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Soulful PBS Nature Film 'Soul of the Elephant' Both Moving and Unpredictable
October 14, 2015  | By Alex Strachan
 

By their own estimate, nature filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert (below left) have devoted 10 months of the year for the past 30 years waist-deep in muddy grass and mosquito-riddled swamp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, making films for the National Geographic Society, bearing witness to one of the few remaining — some would say only — surviving wildlife spectacles on the planet.

Their films have earned them a rare profile on 60 Minutes — an unlikely venue for nature filmmakers — and, last month, keynote addresses at the 2015 Elephant Conservation Summit and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, an annual gathering of wildlife scientists, biologists, conservationists, and fellow filmmakers.

As longtime Explorers-in-Residence for National Geographic, a group that includes Jane Goodall, anthropologist Wade Davis and geneticist Spencer Wells — the Jouberts have made distinctive nature films seen by millions of viewers and changed the way science perceives animal behavior. They were the first filmmakers to record documentary evidence of lions killing elephants, and their work following big cats in the wild helped debunk several generally accepted myths — the idea, for example, that lions hunt their own food, while hyenas scavenge. As the Jouberts discovered, it’s more often the other way around.

At first glance, it might seem as if there’s not much that’s new in nature films these days. As issues like climate change, deforestation, warming oceans, food shortages, the growing water crisis and the ever-present threat of mass extinction become part of the public conversation, nature films have become more predictable. Unusual stories are hard to find.

That’s why one day, while the Jouberts were exploring the Selinda River system of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Dereck Joubert came across something that struck him as so remarkable, even after more than 30 years of living in the wild, that he knew they had to make a film.

He came across two dead bull elephants — tusks intact — and he realized he had come across possibly the only place on the planet where elephants can die of old age. Elephants can live to be more than 70. These elephants would have been alive during the Second World War, he realized. “They were alive before television was invented,” he said in a phone interview from their New York hotel room, where the Jouberts were on their way back to Africa.

He thought about the experiences those elephants would have accumulated during their lifetime, and he thought it would make a compelling story. The resulting film, “Soul of the Elephant,” debuts Wednesday, October 14, on PBS’s Nature showcase (8 p.m. ET, check local listings). Dereck and Beverly Joubert co-produced the documentary, Dereck was the cinematographer, and Beverly recorded the audio.

Over the course of two years, the Jouberts traveled through what would have been the bull elephants’ home range. They reimagined the lives those bulls would have led, from birth through childhood to late adolescence and then middle age, all the while coexisting with others in the herd and migrating with the patterns of wind and rain.

Joubert wanted “Soul of the Elephant” to be on PBS, he said, because it’s an important, moving story, and PBS reaches virtually every home with a working TV set.

“One of the reasons we wanted this on PBS is to reach a broader audience,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can get out to as many people as possible. There’s a danger that we will lose sight of what exactly we will lose if we lose elephants. This is no longer about a little niche group of people who are interested in elephants. This is becoming an above-the-fold headline, and it affects all of us.”

Elephants are in the news because of a devastating and possibly irreversible surge in ivory poaching, driven by an increasingly affluent middle class in China, where ivory is valued as a priceless commodity. As recently as 100 years ago, there were thought to be 10 million elephants on the planet. Fewer than 500,000 remain today. As many as 35,000 a year are being killed illegally to feed the ivory trade.

That’s not what this film is about, though.

“Soul of the Elephant” is not about poaching or the ivory trade, Dereck Joubert says. It’s not a polemic. The Jouberts don’t want to harangue viewers, or make them feel guilty through inaction. He hopes that by telling a simple yet profound story — this is the life of an elephant, from birth to death-of-old-age — it will allow people to pause and reflect about life’s deeper meanings.

Most of us know already that many of the world’s iconic animals — lions, elephants, and rhinos, to name just a few — are endangered in the wild, and that it’s immoral to shoot, trap or snare animals for their tusks and horns, simply to adorn a trophy cabinet or have their stuffed heads mounted on the wall of the family den. Dereck Joubert wants “Soul of the Elephant” to go beyond that.

“This film is about individual characteristics and personalities of elephants, which is why I’m hoping to reach a much broader audience.”

Beverly Joubert takes still photographs while Dereck films in motion video. Their partnership has served them well, in coffee table books highlighting their work, in articles in National Geographic, and in Dereck Joubert’s films which air on the National Geographic Channel and now PBS.

“I do believe that for one country, Botswana, having elephants die of natural causes, as opposed to being hunted or poached, was truly inspirational for us,” Beverly added. “It means there is hope for the rest of Africa. That was a huge part of the making of this film. We can turn this around. We can be optimistic."

Social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and video sites like Vimeo — have changed the way filmmaker conservationists like the Jouberts can spread the word, Dereck Joubert noted. The instant, overnight, worldwide reaction to the killing of Cecil the lion — in which a Minnesota dentist illegally killed a tourist-habituated black-maned lion for sport — was driven by social media, and would not have happened the way it did just five years ago, Joubert noted.

Joubert refuted the quasi-conservation arguments in favor of trophy hunting on his Facebook page, just days after Cecil’s killing.

“We see our craft as natural history filmmaking and storytelling,” Dereck Joubert said. “We don’t want the end of a film to be the end of the conversation. In many ways we want the end of one of our films to be the beginning of the conversation.”

 
 
 
 
 
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