Sometimes a movie come along and hits you when you least expect it. Said film possesses a subtle grace that strikes the right chord and makes an impression from the very first frame. Earlier this year, Richard Press’ buoyant Bill Cunningham New York did exactly that, and as of last night, Lisa Leeman’s One Lucky Elephant has done just the same.
Almost 10 years in the making, One Lucky Elephant is the heartwarming and deeply moving chronicle of Flora, an 18-year-old African circus elephant, rescued as an infant by St. Louis circus producer David Balding. Raised as if it were Balding’s own daughter and made the centerpiece of Balding’s Circus Flora, the elephant quickly becomes the focal point of Balding’s life.
But as Flora approached adulthood, Balding began to realize that Flora was not happy performing and ultimately confronts the notion that he made a mistake in raising her as a solo elephant. Strapped to that notion is the realization that Flora will outlive the aging and ailing Balding and that a decision must be made about her future.
Within the first 10 minutes of the film, Balding ultimately agrees to retire her and sets off in search of a nurturing and permanent home for his beloved elephant. The goal is to find her an environment in which she can live freely with other elephants and find solace and happiness. But the path to a new home is not as easy as Balding expects and is unfortunately fraught with complications.
Frame by frame, one is given the opportunity to see the reverence that humans have for these animals, and the inherent magnetism of these majestic creatures. By the film’s final frame, Lampelli’s film brings to light how far love can travel, the danger of keeping exotic animals in captivity, and the importance and relevance of circuses and zoos. Deeply moving, endlessly poignant and immensely though-provoking One Lucky Elephant is the very heart of what a documentary should be.