2018 / Ashley Bell / 77 minutes
Actress Ashley Bell’s first starring role was in a scary movie. For her directorial debut, she turns the camera around to address a real-life horror: the brutal captivity of Asian elephants. But her film, Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story, is more a hero’s tale than a horror flick. It profiles Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the founder in 1995 of Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand. Lek’s passion is saving elephants. She knows more about the dark side of the captive elephant trade than most—her family ran an elephant trekking camp, giving elephant rides to tourists.
Only around 45,000 Asian elephants remain, one-third of whom are believed to be in captivity, used in logging or to entertain tourists: giving rides, doing tricks, even painting. Prior to training, however, young elephants—stolen from the wild or bred in captivity—first undergo phajaan, or “crushing,” a process that is every bit as awful as the name suggests: To crush the spirit of elephants as young as 3 years old, they are placed in small cages, bound, starved, and beaten for several days. Lek states that “elephants have never been domesticated, only broken.”
Much of the movie depicts a harrowing 23-hour rescue of an elephant from a trekking camp in southern Thailand. But perhaps the most heroic act depicted in the movie is Lek convincing the owner to convert his camp to a sanctuary. The resulting “Elephant Haven” is now a more popular tourist destination than the trekking camp ever was.
The film is by turns breathtaking and heartbreaking: watching a herd of elephants take a mud bath or learn to play with a new toy, then seeing the absolute terror in the eyes of a captured baby elephant who doesn’t understand why she has a chain around her foot.
Asian elephants belong in the wild. Those already in captivity deserve sanctuary—and kindness to overcome the physical and psychological torture they have endured. As Lek explains, “You don’t need a bull hook to control an elephant. You can guide an elephant with love… and bananas.”