When making a documentary out in nature, sometimes the story will find the filmmakers along the way. Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years solidly with a small team on the African savanna following an elephant pack led by a female named Athena for their new documentary, “The Elephant Queen,” but they always wanted to do it their own way, and not have financiers dictating the direction of their story.
“You can either put a heavily resourced big crew in the field for about six months or you can put a few people in the field for four years and just have them in a situation and conditions where they’re able to respond,” Deeble, who has a zoology background, said. “We’ve always chosen the latter partly because we love exploring and discovering things that people don’t really know about.”
“Mark [did] the cinematography, while I’m editing in the field. So it’s not like we would go out there and randomly see what we get,” Stone said. “It’s very much we…film it and develop that story as we go.”
Athena is seen in the film protecting her herd and family when they are forced to leave their waterhole. The challenges of filming the elephant matriarch in the field were legion, not the least of which was maintaining safety both from the elements of nature and of man. Stone said that she and Deeble were armed only with their wits and a desire to capture these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
“Living alongside the wild animals is something we’d done for over thirty years,” Stone said. “You hope you learn how to be a part of that natural world without becoming a ‘meal’ for it.
“There was a stage where we actually had to move our camp because during the years of filming, poaching became a real issue. We were actually beginning to share water holes with poachers, which wasn’t great.”
“The Elephant Queen” has won the Cinema for Peace International Green Film Award of the Year and has also played at the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance. Apple bought up distribution rights to the project, and the documentary will be in select theaters on Friday, and begin streaming on Apple TV+ November 1st.
With the tech giant coming aboard, the filmmakers were able to get some fiscal help in fighting the problem of animal poaching.
“We went through a terrible crisis for elephants back in 2013, 2014,” Deeble said, adding the problem was especially pronounced in Kenya, where they did the filming. “But we were delighted when Apple partnered with Conservation International to fund restoration grants and help in the very area we were filming.”
“Around the film there’s a whole education [that] will make things better on the ground and increase people’s awareness, be it in Kenya or the rest of the world,” he said.
Those initiatives include books for children about the importance of conservation, new plays about man’s interactions with nature as well as translating the narration of “The Elephant Queen” (by Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) into Swahili and other local languages.
“We started out, and this was way before Apple came on the scene, to make a film that would reach the widest possible audience and inspire them to sort of fall in love with elephants so they would then be motivated to do something to help,” said Stone. “But at the same time, we felt we would fail if we didn’t make a difference on the ground and start in Kenya.”
Stone related how one viewer in Africa told her the film had “changed my consciousness” and now saw a reason to coexist with elephants rather than view them as a nuisance.
“To be able to effect that kind of change through an emotional story, that’s the peak,” Stone said.
The filmmakers have long since lost track of their elephantine lead, Athena, and they don’t know if she is dead or simply lost somewhere in the wild lands of Africa. However, they remain optimistic that the public’s consciousness is being raised about the importance of these creatures and of conservation as a whole.
“What is growing is the voice of people, both those far away from the crisis and those on the ground,” said Stone. “What I find so positive is that that voice is growing and the number of people who are just saying we have to protect [nature] is growing.”
Deeble insists “The Elephant Queen” is not an “issue film” but says that everything surrounding the plight of the elephants—and the larger environmental issues—is brought into the light through their lens.
“I think the comment we hear most often is, I never realized that elephants were just like us,” Deeble said.
“The Elephant Queen” will play in select theaters starting October 18 and begin streaming on Apple TV+ November 1st.
The Elephant Queen is the recipient of the Cinema for Peace International Green Film Award of the Year, and was previously an official selection at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival and the 2018 BFI London Film Festival. It was also invited as a special selection at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.