It's always satisfying to find out you're right.
Novelist Barbara Gowdy spent three years researching elephants before writing The White Bone, a novel of love and loss from the elephant perspective. But aside from a brief tourist safari that wouldn't let her get close to the animals, Gowdy wrote her story based on scientific texts and field guides.
When she returned to Kenya to film the documentary Elephant Dreams, she spent all day, every day in the field and was often only six inches from the beasts. "It was blissful," she says. Sitting in a Toronto coffee shop months later, the author suddenly spreads open her right hand and holds it up, almost touching a reporter's nose: "When the trunk comes up this close it's like a big vacuum cleaner. It was quite wonderful, the proximity."
That closeness made Gowdy realize her novel wasn't such a huge leap of imagination. "I got a few factual things a little bit wrong, but I didn't care about that. The facts were jumping off points."
In Elephant Dreams, an untraditional take on the nature documentary, cameras capture Gowdy's own private safari. It was filmed in the Kenyan conservation parks Samburu and Amboseli, the latter a location Gowdy used in her novel. But producer Jill Offman says the film isn't meant as a companion piece to The White Bone and, for some readers, may detract from the novel. (Especially if you haven't read it yet, the documentary gives away the book's ending.) And if you're no fan of Gowdy's precious, refined style, you also won't want to watch as she ponders, talks to and cries over elephants. The photography, however, is stunning. It was shot in May, just after the rainy season. There are many breathtaking landscapes and shots of elephants frolicking which convey the mammal's dignity and familial bonds as effectively as Gowdy's words. It also graphically illustrates the brutality of ivory poachers. We see a man yanking on the tusk of a bloodied carcass juxtaposed with gleaming ivory jewelry.
Offman hopes that Elephant Dreams will draw a new kind of viewer to Discovery -- Gowdy's "classic, literary, CBC kind of audience." Offman also wants to lure people who "may not normally empathize with the animal kingdom and may be looking for a way in. Barbara is that way in."
Unlike traditional nature docs, the celebrity is part of the story, not just an unseen narrator. Gowdy gives Elephant Dreams a girly, humorous feel. Before interviewing researcher Joyce Pool, there's a shot of her curled up in bed reading Pool's book, Coming of Age with Elephants. Gowdy confesses she's nervous about asking Pool if elephants really can fall in love, like hers do in The White Bone. We also watch Gowdy watching a video about the forensic study of an elephant brain. In another scene Gowdy tries to listen to a Samburu tribesman (whom she can't understand), but gets frightened as an agitated male elephant walks toward them. She keeps looking over her shoulder at the camera, begging someone to call "Cut!" And how many nature documentary hosts talk about an elephant's penis with such relish? ("We got millions of mating shots," she says later. "It was like a porn film we saw so much sex.")
The shift from hermit-like novelist to TV host works here. Gowdy has a good camera presence. She's done this kind of thing before, in the mid-90s she worked on TVO's Imprint. Gowdy also trusted Offman, the two have been friends for a decade, to shift her passion for preserving elephants from the page to the screen. "Jill gently got across what I think. I tend to rant and she let the scientists and the elephants speak for themselves."
The trip to Africa was also an emotional one. Gowdy whispers a lot in the film and, at first didn't want to get close to the beasts because she thought it was disrespectful. "She was so in a awe of what she was seeing," says Offman. In one scene Gowdy talks to a family of elephants as they lumber past, "Hello," she calls, "I'm from Canada." Next thing you know, she's wiping tears from her eyes. "You know what that was about?" she says later over coffee. "That matriarch was reading me and trying to figure out if I was safe or not. I felt very humbled." Gowdy adds that, much like the mind-talking done between species in her novel, she too communicated without speaking. "I was just trying to transmit that I'm not here to harm you. I just wanted them to know that."
Gowdy should have been transmitting those thoughts to research scientists Cynthia Moss and Grace Pool in the three years it took Offman to get Elephant Dreams off the ground. "Initially they didn't want any part of it," Offman says. "They didn't want to read Barbara's book." Once they were convinced that The White Bone was no Watership Down they agreed to be interviewed.
By the time the Elephant Dreams crew arrived in Kenya, Survivor: Africa had already begun shooting nearby. Survivor employed nearly 400 cast and crew, which made it tough for Offman to hire scouts, a driver and an elephant expert. The expert was essential. On a Discovery documentary shoot earlier in the year, an elephant mauled a reporter. Elephantine knowledge had other practical applications. "A couple of times when I was going to the washroom in the bush and had elephants creep up on me, I knew that that was okay. You can never approach an elephant from behind; you'll get killed. But if they see you first, they don't care," says Offman.
For Gowdy, this second trip to Kenya was more than an adventure; it was a transforming experience. "I had a lump in my throat the entire time," she admits.
"There'd be this silhouette of elephants on the horizon walking in a line and I thought how lucky I was. Frankly I don't know how much longer we'll be seeing this in the wild."
Elephant Dreams, Sunday, 8 p.m., Discovery