DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Love & Bananas an Elephant Story
I was reluctant to watch Love & Bananas at first because I knew it dealt with big themes that would be hard to see. Basically, I knew I was going to cry. And cry I did… like a baby… and within the first five minutes! It was actually quite cathartic and, after I’d succumbed to the tears, I was able to settle in and absorb what this important film had to say.
Animal documentaries are often tied up in stories of abuse, neglect and injustice. In this case it’s a 70-year-old blind and captive Asian elephant named Noi Na who’s been given a second chance thanks to an amazing group of wildlife warriors.
Directed by Ashley Bell, who also co-wrote and starred in it, the story explores her journey with Noi Na, from the initial encounter 2.5 years before the rescue mission, to the elephant’s eventual release. Apart from a desperate need to preserve an iconic species such as the Asian elephant, the film also looks at how education is the key to keeping our animals in the wild.
The team of rescuers is led by Lek Chailert, who runs the Save Elephant Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation in Chang Mai in Thailand’s north. Her flagship sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, is a rescue and rehabilitation centre where Noi Na is now living out her days.
Love & Bananas doesn’t shy away from the sad and horrifying facts of what life as a service elephant is like. They’re stolen from their mothers as calves then forced to endure a horrific process called ‘Pajan’ or The Crush Box’. It’s not just their bodies that endure the crush but, ultimately, their spirits. You have to make them lose all hope for them to perform tricks in a circus or put on back-damaging saddles and take tourists for rides.
The process of rescuing an elephant is a huge operation of negotiations and logistics and very rarely happens in Thailand. However, with Lek spearheading the mission, they managed to negotiate Noi Na’s release from the shackles of the elephant riding venue.
One of the more harrowing images is of the venue’s 20-plus elephants chained to individual poles under an open-air structure. Unable to move or forage naturally, they’re reduced to swaying in a manic, hypnotic way with the chains digging into their skin. The adults are resigned to their situation but the calves are just confused and scared. It’s truly heartbreaking.
“You don’t need a bull hook to control an elephant. You can guide it with love…and bananas.”
Lek Chailert, Save Elephant Foundation
With the heartstrings sufficiently tugged, it was time for the 500-mile journey home. They had to load Noi Na on a truck, which meant one last round of abuse from the mahouts who used heavy-handed tactics and the threat of the bull hook to get her on board. In the end, it was Noi Na who made the decision to get on.
Once they reached the safety of Elephant Wildlife Park, Noi Na met her new family – a ragtag group of rescued and often disabled elephants as well as rescued dogs, cats, buffalos…whatever animal needed a home really.
Love & Banana stakes you on a journey from outrage and despair to hope and a longing to help. Like Lek, who’s working at the coalface with captive animals and outdated ways of thinking, Ashley and her team are on a mission to educate people about responsible tourism. After watching this, there is no way you’d tolerate anyone you know riding an elephant. If you can, spread the word and let people know that elephant riding is not only selfish but it supports a system built on abuse. These amazing creatures need our help in whatever way we can give it, and we can start by getting more information and watching emotive docos like Love & Bananas.
Finally, this quote from Lek sums up what her life’s work is all about and where the film took its namesake: “You don’t need a bull hook to control an elephant. You can guide it with love…and bananas.”
Love & Bananas an Elephant Story
Directed by Ashley Bell
Starring Ashley Bell, Lek Chailert and Noi Na
Released in April 2018
Watch it on Stan or iTunes