By margaretta wa gacheru March 2020
It’s no wonder ‘The Elephant Queen’ has won international film awards all the way from Toronto to New York and London to Sundance, Utah.
It’s an enchanting feature documentary narrated by the award-winning actor Chewetel Ejiofor (The Lion King and The Boy who harnessed the wind) and written by Mark Deeble who also co-directed it with his fellow filmmaker and wife Victoria Stone.
It took them eight years to make the film, four to live fulltime in Tsavo East National Park and the greater Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. In those four years, he would film every day and she would edit every night. And in the process, they crafted a remarkable story about a majestic matriarch they named Athena and her beautiful elephant family.
“It took us one and a half years to find Athena,” says Deeble who first saw her near their campsite. It was her majesty and stately size of her tusks that initially struck them. “But then we saw her family including the cubs,” he adds, admitting they were quickly inspired to follow them and film their lives.
But don’t imagine ‘The Elephant Queen’ is just a cute animal ‘reality show’ or just another wildlife documentary. The film is indeed meant to be family-friendly, and this may be why the filmmakers don’t focus on the cruel criminality of poachers. Nor do they dwell on the tragic connection between climate change and the famine Athena and her family face on their journey from their home, a waterhole run dry, across Badlands, finally to reach another waterhole whose water comes from an underground spring not from the air.
Deeble manages to magically capture all the drama, joy and delightful charm of Athena’s kingdom at their waterhole which the family shares with a myriad of creatures. The interaction of them and the family, extended over time is a marvel. Each creature has a story, from the high-flying dung beetle to the goslings we see emerge from their eggs eventually to become fully grown geese.
The film is ingeniously energized by the busy lives of chameleons and fern frogs, bull frogs and tortoises, fish and flocks of flying fowl, all of which are part of the Queen’s paradise. In this regard, Deeble had a big advantage, having trained as a zoologist before becoming a filmmaker. It’s that background that enabled him to share not just a humanist perspective on the creatures but share the creatures’ stories from their point of view.
The film feels less like a documentary and more like a moving feature film about a family held together by the all-seeing, all-wise Athena who is deeply committed to keeping her family safe and intact.
From season to season, feast to famine, Badlands back to Paradise, ‘The Elephant Queen’ is meant to appeal to children and adults alike. Nonetheless, the filmmakers made an arrangement with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development to share the Queen’s story through a book series specially developed by a larger ‘Elephant Queen’ team which will be included in the country’s national curriculum.
“Their intention from the beginning was for the film to have wide outreach and appeal right here in Kenya,” says Lucinda Englehart who produced the film with Victoria Stone.
“That is why we created a series of 28 ‘learn to read’ children’s books which are meant to both promote literacy and wildlife awareness that will ideally remain with them all their lives,” Lucinda adds.
Beautifully illustrated by Harriet Stanes and Sophie Walbeoffe, the books may also enable children to gain appreciation not only for the beauty of nature and the environment but also of art/
The Queen ‘team’ also created a series of three scripts for different age-groups to produce plays revolving around the characters in the film, from the ever-tardy gosling and romantic tortoise to the acrobatic dung beetle, they all have roles to play in scripts meant to be catalysts for creativity.
Deeble and Stone have spent more than 30 years making films in Africa, but never before one focused on the Matriarch of the Savannah. And while ‘Queen’ had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s here in Kenya that they’ve created an Outreach Program with KICD that aim at making the film accessible to all Kenyans. The book series and plays are only two aspects of their concern for accessibility. They have also translated the film’s narrative into Kiswahili and Maa for public screenings.
It will also be shown on Kenyan TV on Easter Sunday at 5pm.