London—It is a rarity that you see a film and for days after you are still thinking about it, mulling over scenes and talking to anyone who will listen about the power of that kind of filmmaking. But that is exactly what happened after I attended a screening of “The Elephant Queen” recently in London. The film—more wildlife story than documentary— chronicles an elephant matriarch, Athena, a 50-year old whose family of around 10 elephants, which includes her daughters and her grandbabies, toddler Wewe and baby Mimi. Filmed over four years between Amboseli and Tsavo national parks in Kenya, the story begins with Athena and her family at their home in “The Kingdom”, which is scattered with waterholes teeming with other species including dung beetles, Egyptian geese and bullfrogs who also live there.
Throughout the course of the film, where animal characters are introduced with distinct personalities (like the perpetually late gosling Stephen and the cheeky Wewe) we are told via narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor not only about the unique ecosystem of the waterhole but once Athena and her family must move on because of draught, what those consequences are for not only the elephants but the other creatures that live side by side with them. Athena and her family trudge a great distance under the azure East African sky for water and during the journey the matriarch must weigh up how the journey is affecting fragile Mimi versus the good of the whole group who must find water to survive.
What stuck me most about this film was that it highlighted the intelligence, ingenuity and leadership of Athena, a matriarch whose undaunting strength was the key to survival for her whole family. Rarely do we get such an intimate glimpse into the animal kingdom to follow how families are structured and led. And part of the strength of the film and the ability to hone in on these aspects I believe is that there is a strong female aspect in terms of the film’s production. It has been co-produced by two women—Victoria Stone and Lucinda Englehart—and Ms. Stone also happens to be the co-director along with her husband, Mark Deeble, who did the extraordinary cinematography. The day after the London screening, which happened to be the day the film came out in limited release in the U.K. and the U.S. (it will debut on Apple TV+ on November 1), I sat down with Lucinda, Victoria and Mark to discuss the making of “The Elephant Queen”, the literacy program in Kenya that will also be launched thanks to the film and the role of women in conservation.
Brownell Mitic: This may sound strange seeing as Mark was the one who shot the footage but I got a very strong female vibe when I watched this movie.
Victoria Stone: We had been convinced of that when we were in the field and I said to Mark, “this is going to be driven by women.”
Victoria: We have been living and working, married, in East Africa for over 30 years making wildlife films and whenever we make a film we immerse ourselves in it for a minimum of two years, this one was four years. We had a tiny team of six people, including us, dedicated to the film and then we had a tiny little support. We kept it simple, enabling us to stay in the field on a small budget for a longer period of time. The way I see it, elephants are the architects of the environment, they create the environment for all the animals, they live happily at home. Every year elephants move off, so our thought was, “What happens when elephants leave when it gets dry and to the neighbors they leave behind?” We knew to do solid film on just elephants would isolate them too much and the creatures that they share [the waterhole] with and the whole circle of life, which is integral to the film. It is bigger than just circle of animals but it is supposed to quietly reflect the circle of life we are all part of. It took us 18 months to find Athena.
So how did you find her?
Mark: We had been out on a fruitless search and [when we got back to camp] the camp cook beckoned us over quietly and took us around the kitchen tent. There was this family, some of them on the ground, some standing in the shade and when Athena swung her head—she had these beautiful tusks –and we could see that the makeup of the family was just what we needed. That was her audition, their casting.
Victoria: She is the biggest and also when you watch their behavior, even if they are not leading from the front, which in her case she was so wise and mature she would actually lead from behind. Something I think any woman who has a kid and a family will understand. You want to push everything gently.
Mark: That the funny thing because you expect the matriarch to be at the front and it was difficult to find shots of her where she was actually leading the herd, so often she would be at the back, leading the less experienced ones where to go, give them that experience and what they needed throughout their lives. We only saw her make a mistake once and we did not film it. There was a tree in a thick bush and they were underneath sleeping. Then Athena took the herd out in the afternoon to go to a waterhole about half a mile away. And she left Princess sleeping. And our son called me and said, “She left the youngster behind.” And Princess woke up and screamed and called. Of course Athena heard it and just ran, the whole herd behind her with their tusks down. And I told [our son], “just get out of there as fast as you can because if you are in the way she is coming through and she may think you are trying to do something.” Bushes went everywhere and they were all howling and trumpeting.
Lucinda, how did you get on board with the film?
Lucinda: Very serendipitously. I had rented their house on the [Kenyan] coast and they arrived one day and we started talking and didn’t stop.
Victoria—Mark loves to tell the story of us driving one time from Cornwall to London and I got on the phone call to Lucinda at the beginning of the trip and when I looked up, I said to Mark, “Where are we?” and he said, “Heathrow.” That’s 4.5 hours non-stop.
Lucinda: I think it is interesting that I had little children during that [time of making the film] and I was so happy to get involved in a project that would touch families. I related to that family content in a very different way.
Victoria: In the park, you are really unaware of them. We never felt vulnerable in our camp. It is different inside and outside the park. Outside the park was a much smaller area where the poachers knew that land inside and out. They were in cahoots with the cattle herders I think. You would have a poaching incident and suddenly all the cattle would come in and wipe away any single footprint you could possibly trace to where they would be taken. In the park, it is such a big open remote place you would never see anybody. And if you saw someone on foot in the park and they were not rangers, they would not have any cause to be there. But when we were outside the park, anyone could wander through and they did.
One of the elephants in the film that Athena and her family come across during the drought is the magnificent Satao, who at the end of the film we learn was poached for his stunning tusks.
Mark: I wrote about him. Once, I noticed that he seemed to stop by a bush and put his head in it [when he noticed us]. And in the end, I came to the conclusion that he was hiding his tusk. Because at a waterhole like that, it is where poachers hide and I am convinced that he [figured out that] what he had on his face was his downfall. I am sure he knew that his ivory was what poachers were going for. Elephants have this huge ceremony around death and feeling the tusks and you can imagine if you are an elephant walking past dead elephant after dead elephant or just skeletons, and ever time the tusks have been removed or the front of the face has been hacked off with a chainsaw or a panga (machete). They are sensitive and intelligent, and they have got to be thinking, “Something on the face there is wanted.” I think they know.
Why are women so much a part of the conservation movement?
Victoria: —Elephants I think are so emotionally complex and I think that a lot of women are drawn to that, working and figuring out that. Look at articles by Dr. Karen McComb because she has got interesting research on the emotional stuff on elephants. I think it is the emotional intelligence. I do not want to generalize here but it does intrigue women particularly. I found it absolutely fascinating that the trunks were telling the emotional story of the elephants. You cannot really see their eyes and I always wondered why when I watched other media on elephants, unless a big activity going on, I thought, “This is not accessible, I cannot read into this very easily.” But they use the trunk as a way of telling or reflecting their emotional state. The most obvious moment is when the newborn puts its trunk in its mouth, like a thumb, and walks off. I love watching that kind of thing, I suspect it is quite a female detail. I do not need tooth and claw. There are other ways of engaging an audience.
Tell me about how Apple came on board because this really broadens it out to a wider audience.
Lucinda: Apple acquired the film at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019. “The Elephant Queen” was one of the first films they bought for their new platform. Apple TV+ is such a celebration of story-telling and we are delighted to be amongst their launch projects
Victoria: Alongside the film, we very much were wanting to make a difference for elephants on the ground. So alongside it, we have been developing an outreach program. And that has taken the most enormous amount of work. It consists of 28 children’s learn to read books. Our assistant director Etienne Oliff worked tirelessly to get us an agreement with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development to work with them to develop these books so they would then go into the schools in Kenya with the simple idea with every child growing up is learning to read stories from the wild, so even if you live in Nairobi you understand the natural world.
Photos: Main image, Lucinda Englehart and Victoria Stone at London premiere/courtesy Apple; 1st photo, Stephen the gosling meets a grasshopper/courtesy “The Elephant Queen”; 2nd photo, Victoria and Mark/courtesy “The Elephant Queen”; 3rd and 4th photos, Athena’s family/ courtesy “The Elephant Queen”
Ginanne Brownell Mitic, co-founder and co-editor of she-files.com