans, into a truck. And then spend almost 24 hours trying to keep the creature fed, hydrated, and calm.

The last section has a lot of adorable footage. Here you meet the victims of torture overcoming their horrible pasts. They play with toys. They gently help their maimed friends. They form herds, and they accept Chailert and other humans into these herds. And, of course, you get baby elephants playing in the mud. You can’t find anything more adorable than that.

(Sorry, but the film’s marketing contains no images of baby elephants playing in the mud.)

Chailert, in her broken English, says it best: “You know. I start to think if the planet don’t have elephant, this planet empty for me. They are the color of the planet. They are beautiful. If we want to protect them, we have to do right now.”