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[VFF ’16] To Boldly Go Where No Elephant Has Gone Before, An Interview with Patricia Sims

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Playing at the
Victoria Film Festival on

Feb 08, 7:00pm
Star Cinema
9842 Third St
Sidney, BC
Feb 10, 6:30pm 
Cineplex Odeon
Victoria Cinemas

780 Yates St
Victoria, BC


Filmmaker and environmentalist Patricia Sims always knew she wanted William Shatner as the master storyteller in her two documentaries examining the Asian elephants plight. He’s more than just Captain Kirk of a highly loved science fiction franchise; he is an advocate for animal rights and he provides the narration in Return to the Forest (2013) and When Elephants Were Young (2015). The former is freely available online and the latter is getting a hometown premiere in Victoria, BC at the 2016 Victoria Film Festival. Plans for a wider theatrical release is coming and It’s most likely going to take place close to, if not on World Elephant Day on August 12th in 2016. A streaming and video release will no doubt follow, but when will mean either waiting patiently like this creature or time travelling to the future to see the product.

She started making wildlife films in the 90’s, starting with examining the impact hunting whales and dolphins for its meat (or sale to marine parks) are having in a cultural level. Her examination also includes looking at the scientific studies made of these mammals. They are sentient creatures with cognitive abilities. Fortunately, the practice of using them as a resource is slowly being put to the past, and thankfully, present-day attitudes wants to see the species survive.

“In the 90s, there was a cultural awakening predominantly among the younger generation about what shouldn’t be done. Animals of all kinds are very intelligent and [their survival is] important for the health of the environment,” remembered Sims.

Unless 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, especially when one of their numbers disappears in a herd. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Doctor Gillian Taylor clung to Kirk and went to the future to offer her knowledge and watch over the reseeding of the whale species as the pair — George and Gracie — sung their sad song about how humans wiped them out to the cylinder, the Watcher, in space. This movie came out in 1986 and it had a profound impact on many people because of its message about preventing extinction of two species instead of one. This film may have influenced Sims before she became very active in the scene of oceanic conservation herself.

“I spent a lot of time at sea back then and to see that even Star Trek cares about whales, I think we all need to care about whales too,” said Sims.

She notes that as a human species, we have quite an interesting relationship with these mammals and animals historically, culturally and traditionally. The other thing that’s interesting about these creatures and other primates — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans — is that they actually have been studied to show self-awareness. A number of scientific tests have been done showing these creatures do recognize that they are looking at themselves when gazing at a mirror.

“Jane Goodall is an absolute hero of mine,” said Sims. She’s glad many people are out there doing really important work on the front lines for animal conservation. Daphne Sheldrick stands out as one of the biggest champions of African elephant issues, namely the ivory crisis, and for Sims, she said her role has predominantly been that of a filmmaker, a communicator, to bring these issues to the mainstream public and expressively say in detail what they are.

“The birth of the environmental movement in the 70’s (Greenpeace) started me on this work. I’ve been doing it for a few decades now. To be involved in the campaigns and issues concerning conservation in general, I find that how humans interact in the animal’s environments is key. The elephant work grew from my interest in this kind of relationship that we have with nature,” said Sims.

Other influences in what made her pursue this line of work also includes a documentary made in the past about three grey whales trapped in the arctic ice. Operation Breakthrough was an international effort to free them and it generated a lot of media attention in 1988. The effort made to free them was commendable even though the fates of the surviving mammals were never known.

Sims own projects included making For the Love of Dolphins (1992), hosted and narrated by the late Robert Hunter (one of the founders of Greenpeace). This documentary was very successful and it helped Sims make a name for herself in the conservation world. She was able to expand her work into other parts of the world, like Japan, so she can witness and be hands on with ocean conservation. Another work of hers included Beluga Speaking Across Time (2002). Eventually, she would make landfall and look at land animal conservation.

She believes Star Trek fans can care about elephants too, and there’s a high probability the fourth movie made a subconscious influence in her decision to consider Shatner to be involved in her projects. Although not widely known, Dennis Fischer’s 1987 article, “Nicholas Meyer; The Man Who Saved Star Trek” in Cinefantastique Magazine mentioned this actor offered ideas in where the script could go, perhaps adding his opinion on how to highlight saving a species. This film’s themes about who has the right to make decisions about another life form became very evident when Spock spoke to Taylor at the Maritime Cetacean Institute. Elephants are no exception, they can not be caged, used as beasts of burden or instruments of war. The fact that Spock had to ask for the whale’s permission to be taken to an uncertain future is similar to a moment in When Elephants Were Young. As respected as they are, even in Sims’ documentary, the matriarch of Wok’s family (the protagonist) performed a ritual upon their animal to inform him where he is going before being taken home to the wild. It was both a prayer and blessing.

Even before Sims heard about Shatner’s call to action to save Lucy the elephant from solitary confinement when he wrote to Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel in 2009, she had read his forward in the book Kinship with Animals (2008) by Michael Tobias. “I was really impressed with how he expressed the importance of our kinship with animals,” recalled Sims, “I explained what we were doing when I approached him to narrate the short, Return to the Forest, he was totally happy to help.”

When this product received tons of global attention, and Sims was ready to move forward with a longer feature-length project, he was very generous with his time and said absolutely. “He was great, generous, and …. what a voice!” enthused Sims.

“That’s because of the texture of his voice; it’s deep, it’s baritone, its expressive, it’s dramatic. He’s the voice of the elephant in that sense. I can’t even imagine another voice talent that could have done that as he did.”

Sims continued, “We wrote quite a big script, scene potentials, and we ended up recording quite a bit of dialogue with him. He’s the storyteller. and as we went through the last editing process, for elephants, we’d lose scenes or rework some of the script.”

No direction was required for this classically trained actor when time came to record his lines in this sequel of sorts. He knew exactly what Sims wanted when they corresponded back and forth during production. The recording was done in Los Angeles, with her present, and she said he has an ability in his voice to give the kind of subtlety, slight irony / irreverence in his delivery that she wanted the movie to convey.

The story was not discovered until filming, and a lot of it happened through cosmic will. Perhaps Buddha was involved.

“I was fascinated with the human-elephant dynamic in Thailand; it’s been a long-standing cultural tradition there. [To see that] there were people living with elephants, always in their livelihoods, was essentially what led me there initially. When we got there, we learned very quickly about the street begging elephants.” revealed Sims.

She quickly had questions. Who are these guys that are living and working with elephants on the streets? Not anybody can just be with an elephant in the streets. There has to be some other deep connection. From an animal rights perspective, a lot of criticism can be seen and thought of: life can not be good for either the animal or person. Sims wanted to know these people’s story and how they came into this situation. She remembered how they worked with the pachyderms a long time ago. They were once used to taxi folks around in the jungles and they once carried wood around for the logging industry. A fixer in Thailand — a fellow by the nickname of Ten (from Tewan Chatdamrong) — helped the production crew gain access to these guides, so they can learn about why the gentle beasts are handled this way.

“Their activity was illegal and we had to gain their trust,” recalled Sims.

She also had help from fellow Canadian and photographer, Brent Lewin, who had been photographing these street people and their elephants, to gain their confidence. Through him, she was able to find a protagonist for her film. “I was able to meet Wok and his family. We basically followed them around and it was an unbelievable experience,” said Sims.

“We learned about the challenges that they had in their own livelihoods and in how they continued to support their lives, their families and their elephants. All the complexity that we saw in their lives is what drew us in into chronicling Wok and Nong-Mai’s journey for a two-year period.”

Technically, When Elephants Were Young is an achievement. From the camera work done by Michael Clark, to its surround sound mix (also done by Clark) and the soundtrack spotlighting alternative music (including a number from Kate Bush) — two of which can be found on the album Acoustic for Elephants where 100% of the proceeds are donated to World Elephant Day. The music featured in this documentary is the spotlight and Sims recommends her movie is best experienced in a theatre in multi-speaker glory. Like the whale’s song, its unique sound can be heard far and wide. Astronomy and physics have revealed that planets vibrate and their harmonies can be heard with the right sound equipment. The songs the Traveler was looking for in Star Trek IV went missing, and those tunes were not limited to what some ocean species can project. In the land, the elephant’s low-frequency rumbles and powerful trumpeting are just as beautiful. To understand what they mean is a new frontier waiting to be discovered. The mission here is to boldly go where no man has gone before, and that’s to rediscover a connection man once had with animals a long time ago.

“We’re all part of this greater system and that’s the biggest, most significant, message that means the most to me in terms of all the films I’ve made. All of the work I’ve done is in bringing this interconnectivity into people’s ideas — and in how we can move forward together,” said Sims.

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