[1 May 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Some of us don’t want to remember ourself. We don’t want to remember our memories.
—Katherine “Rizzo” Ragazzino
Elephants never forget. But they do forgive, according to The Eyes of Thailand, Windy Borman’s tribute to the work of Soraida Salwala and Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital. Elephants in Thailand are caught between eras and attitudes. In the past, notes narrator Ashley Judd, they were revered, emblems in Buddhism of noble strength and moral courage. Today, wild elephants are still protected by law, but “domestic” animals (often, wild animals captured and sold with false papers) are exploited, says artist and activist Galen Garwood, sent to zoos and circuses, transported across national borders to Burma and Laos. Fifty years ago, wild Asian elephants numbered 40,000. Today, only 5,000 remain.
The documentary—screening at the Newport Beach Film Festival on 1 May—traces Salwala’s lifelong efforts to stop this trend. As a child, she recounts, she saw an elephant collapsed on the street, hit by a truck. She remembers the moment vividly: as she and her father drove away from the scene, she heard a shot: “Uncle Elephant,” her father told her, was now in heaven. She asked him why, if the elephant was dying, it didn’t go to hospital. “I told myself,” she goes on, “‘Okay, that’s it. If no one will do it, I will do it myself.’” And so she has. The Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital takes in elephants who have been injured and can no longer work.
Increasingly, these elephants are victims of land mines. Named for a story about the Buddha, who, in elephant form, washed his blind elephant mother’s eyes so that she might see him, The Eyes of Thailand means to open viewers’ eyes to the plights of these elephants, as they parallel those of human land mine victims. The history is complicated and controversial: the Ottawa Treaty or the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, first passed in 1997 and now signed by 159 nations, has not stopped Burma, which has not signed the ban and continues to use mines to defend its 1000 kilometer-long border. Michael Huznay, of Human Rights Watch, describes mine as “the perfect soldier,” designed to “sit there all day and all night: you don’t need to feed it, you don’t need to care for it, it just sits there and waits to kill.”
As Huznay and other experts on the weapon describe its uses and effects, the film shows photos and footage of victims who survived, children missing limbs, adults on crutches and in wheelchairs. It also shows elephant victims, some blown open and left dead in the forest and some arrived at Salwala’s facility. While Judd narrates the stories of elephants who’ve come to the hospital, the film offers animated illustrations by Tahnee Gehm, mother and babies, working elephants whose owners hope to save them. At the hospital, Salwala works with volunteers, staff members, and doctors to do just that.
The film documents the frankly fascinating changes in their methods over time. Therdchai Jivacate, trained as a doctor for humans and devoted to providing prosthetics for human amputees, sets to work on developing similar devices for the injured animals. From year to year, these prostheses become more sophisticated, increasingly able to support the tremendous weights of the patients. One of the film’s several stories focuses on Baby Mosha, injured in 2006, when she was just seven months old, in 2009 fitted with a leg designed by Dr. Therdchai and constructed by a team of workers.
Baby Mosha’s long journey illustrates Salwala’s dedication, her insistence that elephants not be forgotten, that they represent a crucial part of Thailand’s past and present, and also a broader history of violence and loss in war, as well as difficult roads to recovery. The Eyes of Thailand includes an interview with a mother whose 19-year-old son was killed in Iraq, where he was working to clear out unexploded ordinances. “We have got to partner in many ways with the rest of the world,” she says, “We’re going to all have to work together.”
In pondering the horrific ways people invent to hurt each other—as well as how they work together to overcome the results—The Eyes of Thailand is like two other films screening at Newport, the short film A Journey with Purpose and the remarkable High Ground. Journey is narrated by young Joshua, whose grandfather Martin Becker was imprisoned at Auschwitz. When he was nine years old, Joshua says, he traveled to Poland with his Opa and his parents, to visit the site of so much trauma. His family says Joshua, wanted to let Martin “say goodbye to his horrible memories, and they wanted me to make sure those memories live forever.”
The film is one means to that end. Just 15 minutes long, it gently illustrates the process of passing on memories, sharing them so that they become meaningful in families, communities, and broader contexts too. Even if you’ve seen images of Auschwitz before—barbed wire and barracks, the infamous sign on the front gate (“Work will set you free”), the crematories—seeing them again, with Joshua and his grandfather, gives pause. The camera follows behind Martin as he walks to the barrack where he stayed as a nine-year-old, after his parents had been killed and he had been assigned to work, removing gold from corpses’ teeth, you can feel the weight he bears. Even after 70 years, his return to the prison is burdened with memories. “No one had a name,” Joshua narrates, over a shot of Martin showing the number on his arm that identified him for years. Joshua is moved when other visitors pay their respect to Martin: “They wanted to meet and shake Opa’s hand,” he says, while a close-up shows his grandfather’s eyes filling with tears. “
“All you need are the words of someone who survived,” says Joshua, in order to remember. If his Opa can now let go, in speaking those words, the boy pledges to preserve the memories. “There’s nothing more you can do, Opa,” he says, “The rest is up to me and my generation.” In an ideal world, next generations might be able to stop wars before they start, precisely because they see and absorb the costs, because they remember.
Michael Brown’s High Ground makes clear such costs, as well as how memory and forgetting are related processes, shaping the experiences of individuals who have been to war and returned. The film focuses on 2010’s “Soldiers to the Summit,” in which a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans traveled to Nepal to climb the 20,075-foot peak of Lobuche East. Coming from all four branches of the US military, they appear in the film as a team and as extraordinary individuals. Each brings his or her own experiences, as well as injuries ranging from lost limbs and blindness to PSTD and TBI. During their training on St. Mary’s Glacier in Colorado (“Preparing, training, mission briefings,” observes Army veteran and journalist Brock Mockenhaupt, “is the same thing as when you get ready for patrol”), they share their stories, looking back even as they contemplate what’s to come.
This mix of memory and anticipation is particularly poignant in High Ground—scheduled to open in theaters this summer. Some of the soldiers want to forget, others can’t remember. “One of the reasons I went into the hospital,” says Marine staff sergeant Katherine Ragazzino, “is a friend of mine, she said to me said, ‘Since you’ve come back, you’re not the same person.’” At the time of the summit, the VA has lost her paperwork, and so Rizzo is “technically homeless,” staying serially with friends. “The only time I feel comfortable is with other military personnel,” she says, “I’m kind of in a hole right now, I have no real foundation.”
Rizzo finds a foundation with other vets, a foundation that’s simultaneously old and new. Sergeant Dan Sidles compares his training as a marine to “enriching uranium to make into a nuclear bomb, and then when you put him in combat, you’re kind of pushing the button. And then,” he adds, “You’ve got to like put out the flames of the nuke afterwards. And that takes forever, if it ever does happen.” Back home, he’s uneasy, he says, ‘That’s when the war is fought.” Taking on Lobuche East, he finds trust, focus, and community, a way to put out the flames.
A recurrent theme in the veterans’ stories is how difficult it is to share. Many face a notorious warriors’ code, that sharing bad memories or fears can be tantamount admitting to weakness. Other obstacles include the troubled economy, the VA’s crushing bureaucracy, and debilitating nightmares. The summit provides the vets with a new kind of mission. It’s also means to share memories and expectations, with one another. Brown’s movie extends such sharing to other communities as well, who might also never forget.