The Quandary of the Unreliable Narrator
Navigating ethical challenges comes with the territory when making documentary films. I am endlessly fascinated by the ethical choices we face, perhaps because ethics is so often about nuance, rather than binary black-and-white options. This is, in part, why I make films—to get at the truths most often found in the gray areas of life, which documentary is so well-suited to explore.
This column delves into some of the ethical conundrums I faced while directing One Lucky Elephant, a feature doc that traces circus producer David Balding's nine-year quest to find a good home for Flora, his "elephant daughter," as he retired her from his circus. The film traces 28 years of Flora's life, a time span that also reflects evolving attitudes about keeping wild animals in captivity—and therefore, conflicting and strongly held views on what was best for Flora. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, this story presented one ethical quandary after another.
Early in our editing, we consistently got feedback that people didn't trust David, a main character in the film. Initially, I found this puzzling. I found him to be an interesting and genuinely well-intended person. The creator of the much-loved Circus Flora, he had dropped out of Harvard to work in a circus, and had always wanted an elephant. He adopted Flora in the 1980s, when she was two, after she was captured and orphaned in a culling in Zimbabwe, and shipped to the US. That part of the story felt a little fuzzy, which seemed understandable, as it had occurred over 20 years earlier. As we continued filming, however, I learned there was more to the story.
In reviewing my footage and transcripts, I became aware that David was saying the exact same thing, word for word, during interviews in 2008 as when I'd first interviewed him in 2000. I realized I had a problem. David was a master of speaking in sound bites that sounded conversational. (He was a circus producer, after all.) He'd spoken a lot about Flora as his "elephant daughter" and how retiring her from the circus was like sending her off to college. Off camera, I asked him how much that really rang true for him, or whether it was simply an irresistible analogy cooked up for the press. Honorably, he admitted to the latter. He loved Flora, and had paternal feelings for her, but the analogy only went so far. Audiences were picking up on all this, which raised an ethical issue that all doc filmmakers face: How much do we shape the presentation of our characters? Usually, we want our protagonists to be likeable, or at least sympathetic. Certainly credible. How much can we calibrate a portrayal before we cross a line into dishonesty, fueled by creative desires? This question stayed with us over two years of editing. Every filmmaker has his or her own ethical compass, and we found ways to allow audiences to empathize with David while staying true to his complexities.
These questions were raised again mid-production, when I learned about a dangerous incident involving Flora, which David had neglected to tell me. Reviewing PETA lists of elephant attacks, I discovered that a year before David announced Flora's retirement, she had attacked and almost killed a woman. I was astonished. David had never mentioned this. This was a "lie by omission." Clearly, this changed the story and complicated his motivations to retire Flora. I realized I had "been spun" more deeply than I'd thought, and that I needed to think of David, whom I liked very much, as an unreliable narrator, whose narrative couldn't always be trusted.
In fiction, an unreliable narrator is an intentional narrative device, introducing story inconsistencies in order to create dramatic tension, misdirect the reader or viewer, or hint at unknown secrets or perspectives. Another description of an unreliable narrator, however, is a character whose credibility has been seriously compromised—usually bad news for documentary filmmakers (unless they are exploring the nature of truth, such as in Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, or the characters in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing). We often spend years building credibility with our subjects, and the last thing we want is an untrustworthy main character.
While I was pondering how to deal with David's omissions, another ethical situation arose. I had requested an interview with a key player in Flora's life, Carol B., who held custody of Flora at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and she set a precondition: She would only grant me an interview if I first interviewed the woman Flora had attacked. This felt like extortion to me. And would there be additional pre-conditions, even if I was able to satisfy this first one? At the same time, I realized that the attack was a major piece of the puzzle of Flora's life. I decided to pursue the pre-condition and see where it led.
We had to hire a private investigator to track down the woman Flora had attacked, as she clearly did not want to be found. In an initial phone call, I explained my intentions for the film, my point of view and why I felt it was important to interview her. (I honestly can't remember if I disclosed that interviewing her was a precondition to interviewing the elephant sanctuary founders; by this time, I, too, felt her story was essential to understanding Flora's story.) By the end of the phone call, Toni had agreed to an interview, saying this would the first and last interview she would give about her encounter with Flora. I was elated. I had the missing link to Flora's story, and I would fulfill the conditions laid down by the sanctuary.
A week later, Toni's husband called. He and Toni were really sorry, but she couldn't do the interview. Just thinking about it was triggering her PTSD symptoms, which stemmed from the attack. Another ethical challenge: From what Toni had told me on the phone, her experience with Flora was a key to the larger story. But I certainly didn't want to be responsible for triggering Toni's PTSD symptoms. Another long phone call ensued. I got some clarity on what her husband Jim had seen and not seen, and felt that he could at least tell part of Toni's story. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to give me an interview on camera. I would still have to figure out how to tell the story of what happened when only Toni was present. Then came the soul-searching. There were maybe 20 to 30 minutes when Toni was the only one present during the attack. Toni's interview felt so essential to trying to understand the real cost of keeping an elephant in captivity. My producers, DP and I talked this through for hours. After speaking to psychologists who specialized in treating people with PTSD, I decided to try to create the conditions during filming in which Toni might feel safe, and comfortable enough to chime in while her husband was giving the interview.
On our shoot, I kept the psychologists' counsel in mind: We let Toni be in control of the time, location and way our interactions unfolded. We used a smaller camera than usual. We put the sound recordist in a different room, out of sight. We set up the interview with Jim. He began to tell the story of how they came to visit Flora. (Her caretaker had invited them to spend time with Flora on David's farm, while David was out of town.) As we began filming, Toni paced around the room, off camera, listening to Jim tell the story of what had happened to her. At one point, Toni chimed in, the DP slowly panned the camera toward her, she continued telling her story, and that was that. During a pause, we double-checked with Toni that it was OK that we were now filming her, and by this point, she was fine with it. Her interview is a key sequence in the finished film.
It was a gamble, and it paid off. Toni and Jim came to our LA Film Festival premiere, and Toni told us that she was glad to have participated in the film, because through her own near-death experience, she came to believe that elephants should not be kept in captivity and she wanted to share what she had learned. I'll be forever grateful that she decided to give that interview.
I did not hide from David the fact that we had interviewed Toni, and that the film would include Flora's attack. I believe he wasn't happy about it, but I suspect a part of him was relieved; the truth was out there, and people could make up their own minds about why Flora acted as she did. I think even David had a hard time understanding Flora's behavior.
To their credit, the sanctuary founders, who'd set the initial pre-condition, honored their terms, and did grant me an interview and access to the sanctuary. It was the first time I'd seen Flora in seven years. Which led to the next ethical challenge: dealing with narrative and "truth." The sanctuary had decided that the only way Flora could learn to fully integrate with the other African elephants at the sanctuary was to sever the human relationships she'd had; therefore, Flora should never see David again. This decision was strongly supported in some circles, and strongly contested by others. Each person who had played a key role in Flora's life had a very different and compelling idea about what was best for Flora. My own opinion kept shifting, depending on whom I'd most recently spoken to.
This situation reminded me of an Indian parable, in which five blind men are asked to describe the essence of an elephant. Each one feels a different part, such as a leg, tail or tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. This parable felt like a perfect metaphor for what was happening in the story I was filming—and for the very nature of the truth we documentary filmmakers are hoping to grasp and convey: We are each blinded by our own perspective, shaped by our own experiences, and usually, at best, we hold a partial view of "the truth." In such a case, what was my job as a storyteller? How could we ever truly know what would be best for Flora?
As a storyteller, I'm not interested in preaching. I decided that the most compelling way to tell this larger story was to give each key player in Flora's life a platform to passionately defend their point of view. This deeply engaged audiences; they often describe feeling, "Oh, she's right," as they hear Carol (the sanctuary founder), and then feeling the same when they hear David, and then in turn being swayed by Willie, the Pittsburgh zookeeper/elephant expert.
I chose this narrative strategy not out of some sense of journalistic or narrative fairness; rather, I wanted to give audiences the agency to wrestle with the conundrum of what was best for Flora, and to make up their own minds. I felt this would best evoke the larger underlying theme that I'd discovered while making One Lucky Elephant: When we mess with nature, it's hard to restore balance or right a wrong; interspecies relationships come at a price; and we need to move from a paradigm of domination to one of co-existence.
Sadly, David Balding died in 2014. His relationship with Flora remained the same as when the film was finished. The next time you encounter well-intentioned people who disagree, each feeling that they have an exclusive claim on truth, perhaps you'll remember Flora's story, and that of the five blind men. As for me, I've moved on to another film, with an entirely new set of ethical conundrums.
One Lucky Elephant can be seen on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.
Lisa Leeman has been making documentaries for nearly 30 years. Her previous work includes Awake: The Life of Yogananda, Crazy Wisdom, Who Needs Sleep and Out of Faith. Her award-winning first film, Metamorphosis: Man into Woman (Sundance, Filmmakers Trophy), will be re-released next year for its 25th anniversary. She is currently working on a sequel to Metamorphosis, and on the American Veda Documentary Project.