Dairy of an Elephant Orphan – Review by Tony Asankomah

A group of elephants walking along a body of water
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The documentary film, “Diary of an Elephant Orphan,” written and directed by Hermain Roelvert-Van Gils, is about wildlife conservation and tells a very moving story about a tragic, orphaned baby elephant called Khanyisa

Filmed in the backdrop of beautiful landscapes and vistas of Hoedspruit, Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa. This documentary narrative captures and highlights the devoted world of wildlife carers of the ‘Elephant Orphanage‘ founded by Adine Roode, a Wildlife Rehabilitator. 

In the film, we get to see the dedication and hard work of Roode and her team who for years have been rescuing and nurturing orphaned elephants. 

Indeed, the story of “Diary of an Elephant Orphan” as seen in this film is very intriguing, but combined with audio-visual content and touching moments, it becomes almost an exposé that informs and moves one to a new understanding of and appreciation for these magnificent creatures. 

At the centre of this documentary is the albino baby elephant, snared at only four months old. She is rescued and appropriately, is named Khanyisa, meaning “Sunshine”.  And rightfully so, she lights up over the screen as a beacon of hope, against all odds as she tries to survive the worst with the help of her carers. 

Through filmmaker Hermain Roelvert-Van Gils’ lens, we are introduced to the beautiful soul of Adine Roode. She oozes genuine care and compassion and it is understandable why she would open an orphanage for these gentle creatures. Throughout the film, we see her work and commitment to the total rehabilitation of Khanyisa. She is inspirational and heartwarming to watch, the way she cares about this baby elephant almost as if it is her child. The film captures in true detail the emotional investment she makes in ensuring that the elephants are okay always. There are scenes in which she sheds tears and you are moved to tears along with her. Making it understandable why she would bond with this elephant and her vulnerability is felt to be genuine. 

This film points out the severity of the conflict between humans and wildlife going on in Africa. Poaching, as well as human settlements encroaching into wildlife zones, is proving detrimental to the population of all wildlife including elephants. This has resulted in an increasing number of elephant claves with no mothers to help them grow. 

The documentary’s narrative does not pull any punches in revealing the bleak nature of these creatures. We might be mistaken to think that elephants being huge creatures, have it easy to survive. But this film reveals that they are most vulnerable and susceptible to all kinds of viruses and ailments when they are babies. And that risk is worse when they do not have the protection and the affection of their mothers.

So the film is not just about Khanyisa and their efforts to save her. It is just a representation of the bigger struggles of Adine and her team at the orphanage. 

Veterinary doctor for wildlife, Dr. Peter Rogers, who is also featured in this film, insists that it is difficult raising elephants. And we get to see how difficult it is in this film. Elephants are very social animals reason they move and live together in herds. The carers know this and must now become one herd with the baby Khanyisa till she is old enough and strong enough to survive in the reserve with the other older animals. 

We see Adine Roode and the other carers provide her with not just feeding for sustenance, but physical care and treatments to heal her wounds from the snare she was caught in. But that isn’t even enough to ensure its survival. Baby elephants need to be given proper socialization and emotional and moral support, which is essential for their psychological mind. These dimensions are well captured in the film, showing how, through such endeavors, the carers at the orphanage give Khanyisa a nurturing environment. What their work provides goes far beyond merely feeding and medical care. It zeroes in on her emotional needs, and it ensures that she is loved and made to feel safe. 

This narration is extremely emotional and personal to those keepers and carers at the orphanage who have dedicated their lives to the well-being of orphaned elephants. Throughout the film, experiences and insights are shared very candidly and you are sure to easily feel the challenges they face while not necessarily being motivated by any rewards of their work.

One carer even shares the story of how he became an orphan himself at a younger age. A tragic experience that he believes motivates him to relate the situation of Khanyisa and the other elephants.

The devotion of the carers reflects utmost carefulness at any of the routine moments, be it moments of joy or sorrow, hope or despair in their work. This all is captured so well that the viewer can’t help but resonate with all their highs and lows. You see the smiles when there is some progress in the condition of the baby elephant, and you equally see their pain and despair when at times there are setbacks that the elephants face.

As the movie progresses, it dawns that viewers will be sucked into an emotional journey that “Diary of an Elephant Orphan” presents. All this says much about filmmakers’ ability to plunge viewers into the daily life of carers and the overall gravitas of the situation. The excellent use of cinematography with attractive shots of the African landscapes and wildlife seems like you are watching promotional material for a safari tour. You can say the same for how beautifully the creatures are captured in this film as well. Even in those crucial moments when it seems like it is the end of the road for Khanyisa. The shots are immersive, and you feel as though you are there with the team. The sound design effectively coordinated with the choice of sound score as well. It renders the necessary feel for the audience to plunge deep into the seriousness of the situation and the urgency of the carers’ mission. It is intense when needed and calming when necessary, as well. 

Diary of an Elephant Orphan” is touching in that it is a heart-to-heart account it is also imbued with educative value. The film sheds light on the social life of elephants, their behavioral characteristics, and, even more so, their family connections. When we start to watch it, we soon realize that not a million books read on elephants can be better than viewing this film. With how well this film was put together, you are able to see and appreciate these creatures for what they are majestic and intuitive.

Thoughtfully, the documentary also captures some rewarding sights and sounds of other wildlife bringing forth the beauty of the safari and the varied ecosystem in which the elephants are. 

The story becomes more touching as it tells of another orphan named Mopane, who had been rescued and nurtured to a healthy age ready to be introduced to the rest of the herd just three months before the coming of Khanyisa. But Mopane succumbed to a very aggressive virus and did not survive. 

These frantic efforts to resuscitate the 600kg elephant are very vividly captured for all to see in this film. The resulting consequent grief, showing the extent of the bond of its carers with the animals in their care is also captured.  This is one of the pivotal moments in the film that is sure to move anyone to tears. 

A person sitting on a baby elephant
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There are some powerful moments in the film where we witness nature at its best. Particularly when Khanyisa is introduced to the herd of elephants for the first time. They accept her and she feels safe and welcomed. When it is time for her to be taken back to the stables she refuses and one of the older elephants also doesn’t want her to and does all it can to keep the carers from taking the baby elephant away. 

This and other moments in the film are sure to bring you sheer joy and triumph. There are scenes when you see the elephants interact with each other and you can almost tell that they are bonding and socializing in the most jovial of ways. It is simply a delight to watch as you get to learn more about these creatures and the way they live.

Although having an 82-minute runtime, “Diary of an Elephant Orphan”, does not feel that long with the way it has you invested and captivated from its start to the end. 

Khanyisa is not the last elephant orphan, as human activities continue to put the lives of wildlife in jeopardy. The end of this film is not the end of the problem. It only reminds us that the fight keeps going on and we all must be hands-on in helping. Even if that means helping to spread the word. The film’s narrative brings home a substantial point. Just like us humans, it is hard for us to be orphaned and it takes the efforts of everyone for us to feel loved and safe.

The story of Khanyisa is, therefore, a prompt towards the need for wildlife conservation and a rallying call for collective action given this common peril that threatens the natural heritage of our land. This film is proof not only of the animal’s resilience but also of the human carers who work with them and is a treasure to be watched by all.

It serves as a real wake-up call for all of us that we have a personal responsibility to help protect our wildlife. That responsibility doesn’t and should lay on Adine Roode and her elephant orphanage alone.

Diary of an Elephant Orphan” is undoubtedly the type of documentary that combines intriguing storytelling, captivating audiovisuals, and a heartfelt message. I will score this film 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Catch the film at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival: http://encounters.co.za/

Author: Tony Asankomah

This review emanates from the Talent Press programme, an initiative of Talents Durban in collaboration with the Durban FilmMart Institute and FIPRESCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (Tony Asankomah) and cannot be considered as constituting an official position of the organisers.

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