2019 Wisconsin Film Festival: Films from Far and Wide
On some levels, ignorance is bliss and McGrath didn’t exactly know what he was getting himself into. While nature films often depict nature in idyllic images,
McGrath experienced firsthand some of the forces that are contributing to the extinction of the forest elephant.
“Doing the film was a big challenge,” McGrath said. “I actually didn’t realize how big the challenge was until I got deeply into the film. My intention was to make a
film about the people I knew from Cornell who were working hard to save the forest elephants. And then on my first trip, I realized that the region is very unstable
and the politics of the region were playing a big part in the demise of the forest elephants. I had to learn to work in a war zone and with the help of a lot of people,
learn to navigate how to work as a filmmaker in a conflict zone.”
Without the assistance of a functioning government, McGrath needed to rely upon the local people for whom the forest elephant is a part of their culture and way of
“I did work a little bit with local people,” McGrath said. “On my first few trips, there was no infrastructure in place for anything governmental. The international
community had left, leaving the park in the hands of employees who were local. And I did work a bit with the Eagle Guards who were from that community and
stayed when the coup happened. But I worked most closely with the indigenous people of the region. And really the star of the film is named Sessely and he is a
Bayaka elder. The Bayaka are the forest people of that region. And they have worked for decades as trackers for the park system and the international groups that
are there to work on environmental concerns. They really take up a big part of the story because they are the local people who are most affected by the poaching and
the unstable politics of the time.”
Elephant Path is a documentary about the relationship between humans and elephants., although they rarely have direct physical contact.
“It follows two years in the life of the people who are really living among and working to save the forest elephants of Central Africa,” McGrath said. “It chronicles
personal stories of Sessely who is the Bayaka tracker whom I mentioned and Andrea Turkalo who is a very important elephant behavioral biologist who’s been in
the forest for nearly 30 years. There is an environmental security contractor Nir Kalron who is from Israel and is there trying to negotiate a resolution to the conflict
and protect the forest elephants. And there is an eco guard Zephirine Mbele Soso. He is sort of the law enforcement of the area. The story follows him a bit as well
and his struggles to continue to do his work in the face of an armed rebellion and the arrival of rebels. Basically the film follows those four people’s lives over two
years through a really tumultuous time. And the beginning and the end of the film look very much the same, but we’ve had the chance to live with them across those
two years. And by the end of the film, we know some of the drama they’ve gone through, a little bit of the traumatic experience that they’ve had. And it has really
brought home how at-risk the elephants are and continue to be. But it also shows how durable the elephants are as a species. They do withstand this horrible human
impact. They are still there and are still as beautiful as ever.”
McGrath hopes that Elephant Path will lead to a greater awareness about the plight of the forest elephants and contribute to the development of worldwide-held
values that will nip ones of the causes of the extinction at its root.
“At the current rate of poaching, in 10 years, there will be no forest elephants,” McGrath said. “The hope is to stop poaching. The thing that makes me hopeful for that
is the hope for some political stability in the region, which I think is possible, and resource management including ivory. I think the more that we can get out that it is
just unnatural to buy and own ivory, the more hope the elephants have because there may be an elephant here or there killed for food. But for the most part, they are
being slaughtered in numbers for their ivory. I think the world is shifting in relationship to ivory as a commodity. I am cautiously hopeful that we can turn it around for
forest elephants and leave them be. There is plenty of habitats, so that is promising. It’s First World markets that are driving this extinction. The United States
remains the second largest purchaser of ivory after China. Most of it is illegal. But an illegal trade is still a destructive trade. The case in China now is that they are
passing much more enlightened laws about the trade of ivory. The trick, both here and abroad and really worldwide, is to just make the idea of owning ivory
unthinkable, so that everyone knows that the ivory trade is at the core of the destruction of elephants.”
|In this still from Elephant Path, being shown at the Wisconsin Film Festival,
forest elephants come out of the tropical forests to socialize and hydrate at
a water hole.
By Jonathan Gramling
The 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, being held April 4-11 at various venues on the UW-
Madison campus and in the community, will feature 153 films of all genres and styles
including a number of films like Elephant Path that have some connection to Wisconsin.
Todd McGrath, the producer, videographer and director of Elephant Path, is a sculptor
who retired from Cornell University and decided to try something new. Previously, he
created sculptured monuments to birds that became extinct in modern times and placed
them in their natural habitat. It was at Cornell that McGrath learned about the plight of the
forest elephants in the Central African Republic.
“I was artist-in-residence at the ornithology lab at Cornell University, which houses,
strangely enough, the Elephant Listening Project,” McGrath said. “At the lab, there is the
bio-acoustics study lab and there are scientists there trying to decode the language of
forest elephants. I got to know them and got to hear the stories about the challenges that
forest elephants are facing, predominantly because of habitat loss and poaching. The
story sounded so familiar to the stories of the birds that I had studied. I just thought,
‘There’s a film here and now is the time to tell this story before it’s too late and try to
become one of those voices that sounds the alarm of a species at-risk.’”
One thing that gives McGrath hope is one of the things that made
producing Elephant Path so difficult: the rugged terrain.
“The forest elephants have one thing going for them,” McGrath said.
“They live in extremely dense forest. That’s good and bad. It’s good
because it has been hard to kill them because the forest, for the most
part, is still pristine. It’s the second largest forest in the world after the
Amazon and there are very few people there. There is quite a bit of
terrain and they can hide. The downside is it’s very difficult to do any
research because it’s hard to track an animal in the forest. You can’t do
it by drone or by plane. There are very few places where you can even
see them. So this film gives a rare glimpse of the animals in these
clearings where they come to mine the minerals and drink water and we
think to socialize. I think in the end, it’s going to be the forest that will
save the elephants if we can manage to save the forest, which is to
keep it from being cut down for logging and farming and ranching. And
there is some promise in that department.”
McGrath may have had enough of wild, exotic locations because his
next documentary will be about ocean health and surfing. Nonetheless
McGrath will be working to save our natural world from its biggest
nemesis at times, the human race.