Another circus-related documentary released this year, Circo, followed a Mexican traveling family circus, documenting the hardship and strain of perpetuating tradition. While that film posed the moral questions surrounding training children for back-breaking work, One Lucky Elephant raises similar questions about animals—or, in this case, an orphaned elephant.
Flora is an aging elephant who has only known the life of the circus since her mother was slaughtered in Africa. Her owner, who cares deeply for her, is David Balding, ringmaster of the eponymous Circus Flora, a big top tent, one-ring circus in St. Louis. When it becomes clear that testy Flora doesn’t enjoy performing as much as she used to, David must find her a new home. It proves to be a difficult task, as she’s never been acclimated to other elephants or environments. Zoos are often too small for David’s taste, or they mistreat their animals; an elephant sanctuary seems the perfect fit except that Asian and African elephants don‘t get along. The filmmakers followed Flora and David for ten years and other variables inevitably arose as Flora was moved from one venue to another. Would Flora accept dominant behavior from another animal? The care of a human being other than David? And—withheld until the halfway point, perhaps in a bid for audience sympathy—there’s her history of tantrums, including one where Flora knocked a rider unconscious against a tree.
At the core of this documentary is the bond between a very sentient and temperamental animal and her owner who treats her like the daughter he never had, agonizing over her care and excusing away all her bad behavior. It’s a touching relationship that very much keeps the viewer interested, while posing a larger issue: should humans be raising and playing with wild animals to begin with? While Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, say, provides a very clear answer, the resolution in One Lucky Elephant is a bit murkier.
Opens June 8 at Film Forum