[VFF ’16] When Elephants Were Young, Their Role in Asian Societies, A Review

6 Feb

When Elephants Were Young. 

Available to view on Vudu (Updated Sept 2022)

One night in modern Bangkok will not make any member of the native Thai tribes heralding their mammoth pet around the streets humble after watching When Elephants Were Young. This documentary is made by local filmmakers Patricia Sims and Michael Clark, and narrated by William Shatner. It is excellent at showing how these creatures should be treated with respect instead of used. This gentle beast is revered, but sadly the old traditions are seen without truly understanding where the native culture of keeping them “as pets” was once okay. Bob Dylan’s song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” is one way to sum up the how the film moves and this film nicely reveals where attitudes are headed.

World Elephant Day (August 12, 2016) is championing preventing the Asian elephant from going extinct. Large steps are being made by the government to see the animal get saved. Ever since they got domesticated for warfare during Ancient Greek times, if not used in jungle warfare in India, their relationship with man has been an uneasy one. Are they working animals, creatures to be paraded around in zoos, or what? This film looks at their roles in human society today, focusing specifically in the relationship Wok, a mahout (elephant guardian), has with Nong Mai, an elephant he’s taken care of for at least a decade. He’s part of the Kui tribe and they have to adapt to modern times.

Their relationship is expertly examined in this film. Some discussion is made about the harsh laws towards using these beloved creatures for work or their ivory. The information revealed about the current situation is illuminating. This illegal trade is not examined with a fine tooth comb. To do so would have detracted from the positive messages this documentary is making. Old traditions towards ownership are fading because the practice is now frowned upon and the fates are kind to this pair. Wok’s family realizes that it’s best to let Nong Mai live his life to the fullest and this film ends on a happy note that needs to be seen.

Tissues are required prior to going to watch this film. The sniffles are for these gentle beasts as audiences get to see how they are treated from a tribal culture, still living in the bayous, adapting to modern times. It’s weird to see a guardian’s way of life disappear the way of the dodo. It was once a respectful trade but now it’s not.

One segment talks about how they are revered in Buddhist beliefs feels too short. In what’s revealed is the fact that Buddha was an elephant in a previous life, and this animal’s qualities (their empathy, patience and strength) are essential to the path to enlightenment. However, there’s more to this creature in how it’s treated as a spiritual animal. More can be said about the royal treatment white elephants, a rare sight, gets, and the role Ganesh (a Hindu god with an elephant’s head) has as a universal deity. His Thai name is Phra Phikanet, and his role in this culture is that of encouraging creativity. He’s also a god of wisdom and learning. One title he has is ‘the remover of obstacles.’ Perhaps that’s why normal elephants are cast into the role of labourers to shove tree trunks aside and transport items around. Somewhere, in the early history of their domestication, the meaning got lost in translation.

At least this film serves to enlighten audiences to a problem. The elephant’s role in the tourism industry is huge, and while explanations are offered, the movie does not really make a strong stance on whether ownership of such a creature is either good or bad. William Shatner provides a wonderful, thoughtful, scripted narration without being over-the-top like in Weird or What? (a pseudo-documentary that examines the paranormal on H2). His relaxed narration works well for this documentary. In some roles he plays, he’s more like Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane. When he’s being himself, this actor’s presence gives weight to a product getting noticed. When considering he’s worked with Sims before in Return to the Forest, a condensed variation of this film, this experienced performer knows how to draw an audience in, no matter what the subject, and keep them at attention. No Starfleet is needed to recruit a new legion of advocates for preventing species extinction. The lesson learned in Star Trek IV: A Voyage Home is tough not to forget, especially for an elephant.

4 Stars out of 5

Playing at the Victoria Film Festival 2016

Feb 08, 7:00pm
Star Cinema
Sidney, BC

Feb 10, 6:30pm 
Cineplex Odeon Victoria Cinemas
Victoria, BC

One Response to “[VFF ’16] When Elephants Were Young, Their Role in Asian Societies, A Review”


  1. [VFF ’16] To Boldly Go Where No Elephant Has Walked Before, An Interview with Patricia Sims | Otaku no Culture - 2016-02-07

    […] things change, the future is threatened. As noted in Otakunoculture’s review of When Elephants Were Young, these gentle creatures do not forget and neither do whales, […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: