A consciousness-raising milestone of a documentary that leaves the viewer in no doubt which side we're on
Which is the odd one out of these countries? Austria, Bolivia, Britain, Columbia, Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Greece, Paraguay, and Peru. Peculiar sort of mixture isn't it? In fact its quirkiness may soon be emphasised if, as anticipated, Belgium joins the list. The odd one out is actually Britain - but why? Well, it stands alone in not yet having banned wild animals in circuses. Although our MPs agreed in June to support such a motion, (under the Animal Welfare Act 2006), that's a long way from any law being enacted.
In Britain we may feel quietly smug that animal circuses in our country are largely a feature of a less enlightened age, and even collude in the convenient societal amnesia about a period as recent as the 1960s. Then, Billy Smarts' lions performed demeaning and silly tricks for the amusement of circus audiences, plus several million home viewers gawping at their black and white TV sets. But at least they could reasonably assume that the animals were otherwise well-treated.
That this is far from the situation in South American circuses, even in the 21st Century, led to the making of "Lion Ark", a consciousness-raising, milestone of a documentary. Just as Noah gave animals refuge in his Ark from the Biblical flood, so ADL (Animal Defenders International) rescues animals from unscrupulous Bolivian circus owners.
But why particularly Bolivia? An ADI undercover team had worked for two years to expose the unpalatable facts of animal neglect, maltreatment, and deliberate cruelty throughout South America. Although its findings reportedly shocked that continent, at the time of the documentary's compilation, and after considerable political lobbying, only Bolivia had banned animal circuses. Maybe some members of its congress were aware of Ghandi's adage that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated".
However, any celebrations were premature, as a year after the ban came into force only one of the nine affected circuses had complied with the law. And if laws are passed but not enforced they are worthless. At this point the story is taken up by the documentary, "filmed as events unfolded, told by those who were there". With Bolivian Government backing, the ADI promised to track down the eight renegade circuses in order to rescue and relocate a total of 25 lions.
In between discussions at strategy meetings, the team spent hours criss-crossing the country's interior by day and night, on dirt tracks linking squalid settlements, pursuing its mercy mission. In a few cases circus owners had simply disappeared in advance, leaving unattended some fairly hungry and thirsty lions. At other locations there were ugly confrontations, including a demand that immediate cash payment be made for cages.
It was a short and carefully planned quasi-military operation, even involving some subterfuge when an ADI member, who happened to be a competent juggler, infiltrated the most evasive circus in the guise of a clown. Within a week 17 lions had been rescued, and the ADI completed its work successfully when all 25 had received sanctuary at its Santa Cruz compound - before their ultimate re-location to a new purpose-built facility in Colorado.
Largely unscripted, using mainly hand-held cameras, and with the judicious use of some rapid editing, the film has a raw immediacy that can only be achieved through such techniques. Suitable use is made of fade ins/fade outs to echo the team's stop/start progress across Bolivia, and the whole operation's necessarily episodic nature. Split screen format is applied occasionally to good effect, and ‘on-screen' text supplies basic but useful information such as names/roles of various members, circus locations, where the ADI team is travelling to/from, number of hours driving time to reach Santa Cruz, etc. Rather tellingly, even names of individual lions are included - whilst avoiding any anthropomorphism.
In addition to assisting viewers' grasp of the narrative, this reduces superfluous commentary to a suitably minimal non-pontificating voice-over, allowing the images to do their own story-telling. English sub-titles are added when we need to understand the Spanish speakers - some fairly angry, others philosophical or joyous. Sense of place is emphasised with cutaways to colourful peasants, banana stalls, exuberant ethnic bands, etc.
The documentary is not about animal cruelty as such, but this is briefly (and distressingly) shown in order to set ADI's work in context. In any case, the maltreatment may be inferred from the lions' demeanour - stereotypically pacing up and down through boredom in their confining cages, or swiping and gnawing at bars and snarling aggressively when humans approach. Our understanding of their conditions are given sharper focus by the ADI vet's intermittent comments, such as his observation that one animal has shortened leg bones owing to lack of a proper diet.
Many lacked sufficient food and water, and most had never experienced the sensation of grass under their paws, or seen the sky above their heads. Kimba had been alone in a concrete cell for over a decade - and hence hadn't even met another lion. Elsewhere, three young cubs bore injuries as a result of being forcibly removed from their mother - so that people in a nearby town could be charged for posing with them for photos.
The circus lions' plight is emphasised with some contrasting introductory ‘David Attenborough style' sequences of wild lion prides roaming majestically or relaxing contently on Africa's savannah grasslands. When the rescued lions are brought to the Vera Cruz compound they are provided with toys (football, tyre, log, etc) but more importantly fresh hay - and we get a frisson of delight on seeing them roll around with obvious feline pleasure at its smell and texture.
This is a documentary which wears its heart on its sleeve, engaging the viewer viscerally so we have no doubt which ‘side we're on'. It also forms a valuable testimony to a band of committed and courageous people who translate their justifiably held beliefs into practical action. Let's hope it's broadcast on main TV channels at peak viewing times.
Edgar Vaid is a freelance film and book reviewer. Contact him at email@example.com