One Lucky Elephant: Lisa Leeman’s Circus Documentary

By Jeff Farr

What is it about circus life that lends itself so well to the movies? The easy answer might be the aspect of spectacle, but there is also the drama (and the tragedy) of the animals and human performers trapped in the circus system, yet dreaming of and fighting for their freedom.

This year has already seen two great circus documentaries: Aaron Shock’s excellent “Circo” and now Lisa Leeman’s “One Lucky Elephant.” Of the two, “One Lucky Elephant” will probably have the broader appeal.  Its highly emotional love story of a man and his pachyderm grabs us in its first few minutes and never lets go of us.

“Be careful what you wish for,” David Balding, amicable circus boss and elephant owner, says of his relationship with Flora—the namesake of his Circus Flora—whom he raised, trained, and adored from babyhood. Early in the film, Balding and Flora seem, more than a father and daughter, to be something akin to a long-married couple, who have learned how to put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are meshed.

Leeman captures well the tenderness of this relationship. As the childless Balding wraps himself around one of Flora’s giant legs, it becomes clear that he depends on her as much or more than she depends on him. What would he do without her?

The main thrust of the film is Balding’s sincere attempts to retire Flora once her love for performance wanes. Finding an appropriate new home for her with other elephants—in Africa, a zoo, or a sanctuary—proves to be a long and winding road that takes a lot out of this circus man.

This makes for a compelling narrative with plenty of twists and turns in its 84 well-paced minutes. Just when we think we know where the story is headed next, Flora and her human partners have another surprise in store.

 

 

 

Balding eventually comes into deep conflict with Flora’s subsequent owners. Everyone invested winds up struggling to understand her occasional aggressive behavior. Leeman is careful to not take sides as the competing interests put forth their theories—including the possibility of posttraumatic elephant disorder. Are they projecting their own human narratives onto the animal? Flora is not giving anything away.

 

 

 

“One Lucky Elephant” benefits greatly from its long production process of ten years, thus allowing Leeman to collect what must have been a huge trove of footage from which to choose.

 

 

 

As we watch Flora mature and her human counterparts, notably Balding, move along the aging process, the sense of time passing quickly creeps into the film, adding much emotional heft to an already emotion-laden story. Right before our eyes, Balding becomes grayer, then whiter. He loses his mobility and must rely on canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. His own mortality starts to sneak into his comments.

 

 

 

The film becomes a subtle look at, among other things, growing up, growing old, parenting, letting go, and the unknowable in life and nature. Leeman has given us a rich example of teasing out universal themes from the seemingly simplest of love stories—yet not beating us over the head with those themes. This is a movie of questions, not answers.

 

 

 

It is graceful filmmaking on Leeman’s part, mirroring the grace of the film’s true star, Flora. The beauty of Flora’s piercing eyes and wrinkly face and body is the heart of the film. A real-life elephant naturally turns out to be thousands of times more enthralling than any CGI creature. It is somehow reassuring to see elephants get their due outside the Disney universe. Flora and the other elephants featured, each with distinctive personality traits, are definitely not Disney stock. Leeman’s film does a fine job of showing us the scary side of elephants with a montage of attack footage reminding us that these are wild animals. When Flora gets pissed, watch out!

 

 

 

The one misstep in “One Lucky Elephant” is Miriam Cutler’s score. Cutesy and a bit manipulative, it charges forward where it should have held back. Leeman, perhaps sensing this, is careful to use the score less abrasively near the end of the film.

 

 

 

Credits

 

 

 

A Sandbar Pictures release.

 

Directed by Lisa Leeman.

 

Produced by Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim.

 

Cinematography, Sandra Chandler.

 

Editing, Kate Amend and Tchavdar Georgiev.

 

Original Music, Miriam Cutler.

 

 

 

Running time: 84 minutes.