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'Nature' Opens Season with the Moving Tale of One Little Elephant
October 4, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

“Naledi” is the Setswana word for ‘star,’ but it doesn’t end there. Naledi is also the name of a 90-minute documentary about efforts to revive a sickly, wild elephant that was found orphaned and near death in a private wilderness reserve in Botswana, Africa’s most forward-thinking wildlife country and home to one of the last bastions of wild elephants on the planet.

Naledi: An Elephant’s Tale, made in 2016, followed a European documentary film crew as they tagged along with wildlife rangers who made a timely intervention, to see if they could nurture the starving, emaciated month-old baby back to health. The subsequent film caused a stir on Netflix, which has pursued an active program of award-winning documentaries of late. Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale proved to be a crossover hit for Netflix, popular with both an adult audience jazzed by timely, topical, hard-hitting documentaries and the family audience that typically gravitates toward warm-hearted programs about cute animals.

Now, PBS’s venerable film showcase Nature has chosen a trimmed-down, 55-minute version of Naledi to open its new season (PBS, Wednesday at 8ET/PT).

Please don’t think the edited version is a simple retread, though. Retitled Naledi: One Little Elephant, the shorter version is a tight, lean, skillfully made film in its own right. Much of the back story is hinted at, but not explained. There is no narration. Game rangers, conservationists and surrogate elephant parents tell a chronological story in their own, often revealing words; no narration is needed.

The cinematography is clean and crisp, and at times breathtakingly beautiful. Naledi doesn’t look or sound like your typical TV program made on the cheap and on the fly. There are moments when the photography takes on an almost Game of Thrones-like feel. The music, composed specifically for the film by the feature-film composer Nick Urata, is gorgeous.

That’s a tell right there, because there’s a trend in TV documentaries of late to hire online music charnel houses that stitch together pre-recorded music cues, selected by computer programs and mashed together to form some kind of fetid, ghastly pastiche of aural wallpaper — white noise.

Naledi is not that program.

The music was composed by a living, breathing human being, not an AI program.

Urata founded the Denver-based underground band DeVotchKa in 2007 and was Grammy-nominated for the film score of the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine. More recently, Urata composed the title music for Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, with Neil Patrick Harris.

Naledi: One Little Elephant is not your typical TV fare, in other words. It comes in at the high end of the nature program scale, and it’s easy to see why veteran Nature executive produce Fred Kaufman chose it to open the program’s 36th season.

This is just background, of course. The important thing to know — both from a conservation point of view and for an evening’s relief from the day’s news headlines — is that this is a moving, true-life story that will entertain the kids while at the same time engaging the adults in the family.

Raising orphaned baby elephants in captivity and then reintegrating them into the wild is never easy.

Thanks to the remarkable work being done on a daily basis now by the Nairobi-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home of the famous — thanks to a classic 60 Minutes segment that went viral — elephant orphanage run by Sheldrick’s widow, Dame Daphne Sheldrick. Raising a baby elephant is not like raising a calf or steer; Sheldrick toiled for years before finally hitting on a baby-milk formula that orphan elephants would both accept and draw sustenance from.

What makes Naledi so compelling is that an elephant never forgets. Or, more accurately — and more importantly for an audience-friendly TV program — an elephant never forgets a person’s face. Sheldrick herself has been recognized by elephants released back into the wild after 20 years or more.

It helps that Naledi’s story is compelling, of course. It helps, too, that there’s a message — implied, but not shoved in your face — about the crisis facing today’s fast-disappearing population of elephants. The last large-scale elephant census, taken in 2016, found that Africa had lost a third of its remaining elephant population in just the 10 years prior.

As of this moment in time, China and the U.S. have closed their ivory markets — officially, anyway — but poaching is still a problem. Illegal ivory is still readily available throughout China, the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Naledi was backed by Paul Allen — the other guy behind Microsoft — and his conservation foundation. Allen, now a full-time philanthropist living in Seattle, was oneof the backers of the 2016 elephant census.

Naledi was made by veteran BBC and National Geographic filmmaker Ben Bowie, alongside Amsterdam-based filmmaker Geoff Luck, also an alumnus of National Geographic and PBS.

The program’s resident wildlife expert is Dr. Mike Chase, founder of Elephants Without Borders. Chase  has been working out of a research station in Botswana’s Okavango Delta for the past 15 years.

Naledi is not a cheapo wildlife doc, in other words. It’s a proper film, in both its shortened Nature version and in the Netflix original.

More importantly, perhaps, for these troubled times, it will lift your spirits, if only temporarily. PBS Nature is back, and not a moment too soon.

PBS Nature’s 36th-season opener, ‘Naledi: One Little Elephant,’ premieres Wednesday on PBS at 8 ET/PT. Check your local listings.

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