Oscar-winning documentary short is satisfactory

Photo by: Geran De Klerk

Rating: 4/5 

The Elephant Whisperers has taken over cinematic media coverage after being the first-ever Indian-produced film to win an Academy Award. Released in December 2020 and produced by Indian filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves, The Elephant Whisperers is one of the most critically-acclaimed documentary shorts as of late and ultimately, this film lived up to its acclaim, however, there were a few moments that were lacking. 

The film follows the lives of Bomman and Bellie,  elephant caretakers in South India who raise two baby elephants. The primary elephant that Bomman and Bellie care for, and ultimately raise, is named Raghu, whose parents died early on in his life and lacked the necessary skills to fend for himself in the wild. The second elephant, Ammu, wasAmmu was rescued from one of the devastating fires that regularly rip through South India. 

Although both of the elephants that they care for have tragic life stories, it becomes quickly apparent that Bomman and Bellie do as well, with Bellie having lost her husband, and more recently, her daughter. For Bomman, he had become unable to continue his life’s work of caring for adult elephants after being stabbed by one of their tusks, making Raghu and Ammu what he calls a, “godsend.”

The film forges a story of Bomman, Bellie, Raghu and Ammu becoming a family. Without directly stating it, it becomes clear that the humans did not only save the elephants, but that the elephants saved Bomman and Bellie. 

The premise of The Elephant Whisperers almost sounds cheesycheesey, predictable, or overdone, but the cinematography allowed it to be deeply intimate, personal and impactful. 

The imagery used throughout is nothing short of spectacular and truly makes the movie. The shots are colourful yet equally warm, balancing the brightness of the surrounding forest and colourful chalk paint with the warm light of lanterns and fires. This not only makes the film cinematically beautiful, but provides a sense of familiarity and intimacy that allows viewers to feel immersed in the unlikely family and their story. 

One of the only critiques I have with this documentary is that these quiet, cinematic scenes should be drawn out longer to create more of a pause between the pieces of dialogue. For example, there is a beautiful scene of Bomman and Bellie sitting at a campfire outside of Raghu’s enclosure, where they all sit peacefully together as the night comes to a close. This scene was rushed and I felt it added an important moment to reflect on the closeness of the caretakers to the elephants: the impact of it could have been emphasized by just letting the silence sit for a few additional moments. 

The profound storyline of the family mixed with the cinematography creates a rare scenario where the plot doesn’t need to be explained in words. Without any explanation, Bomman and Bellie – who seem to be polar opposites – get married. There is no lead up to this, yet it makes perfect sense as the couple’s seemingly only similarity is their love for Raghu and Ammu. 

Without spoiling the ending, the one instance where a lack of explanation falls flat is when something frustrating happens to the family. There is no real justification to why this thing happens and it comes out of nowhere. Despite my frustration with this, the fact that I became so invested in the story of elephants in only 40 minutes is testament to how deeply impactful the film is.

Despite its short runtime, The Elephant Whisperers is a profoundly impactful and cinematically beautiful documentary that succeeds in balancing the line between artistry and storyline. 

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