Elephant 1967: Passage from India
It was a job that called for green screen. Lots of green screen.
Colin MacKenzie and Aparna Kapur have just completed an unusual shoot in southern India, kicking off production on Elephant 1967, a new animated documentary from Quebec-Atlantic Studio.
The project revisits the poignant and little-known story of Balakrishna, a bull elephant shipped from India to Halifax in 1967 as a promotional stunt for an Indian-financed factory in the small town of East River.
The Anil Hardboard Plant opened on Canada Day, at the height of the nation’s centennial festivities. The ceremony was to feature a live Indian elephant but history threw a spanner in the works. When the Six Day War interrupted shipping on the Suez Canal, Balakrishna and his handler were delayed enroute and missed the big event. Instead they became an exotic roadside attraction, drawing summer day-trippers from around the region. But as cold weather set in, it became clear that nobody had planned for the elephant’s welfare. Balakrishna died in February 1968, tethered to the ground in an under-heated shed.
Fascinated by this story of hubris and neglect, MacKenzie brought the project to the NFB in early 2013, when Annette Clark, executive producer of Quebec-Atlantic Studio, approved an investigate. “We hit paydirt when we found some great super-8 films and news footage,” says MacKenzie, “but it was Winton Cook who gave us our story. He was 13 that summer, the local paperboy. He made friends with Sankunni, the animal’s handler, and the whole experience had a profound effect on him. He filled an entire school scribbler with his account of the events, and he still gets emotional when he talks about how the animal was treated.”
The February shoot took place in Cherpulassery, Kerala, and was lensed by Santosh Sivan, a seasoned Indian DOP and director whose many credits include the feature Before the Rains. Siven employed green screen technique in some sequences, and the team collaborated with zoologist Nibha Namboodiri who works with captive elephants. She’s featured in the 1999 documentary Nibha and the Elephants, produced by the UK-based Icon Films and shown on BBC’s Channel 4, National Geographic and Discovery Channels.
“Ethics come first when working with animals,” says producer Kat Baulu, who’s made numerous wildlife docs. “Nibha was keenly tuned to the animals’ needs, and we really appreciated her guidance and insight on this shoot.”
MacKenzie is co-directing with Kapur, who is creating the animated sequences. Kapur won the Best Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award at the 2008 CFC World Wide Short Film for her animated short Amma. MacKenzie’s director credits include Jerry Granelli: In The Moment, and Decoding the Undertow, a dance film commissioned by ARTE.
Winton Cook’s account will serve as the through-line for film. Production continues through the spring and summer, with a release planned for early 2018. Watch this space for updates. Elephant 1967 is produced by Kat Baulu for Quebec-Atlantic Studio.
Photographs by Colin MacKenzie.