Love & Bananas: Save an Elephant, Save Your Soul 

Tears of joy are practically guaranteed as this amazing film delivers a bit of promise and much-needed hope.

In what is already a groundbreaking summer for big-screen documentaries (if you haven't yet seen RBG or Won't You Be My Neighbor?, you've got some catching up to do), along comes another must-see nonfiction narrative: Love and Bananas.

Unlike many other movies, you will not see any disclaimer saying "No animals were harmed in the making of this film," because Love and Bananas shines an unflinching spotlight on the systemic abuse of Asian elephants in practically every corner of the globe, whether they're used to haul lumber in the eastern hemisphere or forced to ride circus tricycles in the west.

Boise Weekly has chronicled the efforts of a select few animal advocates who picketed CenturyLink Arena in Boise each summer when the Shrine Circus entered town with elephants in tow. Their signs read, "Their pain is your shame," or "Animals belong in the wild, not a circus." And while the Shrine Circus continues to tour nationwide with its elephant act (one of its recent stops was at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa just last month), the pushback against the spectacle of seeing elephants perform for our pleasure continues to mount. In 2014, for example, students from the Sage School in the Wood River Valley convinced Blaine Bounty and the city of Ketchum to ban exotic circus animal performances, a first-of-its-kind ordinance in Idaho. And in a groundbreaking move, Ringling Bros. Circus retired its elephant act and ultimately shut down its tour in 2017, ending a 146-year run.

All that said, the plight of the Asian elephant remains as urgent for some activists as climate change is for others. In fact, in many ways the two crises are related, as wild elephants are often referred to as "architects of the earth" for their migrations, which carve paths for other animals. Without elephants, some ecosystems would collapse.

There are approximately 450,000 African elephants left on the planet. That crisis is fairly well-known, due in large part to media attention focused on the black market sale of elephant tusks. Lesser known is that only about 45,000 Asian elephants remain on Earth, and they are regularly slaughtered for body parts. Asian elephants are killed for their skin or trunks—and to some, they are worth more dead than alive.

Love and Bananas' unlikely guide is actress Ashley Bell, perhaps best known for her performances in B-grade horror films (Psychopaths, The Last Exorcism). But as writer, producer and director of Love and Bananas, one of the most-buzzed-about films of the summer, my sense is that Bell's career will take a turn. As a self-admitted longtime lover of elephants, she traveled to Thailand in 2013 to film what she thought would be a slight docudrama, fingers crossed for a "happy end ing." What she found, and what you see in the opening moments of Love and Bananas, was more horrifying than any fiction movie could portray. When Bell returned to Southeast Asia a year later to take a deeper dive into the crisis, she was able to film a living nightmare.

As an example, Bell's film crew captured rare footage of a so-called "crush box," something experienced by nearly every captive Asian elephant. Captors can't train a baby elephant alongside its mother, so they immediately separate the baby, haul it into a brutally confining enclosure dubbed the "crush box," and beat the animal for 24 hours straight using bullhooks and chains. In effect, the baby's love of its mother is eventually replaced by fear of the beating. If the desired effect isn't reached in one session, it's repeated for another 24 hours, and another and another, until only fear remains.

But don't think Love and Bananas is completely soul-crushing. There is actually much to love (and more than a few bananas) in the film's final third, and tears of joy are practically guaranteed as this amazing film delivers a bit of promise and much-needed hope. Please don't hesitate to see Love and Bananas; even the best documentaries disappear all too quickly from the cinema. They need a bit of love, just like the gentle giants.

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Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story is not showing in any theaters in the area.

Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story
Rated NR · 77 minutes · 2018
Director: Ashley Bell
Writer: Ashley Bell, John McCarthy and Fernanda Rossi
Producer: Ashley Bell, Ross Dinerstein, John McCarthy, Steve Bannerman, Samantha Housman, Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist, Leandro Marini and Roddy Tabatabai
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