Film Review: Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story

Filmmaker, actor and activist Ashley Bell exposes heartbreaking truths about the plight of the Asian elephant in this clear-eyed, ultimately optimistic activism documentary that packs an urgent emotional punch.
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Have you ever heard of a torturous method that attains elephant obedience called “The Crush Box”? Ashley Bell’s gut-wrenching yet ultimately optimistic environmental film Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story doesn’t dare sugarcoat this cruelty (also known as “Pajan”) or what it does to young Asian elephants before they can become submissive service animals that transport and entertain. The process entails that the elephants get separated from their mothers while they are young, forcefully put in a tiny fenced area that allows no movement for 24 hours (or as long as necessary), and get beaten in chains constantly until their will to live vanishes, and the love they feel for and from their mothers is indefinitely replaced by the fear of man. “The Crush Box” basically enslaves and brainwashes these creatures, so they can serve and amuse humans without protest. According to Love & Bananas, every single Asian elephant in captivity (including in zoos and circuses) endures this atrocity. You hear a cry that breaks your heart the same way the orca of Blackfish once did.

Listening to the clear, highly informative narration by actor, activist and filmmaker Bell is like being let in on a dangerous secret about the Asian elephant, whose heartbreaking plight has been long ignored by the the world, at least compared to that of the African elephant and the resulting bloody ivory trade operations. Yet, the direness of the statistics Bell reveals early on in her film—there are only about 45K Asian elephants left on Earth—serves as an immediate wakeup call. In that, Bell’s film shines an undeniably urgent spotlight on this endangered species, like Kristin Davis’ Gardeners of Eden did for African elephants.

Confronted by the facts as well as the ghastly sights she’s witnessed herself during one eye-opening trip, Bell embarks on a perilous, 500-mile journey across Thailand to join in on elephant rescue efforts, led by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, a conservationist recognized and celebrated by both Time magazine and Hillary Clinton (committed to the cause herself), yet somehow renounced by her own family for her political ruffling of feathers around her preservation efforts. Bell and Lek unite around a singular mission: Rescue Noi Na, a 70-year-old, partially blind trekking elephant and grant her the overdue freedom that was once stolen from her. Along the way, the crew inevitably face challenges and even resistance from Noi Na, who understandably refuses to be loaded on the back of another truck. (To her, a truck means only one thing: captivity.) But they brave the setbacks and reach an eventual happy ending.

Bell and Lek don’t let us forget that it’s a “happy ending” in this instance only, but the audience will be relieved to read some additional good news in the parting title cards about the now-thriving rescues, former poachers becoming wildlife guardians, and trekking camps (like the one Noi Na was rescued from) being transformed into sanctuaries similar to Lek’s. Throughout Love & Bananas, Bell manages to maintain a consistently clear-eyed tone, and lets the vitality of the facts (mostly disclosed by Lek) as well as the sentimental imagery captured by her duo of cinematographers—John Michael McCarthy III and Roddy Tabatabai—speak for themselves. This is an activism documentary not only about what you can do to help, but also about what you mustn’t do. “Don’t visit these circuses or zoos. Don’t ride these elephants or buy their paintings. Tell others,” Bell reminds the viewer, knowing that every major paradigm shift is preceded by awareness first.

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