"My first steps, my first words, my first memories were all made in Africa. It’s part of who I am,” twelve-year-old Lysander Christo says in the opening scenes of Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant, a 2018 documentary film made by his parents, Santa Fe residents Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.
Christo and Wilkinson have been documenting the relationship between humans and the natural world since the late 1990s, often focusing on Africa. The pair talk over one another and tend to finish one another’s sentences; they don’t always agree but seem to always be in sync, with the same ultimate goals. They are the authors of Lost Africa: The Eyes of Origin (2004), Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of the African Elephant (2009), and In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears (2013). They shot much of the footage for Walking Thunder, their first full-length film, between 2012 and 2015. In determining the documentary’s narrative structure, Wilkinson said, they “found a parallel with the development of a child: the awe and wonder phase, when everything is exciting and new; to the next phase of caring; to the next phase of concern and activism.”
Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant screens at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, as part of the Taos Environmental Film Festival.
Lysander traveled with his parents to Africa throughout his childhood, and those journeys were captured on video. To flesh out the story, Wilkinson and Christo pulled from some of that older footage. We first see Lysander as a giggling, tow-headed toddler, and then when he’s a little older, asking very serious questions about elephants’ tails. As a nine-year-old, he is planning a career as a naturalist and becomes irate at the sight of a truckload of arts and crafts made from poached ivory. In addition to Lysander’s perspective, Walking Thunder includes interviews with villagers and park rangers who discuss their relationships with large animals.
The documentarians’ aim is nothing less than saving the planet. “Animals are our first teachers. Apart from climate change, biodiversity is the single-most overriding issue of our time. The animals have to remain in order for us to be viable,” said Christo, whose father is the environmental artist Christo.
Walking Thunder takes a holistic look at the plight of African elephants and the many sources of danger that they face, including issues of drought and food scarcity, human encroachment and poaching. Walking Thunder could be considered a kinder, gentler version of the hard-hitting 2017 documentary Trophy, which explored the illegal ivory trade and the threat of big-game hunting. Although Christo and Wilkinson present some of this information in their film, they were determined to tell a different story.
“We were not interested in going after the poachers, or in the gore and the danger. I mean, we had a young child with us,” Wilkinson said. “We were trying to teach him about joy. How do we establish this in a young person — a firm joy in the wonders that are in this world?”
Christo and Wilkinson said it was crucial to them to foreground the voices of the African people in the countries they visited, including Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Villagers, rangers, and others continually emphasize a belief that elephants have human souls and can understand human speech. Christo and Wilkinson said that many rural people have centuries-old relationships with and respect for large animals, even if they have traditionally hunted them or have been hurt by elephants, which can sometimes rampage or run wild, usually when threatened.
“There are stories of elephants helping kids find fruits and keeping baboons away,” Christo said, adding that many modern ecological conservation efforts in Africa are imposed on rural indigenous communities from the outside, but that these communities typically aren’t the ones menacing the wildlife.
“Humans and animals share a common bond. Animals aren’t Other — even though, frankly, that’s not respected much in the Western world,” Wilkinson said.
The footage of playful elephants frolicking in lakes could put one in mind to visit the African continent to see the imposing animals up close, but, Wilkinson said, their goal is not to convince people that they must be international travelers in order to care for the natural world. Nor must the educational emphasis be on saving the elephants from thrill-seeking big-game hunters or violent poachers. “Some people get to go to Africa, and some do not, but you can find wildlife and the natural ecosystem no matter where you live,” Wilkinson said. “We need to start recognizing and caring about that. I just don’t think that focusing on the criminal element is going to help us learn to walk down the sidewalk and notice a blade of grass and think about all the animals that are in this world.” ◀
▼ Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant screening, Taos Environmental Film Festival
▼ 4 p.m. Sunday, April 21
▼ Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
▼ $5 suggested donation, 575-758-2052, taosenvironmentalfilmfestival.com