Thursday, October 31, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Elephant Queen

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The Elephant Queen
Directed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone
DOC NYC Screenings

There is a lot of beauty in the world just waiting to be discovered. One of the primary reasons that people travel is to see natural wonders that are specific to their geographical locations, offering spectacular and stunning views that can’t be matched from somewhere else that lacks the same climate and features. One particular destination that attracts tourists from more developed North American and European countries is Africa, with its deserts and savannahs that are home to wondrous and often seemingly magical animal kingdoms.

This documentary tracks Athena, who is the fifty-year-old mother of an elephant herd. She looks after all the other elephants, who share their watering hole with a number of other animal species including dung beetles, chameleons, and bullfrogs. When a drought makes staying there untenable, Athena begins to lead her herd across the desert to a savannah that can offer survival, a lengthy journey that may prove treacherous for her young daughters Wewe and Mimi.

This is the kind of film that audiences might expect to see shown at a science museum, offering an up-close look at how these animals live. All dialogue comes from narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor, a soothing, authoritative voice who explains the actions and movements shown on screen whose accompanying noises are incomprehensible to human ears. This is a movie that slows down and suggests that people take a minute – or an hour and a half, in this case – to appreciate what exists in the world that those with access to movie theaters and on-demand entertainment rarely engage with intimately.

Unlike many documentaries that expose wrongdoing or highlight the erosion of political systems, this film is a simple look at these giant creatures whose lives seem so straightforward yet are far more complex and interconnected with the animals that exist among them. Shots of dung beetles fighting over elephant excrement are entertaining, while the long trek that they make feels especially admirable when seen as a necessary act of perseverance. This is a gorgeous film, one that presents dazzling visuals that need not be created by computers or effects, capturing instead what is already there thanks to the open African landscapes and the vivid, enormous animals that inhabit them. While its pacing is purposely unrushed, the urgency here is to ensure the continued survival of the elephants, a cause this film, available this Friday on Apple TV Plus, advocates for both explicitly and inherently through its picturesque portrait of another world within our own.


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