Finally some time to restart my blog with an update on the making of our elephant conservation film, Elephant Spirits.
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we made it to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand in January where we filmed for over two weeks- we wanted to tell the story of the unique mahout community (the elephant owners/keepers), talk about the options for the future of the Asian elephant and the once in a lifetime opportunity to record the untold story of the last remaining Elephant Spirit Men or Khru Ba Yai who for centuries would practice non-violent methods of bringing in wild elephants. The rites, rituals and ceremonies of the Elephant Spirit Men has been passed down generation to generation and had never been recorded in writing or in film so we were pretty excited about what we’d find out … And swirling in the background were long told rumors of the existence of a sacred language used with the wild elephants which had never been verified. One short article with a few pictures in the Bangkok Post was all that had been written on the existence of the Khru Ba Yai.
An outline of the film
We ask the question of what options there are today for the future for the newly born elephant and a young mahout. Our central characters are a baby elephant, Phil, a young 14 year old mahout, Toni, and four elderly Elephant Spirit Men. By bringing in the Elephant Spirit Men or Khru Ba Yai, we heard for the first time, the traditions and ceremonies practiced for centuries by these spiritual elders. What could the new generations of mahouts learn from these elders, hearing the stories and seeing the ceremonies of these elderly elephant masters? We wanted to record a way of life that is going away with the elephant elders, one that is perilous in its future for the mahouts and hope to stimulate our world to ask the questions about how we can help sustain the elephants in a world where they are declining. We sought as many peoples options on conservation and on the options going forward.
In the first few days we began the process of getting to know the Khru Ba Yai – assisted by smoking their local tobacco (gave them much amusement!), sitting over a campfire dinner with them watching them begin to tell stories to the audience of fascinated mahouts and relatives living at GTAEF, most of them hearing these for the first time.. Ma Meu, 83 is the elder and most senior of the Spirit Men. He was very animated in recapturing his days in the jungle with the wild elephants from the age of 14. In those first few days, they performed ceremonies which we doubt have been performed for many years and certainly never recorded on camera. Their last trip into the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand were over 40 years ago.
During many of the interviews they talked about the superstitions and rituals the Guay (Kui) tribe would go through before leaving for a 3 month trip into the jungle. There was a moment of great excitement when Ma Meu indeed confirmed the existence of the sacred elephant language used during capture by chanting, blessing and we believe, singing the wild elephants into submission. Ma Meu is the only Khru Ba Yai left speaking this language. While we couldn’t get any of this spoken on film because its sacred, we did manage to get detailed explanations of when and where they would talk to the elephants in the language. John Roberts, Director of Elephants, also did manage to get some words spoken and translated which he hopes some anthropoligist linguists will have a field day. See his blog post John Roberts
We began filming with the blessing of baby Phil and his mother Boun Na where sacred thread was tied around his ear to keep the good spirits in once they were called back to his body during the ceremony (without the thread Phil could lose them).
Having made baby Phil whole, we moved to record several ceremonies to honor buried elephants and one to remove the inauspicious markings and bad behaviour of one of the elephants. Different offerings were made to the elephant gods and at one stage, Ma Meu conducted the cermony in four languages, blessing the elephant with water to keep off evil spirits.
During our more formal interviews with them, we started hearing of other superstitions — when the men were away on their jungle trips, the families should not sit besides an open window, user a broom or sit on a staircase or…. the men will fall off the elephants!
We spent a day following young Toni in his life as a mahout and also going to school – he would help clean the elephant stable at dawn then head for school then back at mahout camp in the evening in the shadow of his elephant he would proudly send emails out to his friends around the world.. Old world meeting new. What is his future
with his elephant Pumpui?
We also felt it was important to show the sacred role of elephants in Buddhism so we got footage from a senior monk on the role of the elephant in Buddhism – indeed the Buddha was reincarnated into an elephant, Erawan, elephant of the god Indra. Elephants were also part of sacred ceremonies in temples all over Thailand so we filmed the elephants, temple in a temple under a sacred Bodhi tree… Our last day in Chiang Rai, we got some great footage of the elephants running around in the iconic Mekong River with Burma and Laos in the background.
Then we moved to a village, Ta Klang in Surin, 7 hours drive from Bangkok and home of the Khru Ba Yai, known as Elephant Village and home to many of the mahouts. Here we again met up with the Spirit Men in their village and filmed them as they conducted more ceremonies and showing us how they would ride the elephants in the jungle.
It was here we also discovered 200 elephants who in the last 6 months, had all come in off the streets of Bangkok to a goverment run project, paying the mahouts to keep and feed the elephants there. Here we got to film and interview a lot of mahouts that talked about the options (or lack of) for them in the future. Seeing some many elephants in one place was surreal – it was good seeing so many elephants off the streets but in the short term they don’t have enough land or food to sustain them in such numbers.
Back to Bangkok where we were graciously given time with some great cultural figures supported with Royal Patronage… we heard their thoughts about what can be done to help sustain a future for the Thai elephants. We also heard about a project reintroducing elephants back into the wild and finally were given some valuable time with a professor at the Vetinerian College explaining all the health issues for elephants who are on the streets.
We were joined throughout by John Roberts, Director of Elephants at the Foundation and Cherry, the resident vet who was our key translator and Lung Lord, master mahout helped in some interpretations with the Khru Ba Yai.
So here we are with 50 hours of footage and a trailer almost done and released. Our next steps are to get the interview footage translated into English so we can finally understand everything the Khru Ba Yai and others told us (we don’t know what we don’t know yet!) then the huge job of editing and post-production. Currently we don’t have funding for either of these so we are going out to seek Thai volunteers to help in translation and beginning the process of grant submissions this week for the post production.
We’re blessed with support (and have been accepted in for sponsorship) by the San Francisco Film Society so we have good credentials and are hoping their introductions will lead to some grant support.
All of us have donated our time and our thanks go to John Roberts & Cherry and to the Anantara hotels without who we couldn’t have made the film.
Also to Gene Baker & Kim Heyl, Camera Operators and Julie Miller, journalist, who will help with media promotion when we launch the film.
Carol Stevenson and Tim Kelly