Review: ‘The Woman King,’ starring Viola Davis

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “The Woman King.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis and Sheila Atim. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Sisipho Mbopa, Lone Motsomi and Chioma Umeala (Photo by Ilze Kitshoff/TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” (2022)

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-1800s in West Africa, the action film “The Woman King” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty.

Culture Clash: General Nanisca leads an all-female group of warriors in the African kingdom of Dahomey, as they battle against the slave trade and the rival Oyo Empire. 

Culture Audience: “The Woman King” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Viola Davis and military action movies that are told from a female perspective.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in “The Woman King” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

“The Woman King” is sometimes cluttered and uneven, but the movie’s compelling performances, gripping action and inspiring personal stories can keep most viewers interested. Viola Davis is the movie’s title character and should have been in more scenes. Instead, at least half of the movie is about a rookie military recruit, who starts out as an underestimated newcomer and overcomes challenges, on and off the battlefield. “The Woman King” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, “The Woman King” is inspired by true events that happened in West Africa in the mid-1800s. Davis (who is one of the producers of “The Woman King”) portrays General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey.

These women have a fearsome and bold reputation that is so widespread, when they arrive as visitors in a village, people are afraid look at them. Some of these warrior women’s exploits are exaggerated in stories told among villagers, while other exploits are not exaggerated, including the warriors’ participation in vicious killings. For example, the movie shows how the women specifically train themselves on how to murder people by chopping off their heads.

King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), the reigning leader of Dahomey, is part of the kingdom’s dwindling male population. Dahomey has been in a longtime feud with the Oyo Empire, which is also in West Africa. The on-again-/off-again warfare between Dahomey and Oyo has resulted in Dahomey being forced to give up male residents to Oyo, which has been selling these men in the growing slave trade.

Needless to say, the slave traders (the African traitors and the white male buyers) are the story’s biggest villains. Leading the group of white slave traders is Santo Ferreira (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a Brazilian aristocrat who tries to convince King Ghezo to start profiting from the slave trade by selling slaves directly to Santo and his colleagues. King Ghezo needs the money, and the movie ultimately shows whether or not he makes the decision to sell out his own people. Someone who does sell his own people with no hesitation is Oba Ade (played by Jimmy Odukoya) from the Oya Empire.

Meanwhile, in Dahomey, a 19-year-old woman named Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu) defiantly refuses to marry an older, wealthy man whom her father has chosen for her. This would-be husband immediately shows that he’s abusive when he punches Nawi for not being submissive to him. Nawi defends herself by pushing this abuser down to the ground. He’s shocked that she won’t let him get away with abusing her.

Nawi tells her father that she doesn’t want to have a husband and that she wants to be a soldier. And so, Nawi’s father decides he’s going “punish” her by making her enlist in the toughest military unit around: the Agojie army. Nawi arrives as very physically unprepared and insecure new recruit. She tries to hide her insecurity by acting like she knows more than she really does.

Nanisca gives the responsibility of training Nawi to Nanisca’s right-hand woman Izogie (played by Lashana Lynch), who is as fearless as Nanisca and very loyal to her. Another member of this military unit is Amenza (played by Sheila Atim), who has known Nanisca the longest and is Nanisca’s closest confidante. Amenza is compassionate as well as tough. Lynch and Atim are entirely believable in these supporting roles.

Nawi doesn’t make a good impression on the Agojie leaders because she often acts like an entitled brat. In one of the first conversations that Nawi and Nanisca have with each other, Nanisca comments that Nawi looks a lot younger than 19. Nawi says to Nanisca, “You look like an old woman to me.”

The movie has the expected scenes of inexperienced recruit Nawi making mistakes and failing in some physical challenges during the training process. She’s laughed at and taunted by some of the other trainees, but she doesn’t experience any extreme military hazing. It should come as no surprise that Nawi eventually improves (in her attitude and physical skills) and then excels. Mbedu is quite good in depicting Nawi’s metamorphosis.

Izogie ends up relating to Nawi because they both came from dysfunctional families. Izogie, who knows about Nawi’s abusive father, confides in Nawi one day by saying that Izogie experienced the pain of having an abusive mother. Izogie comments to Nawi about the Agojie warriors: “You have a new family now.”

Meanwhile, Brazilian slave trader Santo has a servant named Malik (played by Jordan Bulger), whose biracial identity often tests his loyalty. (Malik’s mother was an enslaved black woman, and his father was white.) Malik often has to choose between his white employer and the black people with whom Malik identifies with more. Malik and Santo are about the same age, and they grew up together, with Malik always having the role of Santo’s servant.

Malik and Nawi become attracted to each other, but their possible romance is hindered by Nawi’s doubts about how involved Malik is in the slave trade. Malik repeatedly tells Nawi that he’s not a slave trader, but she questions his honesty, considering that he works for a slave trader. To bring some playfull sexiness into the movie, there’s a scene where Nawi takes away Malik’s clothes as a prank when he’s skinny dipping by himself near a waterfall.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this movie called “The Woman King,” not “The Woman Rookie”? One of the frustrating aspects of “The Woman King” is that the Nanisca isn’t in the movie as much as she should be. Nanisca is not exactly sidelined, because Davis is such a powerhouse performer, she makes the most of her screen time, even with her facial expressions. However, a huge part of the story is about Nawi’s personal dramas.

The movie becomes a little bit of a soap opera when something from Nanisca’s past comes back to haunt her. It’s a secret that Nawi finds out about in a way that shakes Nawi to her inner core. Very few people know about this secret. And, at first, Nawi doesn’t quite believe this secret until she sees proof.

“The Woman King” can be commended for showing some of the realistic ups and downs that military groups have with each other and with the governments that they serve. Nanisca has some tension with King Ghezo’s opinionated wife (played by Jayme Lawson), who thinks that Nanisca is too radical. It irritates King Ghezo’s wife when he takes Nanisca’s advice.

The power struggle between Nanisca and King Ghezo’s wife doesn’t become a major showdown though, because the king always treats his spouse as more or less a trophy wife. It’s very obvious from the beginning of the movie that King Ghezo has more respect for Nanisca than his wife, when it comes to leadership skills and camaraderie. Doesn’t the title of this movie say it all?

“The Woman King” has some intense battle scenes and depictions of enslavement that might be too hard to watch for very sensitive viewers. The battle scenes show how even though many of these women might be physically smaller than their male opponents, the female warriors have trained to outwit their opponents with strategic fight moves. The movie also makes a point of how the women pay respect to their fallen comrades using their African religious traditions.

Although “The Woman King” has a well-developed story arc for Nawi, the development of the Nanisca character sometimes fall short of what many viewers might expect. Nanisca gives a little bit of background information about herself, including her secret that affects Nawi. Even with this big secret revealed, Nanisca still remains stoic and somewhat mysterious by the end of the movie.

Viewers never really find out what Nanisca’s interests are outside of this army of female warriors and the army’s duties to protect Dahomey, but that could be the point: Nanisca’s life revolves around this group. It’s testament to Davis’ immense talent that she conveys enough of a personality with Nanisca to show that this extraordinary warrior is not a hollow character but has lived a life of pain and hard-fought survival that she doesn’t easily reveal to others.

TriStar Pictures will release “The Woman King” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Rihanna launches Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin in Africa

May 13, 2022

Rihanna (Photo courtesy of Fenty)

The following is a press release from Fenty:

“I am a proud Bajan who also feels a close connection to Africa, and its people. I’ve had the pleasure, and the privilege, to spend time on the continent and those experiences never leave you. Now, being able to bring Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin to eight African countries and then hopefully more in the future— means so much to me.” – Rihanna

When Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty in 2017 in an unprecedented 17 countries with vision of inclusivity and global reach at its core, she sought to help “everyone feel beautiful and recognized, no matter their race, ethnicity, culture or personal style.” Rihanna was inspired to create Fenty Beauty after trying to find products that worked across all skin types and tones. With Rihanna’s mandate of inclusivity, Fenty Beauty offers a wide range of products for traditionally hard-to-match skin tones, creating formulas that work for all skin types, and pinpointing universal shades. Fast forward to 2020, Rihanna launched her clean, vegan and eco-friendly skincare line, Fenty Skin, and amplified her unwavering mission to provide simple and effective beauty solutions for all. As a result, she ignited a beauty movement and “a community that supports and uplifts each other.” Rihanna created both Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin with a global vision in mind to reinforce the “Beauty For All” notion. It is this brand ethos that makes Rihanna’s decision to expand her Fenty brands to Africa a momentous milestone and natural next step.

“Every launch is exciting— we’re all about being reachable to everyone, everywhere. But launching across Africa in eight countries not only feels really significant to me on a personal level, but is also a big step towards our goal of bringing Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin to the whole world.” – Rihanna

Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin will be available for purchase across Africa, including cult-favorite complexion essentials like Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation and Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter, best-selling lip products like Fenty Beauty Gloss Bomb Universal Lip Luminizer and Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color, and her must-have skincare starters including Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen and Fenty Skin Total Cleans’r Remove-It-All Cleanser. Additionally, customers in Africa will be able to immediately pick up the newest launches from the brands, like Fenty Beauty Fenty Icon Refillable Lipstick – a luxurious semi-matte lipstick collection – and  Sun Stalk’r Face + Eye Bronzer & Highlighter Palette – a do-it-all bronzer-inspired palette with two new highlighter shades – and Fenty Skin Pre-Show Glow Instant Retexturizing Treatment– A powerful exfoliating treatment loaded with 10% AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids), rooibos, fruit enzymes, and extracts to make your skin look smooth, glowing, and photo-ready in just one minute.

Within Africa, Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin will be available starting May 27 at the following retailers:

South Africa

Arc Stores
www.arcstore.co.za

Edgars
www.edgars.co.za

Nigeria

Essenza Nigeria
www.essenza.ng

Kenya

Lintons Beauty
www.lintonsbeauty.com

Namibia

Edgars

Botswana

Edgars

Ghana

Essenza Ghana

Zambia

Color Café Zambia
www.colorcafe.com

Zimbabwe

Catts

ABOUT FENTY BEAUTY

Fenty Beauty, led by CEO Robyn Rihanna Fenty, is a partnership between Rihanna and LVMH. Rihanna created Fenty Beauty “so that people everywhere would be included,” focusing on a wide range of traditionally hard-to-match skin tones, developing formulas that work for all skin types, and pinpointing universal shades. Her vision, above all, is to inspire: “Makeup is there for you to have fun with. It should never feel like pressure. It should never feel like a uniform. Feel free to take chances, and take risks, and dare to do something new or different.”

ABOUT FENTY SKIN

Fenty Skin is clean, uncomplicated, effective skincare for all. Led by brand CEO Robyn Rihanna Fenty, Fenty Skin is a result of Rihanna’s personal skincare journey, global experiences, and real-life routine. Each multitasking product is specifically designed to deliver a streamlined, approachable, value-packed regimen and work seamlessly with makeup on all skin tones. Featuring ingredients from around the world, earth-conscious packaging, and vegan formulas, Fenty Skin also celebrates and respects what the planet has to offer. Fenty Skin is a partnership between Rihanna and LVMH.

ABOUT KENDO

Based in San Francisco, CA, KENDO creates or acquires beauty brands and focuses on developing them into global power- houses. The portfolio consists of KVD Beauty, OLEHENRIKSEN, BITE Beauty, Fenty Skin and Fenty Beauty by Rihanna. The name KENDO is a play on the phrase “can do.” What characterizes KENDO is its dedication to product quality, innovation and authentic storytelling. Brands within the KENDO portfolio are distributed in 43 countries worldwide.

Review: ‘Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.,’ starring Thato Khobotle, Mercy Koetle, Napo Kalebe, Molibeli Mokake, Disko Monaheng, Chris Mosalemane and Sivan Ben Yishai

November 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Thato Khobotle in “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” (Photo courtesy of Dekanalog)

“Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.”

Directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed African country, the docudrama film “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” features an all-African group of representing the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: An unnamed African woman, who currently lives in Berlin, gives a stream of consciousness narrative about her love/hate relationship with her biological mother and Mother Africa.

Culture Audience: “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies that take an abstract approach to issues of colonization and immigration.

Napo Kalebe in “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” (Photo courtesy of Dekanalog)

Contemporary movies about Africa are usually very predictable in their subject matter: They’re usually about poverty, war and/or refugees. “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You., ” filmed entirely in black and white, takes the unorthodox approach of telling an abstract cinema story of an African expatriate who has a love/hate relationship with Africa. Written, directed band produced by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, the movie has been described as a documentary. However, it’s more like a docudrama, since there are actors who perform scenes among non-actors who are going about their everyday lives.

In addition, the unnamed woman giving the movie’s voiceover narration at times seems to be reading from a manifesto and other times seems to be rambling off the top of her head. (Sivan Ben Yishai is the actress who does the voiceover narration.) All the words in the movie are scripted, of course. They were written by Mosese, who makes a very unique feature-film debut with “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.”

No one is identified by name in this movie. However, these are the on-screen cast members who are listed in the movie’s end credits: Thato Khobotle, Mercy Koetle, Napo Kalebe, Molibeli Mokake, Pheku Lisema, Disko Monaheng, Chris Mosalemane and Teboho Mochao. And although the movie does not name the African country where the unseen narrator is originally from, the movie’s production notes lists Lesotho as the African nation where the movie was filmed. Some production also occurred in Qatar.

There’s only one consistent character seen on screen throughout the entire movie. She is a young woman (played by Khobotle), who is carrying a large wooden crucifix (just like Jeses Christ) in various locations. She’s also dressed in simple robe-like garb, much like how Jesus is depicted in artwork of Jesus carrying the cross on the way to being crucified. The woman in this movie doesn’t have a crown of thorns, but her physical exertion through sweat gets more emphasis as time goes on in the movie, until it reaches a point where there’s a close-up of her skin glistening with sweat.

As this cross-bearing woman walks through different places, such as a farm field and a crowded outdoor marketplace (the two main recurring locations in the movie), various “slice of life” scenarios play out on screen. In the field, a farmer holds his sheep. Later, a herd of sheep is brought to the marketplace, as potential buyers rub the sheep’s coats to feel the quality of the wool. And there’s another scene that shows the stark reality of sheep being used for meat, as an unidentified man is seen in slow-motion carrying a skinned, headless sheep through the marketplace.

Vendors in the marketplace shout out the prices of the merchandise: “10 rand clothes! 5 rand clothes!” People mill about in the marketplace and in a car-filled parking lot. Some of the people on the street gather to watch a man give a passionate speech on a platform, as he holds up a book that might or might be a religious book. Other people dance to music that’s not heard in the movie.

One person who stands out in the marketplace is an androgynous man, a non-binary person or a transgender woman (played by Kalebe), who is wearing a white tank top, denim shorts and angel wings. People give stares indicating that they’re shocked or curious, but this visually striking person gives a “not bothered” smile while striding confidently through the marketplace. Elsewhere, a mother unravels yarn that is completely wrapped around the head of her son who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Don’t expect any of the people shown in the movie to have their stories told.

The only story being told is that of the mysterious, unseen and unnamed narrator. Her voice is heard in an audio recording that has a slight echo, as if the recording could’ve been made yesterday or years ago. What she reads sometimes sounds like she spent a lot of time thinking about what she wanted to say, while other times she goes on a rant that seems more spontaneous. She talks about a letter she wrote to her mother: “By the time you read it, I will already have left you.”

Viewers will never know this narrator’s full story, but they will find out quickly that she has mixed feelings not only for her biological mother but also for Mother Africa, her homeland. As she recalls memories both good and bad of her mother, she goes through a range of emotions: joy, wistfulness, anger, sadness, confusion, hope. Sometimes she’s arrogant, sometimes she’s humble. Sometimes she’s strong, sometimes she’s vulnerable. And she keeps repeating to her mother that this is the last film and the last letter where she will talk about this mother.

Toward the end of the film, she reveals that she’s currently living a completely different life in Berlin, where she has made new friends (all white people, she says) who have accepted her, but still think that she’s “different.” She says with some condescension that the only reminders of Africa that she sees in her new life in Germany is when she stands in a Berlin airport line for people with non-European passports, or when she sees drug dealers who are black, or when she sees black people in menial service jobs.

Issues of race and colonization are brought up throughout the movie, because the narrator is very bitter about how much of African culture was stolen, erased or disrespected because of colonization. Early on in the movie, she hypothetically asks if her mother would wave a napkin to say goodbye to her, just like it’s done in European movies. “We are better in our goodbyes, I guess, than they are.”

Her most resentful remarks are when she describes how her mother underwent a religious conversion and changed into someone she didn’t know or like very much. “You used to listen to Michael Jackson,” she says. “You would whistle every tune, every song from ‘Thriller.’ You were the best.”

She adds in an infuriated manner: “Then religion came. Every novel, every book in the house, was replaced by holy men. The dresses became longer and longer. Your beautiful hair became too sacred for the world to see. You stopped looking into my eyes … The laughter, it all changed … You changed. You started to talk differently … You became cold and distant.”

She also describes her mother becoming fixated on the “end times.” Although the transformation of this mother could easily sound like the religious conversion of one person, as time goes on in the movie, it becomes more obvious that the narrator is upset about how Africa has changed because of religions forced on Africans by colonizers. The movie also has an audio clip (it’s unknown if it’s real or scripted) of a man with a European accent speaking to a boatful of refugees. “Who speaks English? How many people are in the boat?”

The narrator’s says to her mother in a voice filled with rage: “I’m ashamed of you! Your shame is yours to keep and mine to bear. I’d rather be in an immigrant in a foreign land than suffocating in your womb!.” Later, she says, “I saw you through the white man’s eyes. You deserve your war.”

She also repeats, “I love you” and “I hate you” several times when addressing her mother. And she also expresses remorse for an act of violence that she committed when she was 8 or 9 years old, when she used a knife on another child of about the same age. “I know I wasn’t a perfect child. All I needed was you, mother,” she says with sadness and regret.

Viewers who prefer formulaic narratives and plots in movies might have a hard time digesting “Mother, I’m Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You,” even though the movie’s total running time is only 76 minutes. This is a movie that’s intended to take meaningful personal messages and blend them with imagery resembling a fever dream. The narration can at times be poetically articulate or frustratingly disjointed. But the movie’s most powerful statement is saved for the very end. It’s an impactful commentary on how personal history can shape someone’s identity, no matter how someone might want to forget, ignore or erase it.

Dekanalog released “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021.

Review: ‘In the Footsteps of Elephant,’ starring Mark Linfield, Mike Holding, Martyn Colbeck, Mike Chase, Clinton Edwards, Anna Songhurst and Graham McColloch

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mike Holding in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“In the Footsteps of Elephant” (2020)

Directed by Vanessa Berlowitz and Tom Stephens

Culture Representation: This documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Elephant,” which has a predominantly white film crew (with some black members) chronicling the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River.

Culture Clash: The film crew often has to deal with bad weather, technical limitations and the possibility of being attacked by some of the wild animals they encounter.

Culture Audience: “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will primarily to people who have an interest in how nature documentaries are made.

Martyn Colbeck in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Before seeing this movie, it’s essential to first watch the Disneynature documentary “Elephant.” That’s because “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” a feature-length documentary about the making of “Elephant,” has a lot of spoiler information that will reveals the outcome of the suspenseful moments in “Elephant.” Narrated by actor Jeremy Sisto (who was not part of the on-location film crew), “In the Footsteps of Elephant” is a worthy companion piece to “Elephant.” If “Elephant” had been released on home video, instead of being exclusive to the Disney+ streaming service, “In the Footsteps of Elephant” would be the equivalent of the “behind-the-scenes” extras part of a home-video release.

“Elephant” documents the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and back again. It’s a 1,000-mile round-trip journey that can take up to eight months. So it comes as no surprise that filming of all it was a very difficult challenge. In addition to dealing with bad weather, which sometimes delayed production and caused vehicles to be stuck in the mud, the film crew often had to figure out several logistical problems, in terms of how and where to position the cameras.

Ultimately, the crew used three different ways to film “Elephant”—by vehicle, by drone and by helicopter. The filmmakers had custom-built transportation called “swamp trucks” for the shoot. And sometimes, such as when the drones had to film over the massive and powerful Victoria Falls, they were in danger of damaging their equipment.

Although “Elephant” was directed by Mark Linfield, this documentary shows that he wasn’t the biggest, extroverted personality in the crew. That title goes cinematographer Mark Holding, who has more than 20 years of experiencing filming in the Okavango Delta. He did much of the main prepping in pre-production with Linfield, so the director would know what to expect.

Holding might remind some people a little bit of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin because of their physical similarities, although Holding isn’t quite as over-the-top with his enthusiasm as Irwin was known to be. Holding says half-jokingly that he prefers being around wild animals than most people. In the documentary, Holding comments that flying over the Okavango Delta is “absolutely the way to see it. It’s absolutely spectacular to see.”

As a director, Linfield seems to have maintained a calm and measured presence on the set. In interviews, he appears slightly annoyed but not rattled when unexpected delays happen because of the stormy or other bad weather. That’s because Linfield is an expert in filming wildlife and nature documentaries—all of his directorial credits have been so far have been filming Disneynature documentaries, starting with 2009’s “Earth.” Linfield is also married to Vanessa Berlowitz, who co-directed “In the Footsteps of Elephant” with Tom Stephens.

Another key member of the crew was biologist Mike Chase, who is described in the documentary as someone who’s been tracking elephants for more than 10 years. Chase is also the founder/director of an organization called Elephants Without Borders, which is a sanctuary for abandoned or abused elephants, and advocates against elephant poaching. (At the end of the documentary, there’s some adorable footage of Chase and other members of the Elephants Without Borders team feeding some orphaned elephants.)

Chase, who says his family has lived in Botswana for five generations, comments on elephants and his passion for rescuing and protecting them: “I’ve always been mesmerized by them … I think people around the world all too often think there are a lot of people saving the elephants—and there aren’t, really. So, to be part of a privileged few committed to safeguarding the future of elephants, I derive a great amount of enjoyment from that.” Later in the movie, he tears up and gets emotional when he says that elephants will probably become extinct at the rate that they are being killed.

Clinton Edwards, a field guide, provides a lot of the documentary’s humor. He’s easily the “class clown” of the group, by cracking jokes and making light of tough situations. There’s also a funny scene where he falls asleep when he’s supposed to be keeping a lookout for lions. His snoring alarms a fellow crew member at first because it sounds like a lion’s snore.

Camping and filming in the middle of the territory of wild animals obviously put the crew at risk. The documentary includes two of the scary moments caught on camera. In one scene, dive assistant Mathieu Van Goethem had a close encounter with a crocodile while diving underwater. The crocodile was hidden and almost blindsided Goethem, who quickly got out of the water before the crocodile could attack. He and a fellow diver then joked that they deserved to get paid more, calling it “danger pay.”

Another terrifying experience, which lasted much longer, was when field assistant Danielle “Dani” Spitzer and another crew member, were stuck in a jeep while being caught in the middle of a lion hunting prey. The lion kept hiding, so they didn’t know when it would be save to move the car. (Because of the way that cameras had to be fitted to the vehicles for outdoor filming, the vehicles often had their doors removed, leaving the film crews vulnerable in the wild.)

Luckily, no one was injured by animals on the film shoot. (Or if they were, this documentary certainly didn’t show it or mention it.) Spitzer says after going through this close call that the hardest part of it was the car causing limited vision, so the lion couldn’t be seen properly. “It felt like you were in a box,” Spitzer comments.

The “Elephant” documentary focuses on three members of the herd: Shani, a 40-year-old elephant; Jomo, who is Shani’s 1-year-old son; and Gaia, Shani’s 50-year-old sister who is the queen of the herd. However, production assistant Tania “TJ” Jenkins talks about some relationships in the herd that aren’t shown in “Elephant.”

Jenkins says about the herd, “They have the same dynamics we do. The aunties fight, the sisters fight, and the teenagers scream and fight. The young boys show off and mock charge. You can really identify with them.”

Martyn Colbeck, one of the cinematographers, says that witnessing a baby elephant getting stuck in quicksand-like mud was the “most emotionally challenging” part of the film shoot for him, and how this “stuck in the mud” incident ended was something he’d never seen in all of his years of filming in the wild. Colbeck noted that it’s often very hard for animal documentary filmmakers not to feel the urge to interfere when an animal’s life is in danger, because the filmmakers are there document nature take its course, as if the cameras and humans weren’t there, not alter the outcome.

Another memorable part of the documentary includes the crew’s visit with the EcoExist Project directors (and life partners) Dr. Anna Songhurst and Dr. Graham McCollough, whose mission is for humans to peacefully co-exist with wild animals. The couple’s work includes tracking the paths of elephants and developing “elephant crossings” to make room for elephants so humans wouldn’t get in the way.

During the visit, a rare occurrence happened and was caught on camera—hundreds of elephants walked through the elephant crossing zones during the day. (These massive treks usually happen at night.) It’s one of the best parts of the movie.

It’s easy to see why everyone who had an up-close view of the elephants couldn’t help but watch in a state of awe. “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will give viewers more appreciation for the technical and creative achievements of the “Elephant” documentary, not to mention new or growing admiration for the magnificent creatures that are elephants.

Disney+ premiered “In the Footsteps of Elephant” on April 3, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Elephant’ (2020), narrated by Meghan Markle, also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Elephant” (2020)

Directed by Mark Linfield

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River.

Culture Clash: The elephants must navigate their way through several potentially deadly dangers, including predatory lions and crocodiles.

Culture Audience: “Elephant” is a family-friendly film that will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about nature and animals.

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

There’s a certain level of quality that people have come to expect from Disneynature, the nature/animal documentary production arm of Walt Disney Studios. Disneynature films usually chronicle a family of wild animals, focusing on a few family members that have distinct personalities or have leadership positions in the group. And there’s always an adorable “kid” animal who gets a lot of the screen time.

“Elephant” follows this formula too, but it’s a formula that works especially well for animals as intelligent and fascinating as elephants. “Elephant” also has the benefit of being filmed in diverse terrains of southern Africa, which result in the kind of stunning cinematography that’s also become a characteristic of Disneynature films.

Narrated by Meghan Markle (also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex), “Elephant” chronicles the 1,000-mile round-trip journey of a herd of elephants, as they travel from across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and back again. The elephants’ habitual migration, which has been going on for untold centuries, is prompted by whichever areas have the most water after flooding. It’s a journey filled with plenty of adventure and danger, which make this documentary more fascinating than a lot of scripted movies. The narration is good enough, even though it’s sometimes delivered in a hokey tone of voice.

“Elephant,” directed by Mark Linfield, keeps the story simple by focusing on only three of the elephants in the herd (they’re the only three elephants who are named in the film): Shani, a 40-year-old elephant; Jomo, who is Shani’s 1-year-old son; and Gaia, Shani’s 50-year-old sister who is the queen of the herd. Everyone in the herd is related in some way to Gaia, who makes the decisions on when and where the herd will migrate. As is the case with most elephant herds, it’s a female-majority group, with the only males being children or young adults. (Adult male elephants usually don’t travel in herds that have children.)

Beyond the basics of food, water and shelter, the key to elephants’ survival is for them to travel in a herd. This documentary shows that elephants, unlike many other wild animals, are very loyal to each other and will rarely leave their children behind unless forced to do so. And the three elephants who are the focus of the film have distinct personalities.

Gaia is the wise matriarch who makes careful and thoughtful decisions in leading the herd. As her respectful younger sister, Shani has the role of second-in-command who learns by observing what Gaia does. Jomo is an energetic and sometimes mischievous kid, who likes to play hide-and-seek or tag with his fellow kid elephants or sometimes other animals(such as warthogs) that the herd encounters along the way.

The documentary’s writing and narration can be a little melodramatic, with lines such as, “Like blood through arteries, the water sustains all life here” or “Social life is like oxygen for these elephants, and they embrace it face-first.” However, there’s also some humor in the documentary too, including a fart joke when one of the elephants is shown passing gas. Meghan asks in the tone of a mother catching her kids in the act, “Oh, who did that?”

The movie also uses a technique multiple times in the movie to simulate an elephant’s memory, by showing a close-up of an elephant’s eye (usually Gaia’s) and then cutting to a dazzling montage of images of life that an elephant experiences and sees in this part of Africa. And although many people might be aware that elephants use their trunks like a human would use a hand, seeing it in action in this documentary is sure to impress. Because elephants are herbivores, sensitive viewers won’t have to worry about seeing elephants preying on other animals to eat.

However, it wouldn’t be a Disneynature documentary without at least one life-or-death experience. There are definitely some heart-pounding moments in the film, especially when the elephants encounter a hungry pride of lions. The documentary also shows what happens when the elephants encounter buffalos and crocodiles. There’s also a very suspenseful moment when a baby elephant gets stuck in quicksand-like mud and is in danger of suffocating to death.

“Elephant” will also educate people on what types of plant life are preferred by elephants in this region. Elephants love mopane, but so do mopane worms, so these worms (as small as they are, compared to elephants) are competitive food rivals for elephants. Also important to the elephants’ survival are baobab trees, which have the ability to store more water than most other trees, and are welcome sustenance after long treks in the desert.

The documentary also shows how emotionally sensitive elephants are when it comes to family. When the herd encounters a set of elephant skeletons, they touch the skeletons in such a way that it evokes mournful respect. And when they walk one by one past the skeletons, it resembles a funeral procession.

One of the most visually stunning parts of the documentary is when the herd arrives at Victoria Falls. The waterfall scenes are enough reason to see this movie on the biggest screen possible. There are also some scenes captured during the sunset that are absolutely beautiful.

Watching “Elephant” will probably inspire more than a few people to want to take an African safari, even though the reality of being in this environment is a lot more dangerous than it looks in this movie. (Disney+ has a behind-the-scenes documentary about making this movie called “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” which is highly recommended viewing, only after you’ve seen “Elephant,” since “In the Footsteps of Elephant” reveals several spoilers.) “Elephant” represents some of the best of what Disneynature has to offer, and the movie accomplishes the goal of both entertaining and educating people of all ages.

Disney+ premiered “Elephant” on April 3, 2020.

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