In One Lucky Elephant, David Balding and Flora appear to share an understanding: if the elephant were speaking, they'd be finishing each other's sentences.
"She's territorial. She doesn’t want people in her territory. She's a teenager too, she likes to go in her room and close the door." David Balding is talking about an African elephant. Her name is Flora, and they've been together for 16 years. "We just spent so much time together that we're very close," Balding says, as Flora appears behind him, playing with his hair and jacket. "And," he adds, "She's annoying. If I leave her alone, she'll start to get bored." She nuzzles and pokes him with her trunk. He laughs.
During these early moments in One Lucky Elephant -- opening at the Film Forum in New York for two weeks on 8 June -- Balding and Flora appear to share an understanding. If she were speaking, they'd be finishing each other's sentences. Balding remembers that he adopted (bought) Flora when she was a baby, in 1984: her mother had been killed, and, as he puts it, "She was alone in a scary world and what she needed was love." Balding provided that, as well as a new life for Flora. Though she arrived with another elephant, he felt unable to keep both, and so he sold the second to a Mexican circus, a decision he now regrets, because the elephant died shortly afterwards.
Balding and Flora's relationship is offered here as a kind of romance: photos recall their early days as he narrates how much they enjoyed performing together. She became the center of his Flora Circus, in Miami, providing hours of entertainment for numerous crowds over many years. She looks adorable performing with her trainer Anouk Schmidt and Balding. "She liked the activity," says Schmidt, "She wasn’t good about just being alone." Indeed, she adds, Flora would "be David's date before he got married." And when David did get married, his wife Laura says, "I became a stepmother, and I also became the scone other woman."
This happy history, memories recorded as snapshots, is coming to an end as One Lucky Elephant begins. When, as an adolescent, Flora tires of performing in the circus, when she stops responding to cues and what her handler Raul Gomez calls her "pushiness" tips over into aggression, Balding decides to retire her. And this turns out to be a complicated process.
For one thing, he's righteously picky about where she might go. At first, he worries about how she'll live with other elephants. "She hasn’t actually been with other elephants for maybe 10 years or more," he says, "I do worry that she won't remember how to fit in." Moreover, most zoos, he notes, are unsuitable, with limited space and animals living in cages. "Almost all of them feel like jails to me," he says, "with the exception of the Pittsburgh Zoo," where the elephants are looked after by Willie Tyson, "the best elephant person I've ever met," says Balding. When the zoo is unable to take her, Balding finds a temporary place for Flora at the Miami Metro Zoo, where she's increasingly uncomfortable. At the point when she actually attacks a keeper, Balding is informed she has to be moved again.
"There's no doubt that something clicked in her mind," says Balding, "that she was really gonna hurt this guy." This question of what's going on in Flora's mind is increasingly key, to Balding's efforts to place her and to sort out his own feelings about her. It's also key to the portraits of the two of them. For as Balding looks for language to describe what's going on, the film provides images -- Flora in trucks and pens, Flora interacting with other elephants in Miami, Flora interacting with Balding. And as Balding's interpretations of her expressions and behaviors begin to clash with those of other experts, you begin to see something new -- not that one or the other explanation is correct or wrong, but that Flora is available for interpretation, that she's legible.
The stories about Flora begin to expand, including possibilities that Balding didn't comprehend back when he first met the elephant. Some of these possibilities come to the surface during One Lucky Elephant: in losing her mother so many years ago, in coming to Florida, and then losing her companion, Flora was traumatized. Her mind -- her capacity to absorb and respond to such crises -- becomes more visible in time, as she turns 13 or 14, as she begins to resist her circumstances, to display grief and anger and upset.
Balding comes to understand at least part of this as he talks with Carol Buckley, who has her own history with an elephant, Tara. Balding sees a similar trajectory for carol and her "roller-skating elephant": "I think she woke up one morning and realized she'd made some mistakes." Over a series in photos, Carol narrates her own story, as she rides the elephant, she wears sequins, she smiles and arcs her arms. When it came time for Tara to retire, Carol opened a sanctuary. "I need to set up a place where Tara is protected when I'm gone," Buckley says. And so she creates "a place that would be healthy for lots of elephants, because elephants live in groups."
Both Buckley and Balding come to see that their elephants not only have minds -- histories and experiences and needs and desires -- but also, even more profoundly, that they must be understood as free. Balding sees that he has to give Flora over to the sanctuary Carol can provide, where she will live among other elephants, and not be his. The film traces his wrestling with this idea, his resistance and his frustrations (reading on the facility's website that Flora's favorite food is bananas, he grumps, "That's not true, it's watermelon"), as well as his generosity, his capacity for unconditional love.
Balding, like Buckley, comes to terms with himself in coming to understand the elephant in his life. While the film uses Flora's story as an illustration of the problems of buying and selling and using wild animals in circuses and zoos, it also never keeps focused on an essential insight. Elephants, lucky or not, have minds.