One of the greatest strengths of religion is the lack of proof required to be a believer. If you truly believe, you’ll see elements of truth all around you – whether elephant spirits, miracles, or myths coming true. However, if those same beliefs give you and your community a set of mutually agreed values to unite around, losing connection to them can lead to a loss of community. When people lose that kind of connection, they will go to enormous lengths to reconnect again. This could mean embarking on a journey to figure out where they went off the path, or trying to undo the event that led to their current circumstances. This sense of self-discovery can have a profound effect on the individual, the community, and if enough people pay attention, the world.
Last of the Elephant Men, directed by Arnaud Bouquet and Daniel Ferguson, begins by telling us the Bunong myth that elephants are descended from people, and were transformed by eating a magical fish, which is why we connect so deeply with elephants and have a duty to care for them. The Bunong people are an indigenous, animist people from the Mondulkiri region of Cambodia. They have lived closely with Asian elephants for time immemorial. Mrey is the first person we encounter; he is dying and is pretty sure the reason is the harm he caused to elephants. Mrey is a famous elephant catcher, taught by generations how to go into the forest to catch and tame wild elephants for domestic use. He believes that if he travels to find the 3 remaining elephants that he stole from the wild to make sure they are okay, he might get better. His wife supports this idea, offering sacrifices to the elephant spirits to bless this quest.
Our second connection to elephants is Duol, a teenager who has to join the family business of caring for their family elephant and become a mahout, a combination elephant tamer/caretaker. Doul can feel the burden of needing to connect to a multi-tonne creature whose health determines his family’s financial stability. He is taught by his uncle, a current mahout to lead elephant safaris/rides through the forest. When their elephant becomes sick, they seek out Mrey to ask what kind of sacrifice is required to help her regain health – perhaps they have angered the elephant spirits with all of the foreign influence.
The third story that interacts with these two is Mane, a woman who lives in the capitol, Phenom Penh, who fights for the rights of the Bunong (Pnong) people and is trying to find the elephant that her family sold several years ago. The elephant was a member of the family, and now that financial issues have changed, they want to find her and make sure she’s safe. Watching them struggle to find their elephant gives a heartbreaking look at how working elephants, while generally revered, are still treated as replaceable.
The biggest message this amazing documentary seems to want to share – through Mrey, Duol, and Mane – is that you might not be able to actually fix past mistakes, but you can definitely try to make them right. The act of reflecting on what you might have done wrong, stealing elephants from the wild, not understanding your own culture, or making hasty financial decisions, won’t fix the consequences of those decisions, but you might be able to help others avoid the same mistakes.
As an elephant lover myself, seeing the different ways this culture interacts with their elephants was eye-opening. Neither a condemnation nor an inspiration, Mrey’s journey and the entirety of Last of the Elephant Men connects to all people – we have been living outside of our decisions about nature and need to reflect on what we have left. We also need to ensure that future generations can connect to the same culture and ideas that we were privileged to know.
Sunday, May 3, 4:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.