Love & Bananas is a modest but captivating documentary about the sorry fate of elephants in Southeast Asia. It dodges the hazard that plagues many cinematic labors of love. Too often the director’s enthusiasm and good intentions don’t translate to us in the audience. Not this time! Actress and filmmaker Ashley Bell is our avatar onscreen, and (with producer-writer-editor-cinematographer John Michael McCarthy III and director of photography-executive producer Roddy Tabatabai) she manages to make us feel as if we’re experiencing a great adventure alongside her in real time. The immediacy of her two-week trip to Southeast Asia is palpable and unpredictable.
The real star of the film—a heroine by any standards—is naturalist Lek Chailert, a wise, charismatic woman who has made it her mission to save elephants, who are routinely abused in order to “tame” them for zoos and circuses and provide labor for logging, She runs Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and has had remarkable success giving these creatures a life of freedom and happiness. The owner of a trekking camp that caters to tourists has agreed to surrender a pachyderm named Noi Na who is 70 years old and blind. We are present as Bell and Chailert supervise the herculean task of putting this massive animal onto a truck for a daring two-day trip to Chailert’s elephant refuge. The suspense that builds over this dangerous, sweltering journey could rival any Hollywood movie. Everyone involved is trying his or her best but the animal is confined, confused, and easily dehydrated.
There are also success stories in Love & Bananas, and Bell knows that showing is better than telling. Her responses to these episodes allow us to share her joy and provide a perfect through-line for the film, which runs a mere 77 minutes. Bell and McCarthy hired Fernanda Rossi, an experienced writer of documentary scripts, to help shape their many hours of footage, and it paid off handsomely.
It’s easy to see that Bell’s reactions are candid and genuine. She is an actress by trade but her appearance in this film is completely unselfconscious and endearing. Love & Bananas has a message to impart but it’s never preachy or pedantic. It accomplishes its goals with heartfelt enthusiasm. What more could one ask of a documentary?
Jessie and I were so taken with the film and the cause. We knew we needed to help spread the word as quickly as possible, so we invited the filmmakers to join us on our podcast for a special episode. You can listen to it HERE.
(Full disclosure: Ashley Bell and my daughter Jessie attended preschool together, so my wife and I went to see Love & Bananas with great trepidation. What if we didn’t like it? How could we face Ashley’s parents, whom we’ve known for so many years? Fortunately, we loved the film and didn’t have to put on a phony smile. As icing on the cake, Jessie did a great job moderating a q&a after the showing at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Bravo all around!)