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Documentaries without tusks

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By Seema Kalra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- UNLIKE many other wildlife films in which animals are painted in an impenetrable and maudlin rosy hue, Mike Pandey in his The Last Migration has been able to get good, dispassionate footage on the desperate human-animal conflict that dwindling forest areas are forcing into the open.

The film tracks the rehabilitation from Bihar to Sarguja in Madhya Pradesh of a herd of elephants. A fire in 1988 rendered inhospitable a large part of their forest, leaving the group of pachyderms on a starvation diet. The elephants gradually began to forage closer to nearby villages. In turn, distressed villagers first tried to scare them with gunshots, a miscalculation which had quite the opposite effect of that intended: the elephants became even more aggressive; some of the injured ones took to trampling crops and houses alike.

The skirmish came to a head when the frightened villagers had to hide in the fields night after night to avoid being crushed. They would filter back each morning to piles of debris where their dwellings once stood. It was a classic no-win-either-side situation: the last thing the villagers would offer the invaders was sympathy; the first would have been a shot through the head.

It was clear then that either group would have to give way. An alternate range was found for the elephants: they would have to be shifted en masse to Sarguja.

It is this intrepid story of the capture and transfer of an entire herd of irritable elephants that makes Pandey's film worthy of an award. Unfortunately, an event that could have been fashioned into a much more powerful filmic document was drowned in lukewarm reportage. The narration, the script and the music failed to match up to the urgency of the situation and to catch the tempo of the project.

The film doesn't do well on the technical aspect either. Fortunately, what gives it impetus enough to carry it through to the credits is its content and the footage of the villagers -- their disbelief and relief at the sight of the marauders chained.

Pandey's is not the only film on the subject. Swaroop Uadi makes her debut in environmental films filming the same material. Some of the footage, in fact, is nearly identical. Uadi's film, Whose Land Is It Anyway?, picks up almost from where Pandey's film left off. The Last Migration ends on an unanswerable question: Whose Earth is it anyway? The title of Uadi's film inanely echoes the query.

The relief is that Uadi manages to squeeze better picture quality from her solo camera. What she documents is a similar operation near Coorg in Karnataka. She also stays longer with her herd and, therefore, covers the induction of the wild elephants into forest service. They have to be held in stringent captivity; otherwise, the geographical loyalty that elephants are famous for would have led them right back to where they came from.

Uadi's film is, however, a bit long-drawn for comfort: after covering the training of the elephants, she goes on to educate the audience on the characteristics of the Asian elephant, which have already been pounded to death in the print and film media.

In any case, her persistence received the Special Award at the recently-concluded Care for Nature Film Festival at Bangalore. The Last Migration bagged the third. Both were films that walked all over a great documentary opportunity.

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