Why do filmmakers change the source material

Environment in the documentary

Stefan Stiletto

Stefan Stiletto works as a freelance film educator and film journalist.

Directed by Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz
USA 2020
Documentary form, 89 minutes

Somewhere in the Kalahari, a herd of elephants and their young are moving through a watering hole. (& copy Disney)

Magnificent images and an atmospheric soundtrack of African choral and instrumental music lead directly into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. We see antelopes leaping gracefully in slow motion, float over river foothills with the drone camera, look at the magical world from the air thanks to the light mood. Via a voice-over commentary, we are informed about the region, which fills with water once a year and transforms the arid savannah into a fertile landscape. "All native plants and animals have always danced to the rhythm of this powerful annual cycle," it says poetically. And then the protagonist of this nature documentary appears, introduced by a close-up of his writhing trunk: the Kalahari elephant, for which "the flood season means joy and abundance".

The first two minutes of "Elefanten" already contain everything that characterizes the "Disneynature" series, which now comprises 15 films: extremely impressive nature shots, a fascinating atmosphere that amazes the audience - but also the tendency to humanize nature and wildlife, often in connection with humorous elements. Like "In the Realm of the Big Cats" (2011) or "Chimpanzees" (2013), "Elefanten" (2020) is not a neutrally observing, sober-explanatory animal documentary, but a film that makes something new out of its original documentary material: a highly emotional, sometimes exciting and sometimes heartwarming big story.

Road movie and coming-of-age story with elephants

The dramaturgical structure of the film, which follows a small herd of elephant cows on their long, arduous journey, can be described as a road movie. The filmmakers follow one of the elephant herds, which has become rare in the meantime, only to be found in the Okavango Delta at the time of the flood and then continues through the Kalahari towards the Victoria Falls. The elephants cover 1,500 kilometers on their round trip, which can take up to eight months and ultimately takes them back to the delta. Like a feature film, the action begins at a turning point for the animal protagonists. If the herd does not leave the drying river delta in time, it risks death. The motive couldn't be more existential: it's about survival. And the voice-over comment adds to it: "The hike is always challenging. But this year it will completely change the lives of the herd."

A bond with the audience is achieved by picking out individual animals from the herd and giving them names and roles. "Elephants" spread their protagonists over three generations: The lead cow Gaia is the old, wise leader, her younger sister and future successor Shani is also the mother of the inexperienced young bull Jomo. In multiple perspectives, the film lays the foundation for a story with coming-of-age motifs. In the course of the plot, Shani will take responsibility for the herd and Jomo discovers the world, masters his first long journey and finds his place in the community of the herd. Both are points of contact to comparable development tasks of the young viewers.

Just like us?

Even if the Disneynature films are comparatively cautious in this regard, they always succumb to the temptation to humanize the main animal characters. In "Elefanten" this seldom happens due to the images, but very often due to the linguistic ascriptions. Human characteristics such as self-confidence, longings and the ability to reflect on one's own behavior are transferred to Gaia, Shani and Jomo. Does Jomo already know he's an elephant? Does he long for playmates when hunting warthogs? Of course, these formulations make it easy for the audience to identify with the animals. At the same time, however, they elevate the story into a fairy tale and see the animals as mirror images of human behavior.

A roller coaster of moods and feelings

The poster for the film "Elephants". (& copy Disney)
"Elefanten" stages dramatic moments in the course of the journey with the greatest effect and thus builds up tension: a young calf threatens to suffocate in the mud and must be rescued by the lead cow, later the herd is attacked by crocodiles or lions. Both in these existential situations, but also in quiet moments, when the herd finds the skeleton of a dead elephant, greets a herd of other elephants extensively or probes the lifeless body of the lead cow with its trunk, the film again succeeds in making impressive observations about the pronounced Social behavior of the elephants, which would be touching even without dramatic background music.

In this respect, however, "Elefanten" is in the tradition of classic Disney animal documentaries such as "True-Life Adventures" (German title: "Discovery trip in the realm of nature") "The desert lives" (1953) and "Miracles of the prairie" "(1954). The background music is always based on the rhythm of the pictures, which sometimes creates a comedic effect, or colors it in an emotionally highly effective way through the choice of instruments and the key.

From amazement to awareness of environmental protection

The Disneynature films achieve their effect because they are staged, edited and narrated in the style of popular American cinema: They are entertainment films on a high level with clear messages, target the audience's emotions and amaze them with nature. In this way, they raise awareness of environmental protection and promote the preservation of intact ecosystems. Nonetheless, the manipulative part of the emotional narrative should not be underestimated. Is it really necessary to humanize animals in order to instill respect for them? And doesn't this humanization in particular transfigure the view of animals and their way of life?

In this respect, the making-of "In the footsteps of elephants" (also available on Disney +) is extremely exciting, which even exceeds the running time of "Elefanten", accompanies the filmmakers during the shooting and makes it clear how the images were created . The remarkable thing is that the elephants are by no means humanized here, but rather shown as fascinating animals that are watched in awe by the filmmakers. And we learn: If mounted differently, the filmed material would have allowed a completely different narrative.