Elephants are next to godliness.
This is an argument made abundantly clear in the Academy Award-nominated Netflix short documentary The Elephant Whisperers. We see this in the film’s lush use of natural lighting, casting its elephant subjects in a halo of golden light. We see it in the vast wilderness the elephants move through—a calligraphic network of trees and river and rock, both sprawling and intimately monitored by the camera’s gaze. And we see it in the film’s protagonist, Bomman, one of the two titular elephant whisperers, as he confesses: “The way I serve God is the same way I serve the elephants.”
Given the film’s downright spiritual understanding of elephant beauty, it’s not surprising that the director, Kartiki Gonsalves, found her way to the story when she saw a young elephant walking along the side of the road. She was driving towards Bangalore in southern India, following the outline of a forest she herself had grown up exploring, when she saw something that fascinated her: The elephant had wound its trunk around the arm of the man (Bomman) walking with him.
“I was just so amazed to see this tiny little elephant,” Gonsalves tells LAMag. “All along I had seen such large elephants and mahouts (a person who rides and cares for elephants) looking after elephants and so on. But this was really special.
“Bomman noticed my curiosity and he beckoned to me. I pulled my car over and jumped out and joined them. We walked down to the river. And Raghu (the elephant) went running full speed. Started splashing around in the water…”
The unexpected adventure, equal parts endearing, whimsical, and stunning is representative of The Elephant Whisperers as a whole. The film follows Bomman and his partner Belli, both Kattunayakan—an Indian tribal group known for its devotion to nature—as they care for two orphaned elephant calves whose chances of survival in the wild have been diminished due to the threat of climate change, poaching, and loss of habitat. Immediately, we see the ways in which Bomman and Belli devote themselves to the two calves, Raghu and Ammu, with a tenderness that is both selfless and parental. They bathe the calves, feed them milk, incorporate them in their wedding, even brush the frothy tendrils of hair on Ammu’s forehead.
But beyond the fascinating domesticity of their happy family, Gonsalves probes at something deeper as well. “The sacred bond between man and animal is a central message,” she says. “But this story is also about cooperation, coexistence. This is the only way to move forward in the future to save the planet.”
Indeed, the film emerges as a kind of love letter to the wild, as well as a plea for others to protect it. Gonsalves developed the project for five years, spending the first year simply watching Bomman and Belli, making sure they were comfortable being filmed. From there, she filmed constantly, her iPhone giving way to a GoPro, then to a DSLR camera.
“With a documentary, you never know what’s going to happen so you have to document everything,” Gonsalves says. The result was over 450 hours of footage that she then whittled down into a spare 40 minute finished product. Today, it’s a serious contender at the 95th Academy Awards for Best Documentary Short.
The brevity of the film reinforces the undeniable ephemerality of it. “We recorded seasons, droughts, fires… Part of the beauty of a documentary in the present tense is that it’s unraveling as we’re living it,” Gonsalves says.
When it came time to begin shaping all of the material the crew walked away with, the question Gonsalves was left with felt both simple and imbued with an intense amount of possibility: “What is the strongest story we can tell? What is the most unusual story?” She asks. “Because documentation really does have the power to reach people.”
Although this is Gonsalves’ film debut, she is neither a stranger to the forest where Bomman and Belli work, nor is she a stranger to a viewer’s latent sense of responsibility to fight for change. “Some families shop. Mine went to the forest… I camped in a state park for the first time when I was 18 months old,” Gonsalves says. “The first time I actually visited this preserve [where Belli and Bomman cared for Ammu and Raghu], I was three years old. So I’ve been in and out… And to prepare for the film, I spent a lot of time just walking in the forest. Experiencing animals. Tigers, leopards, wild elephants.”
Her past projects have been similarly devoted to exploration and investigation into the wild. She’s explored the Pacific Northwest, the Indo-Chinese border, the Orkneys, the Zabarwan mountain range. She’s photographed wildcats and orcas, Asiatic black bears, remote indigenous villages, deserts and verdant oak patches. Along the way, she imbued her work with an enduring understanding of the profound connectivity between humans and the natural world. The same goes for The Elephant Whisperers, which, Gonsalves admits, is driven by the symbolic connection between Bomman and Raghu: “They had this very unusual bond— this indigenous man and this elephant calf that should have been with a wild herd.”
Although Gonsalves is not shy about holding a mirror up to the human threats that have contributed to elephants’ increasing vulnerability in the film, she is also deeply interested in the promise of possibility. “There are so many sad stories about animals and the wild,” Gonsalves says. “I wanted this to be a story of hope.” Along the way, she manages to give voice to both the film’s stunning wilderness and to the indigenous community she so faithfully follows.
“The truth is, you never really do know when you’re finished,” she says on gauging when to stop filming. “People don’t always understand, documentary filmmakers cannot intervene.” This powerlessness to life and to change was a factor she had to anticipate. The story is not a story that will end, even when the film does. But in this understanding, there is perhaps also the traces of a defining moment Gonsalves still thinks about while filming Bomman.
Upon finding a beehive in the forest one day and scooping out some of the honey he needed, Bomman inspected the hive carefully and tenderly picked up several tiny bees that had fallen to the ground. He then returned the rest of the beehive to the forest; a living example of what his partner, Belli, explains in the film: “We live off the forest but we also protect it.”
“This is sustenance,” Gonsalves says of that quiet moment. “This is taking only what you need.” The Elephant Whisperers, in its brevity, also follows this insight, taking only what it needs to show the vulnerability, power, and beauty in this family’s story. In the elephants’ stories. What does Gonsalves hope this leaves us with at the end? “I hope viewers will be encouraged to stop seeing them as ‘other’ and instead see them as one of us.”
The Elephant Whisperers is currently available to view on Netflix.