La Compagnie des Taxi-Brousse
Canada (Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit)
Centre National de la Cinématographie et de l’Image Animée
Rogers Documentary Fund
Québec (Film and Television Tax Credit – Gestion SODEC)
SODEC (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles, Young Creators Program – Québec)
France Télévisions (France 5)
TV5 Québec Canada
Mrey is a legend among his people, having caught and tamed hundreds of elephants over his lifetime. Now in declining health, he is haunted by recurring nightmares. Each night, the elephant spirits demand a sacrifice for the elephants he stole from the forest. Now Mrey must find a way to appease the spirits before his death. Thus begins a journey across Mondulkiri province to find the last remaining elephants he caught and ask them for forgiveness.
When she was 25, Mane became the first member of the Bunong tribe to get a university degree. Now at 32, she is a human rights lawyer devoted to helping her people secure legal claim to their ancestral lands. At the same time, she must confront a trauma in her past – the sale of her family’s elephant. Mane has always wondered: had she stayed in the village, would her elephant have been sold? Now in an attempt to heal family wounds, Mane sets out to find her elephant and bring her back.
17-year old Duol prefers motorcycles to elephants. Yet, when his father becomes too ill to work, he must take a job as a mahout – an elephant rider. As he begins his training, he discovers the weight of responsibility that comes with the job. Not only must he look after the elephant, but he must also perform sacrifices whenever something terrible happens in the village in order to placate the spirits. When his elephant falls sick with a mysterious illness, Duol’s world is turned upside down and his future as a mahout is called into question.
Conservationists have long referred to the province of Mondulkiri in Eastern Cambodia as the Serengeti of Asia. Uniquely isolated by monsoons and with little road access, the region is home to vast pristine forests and rare wildlife. It is also home to several indigenous communities, including the Bunong – a tribe famous for their unique bond with elephants.
The Bunong believe elephants and humans are derived from the same soul. For centuries, they considered it their sacred duty to reunite the two by catching and taming elephants from the wild. Once tamed, a single elephant was often shared by many families and was central to every aspect of Bunong life – their economy, religion and identity.
The last 40 years have seen violent upheaval in Eastern Cambodia: the Vietnam-American war, the brutal Khmer Rouge period and more recently the arrival of multinational logging and mining companies who are cutting down forest and seizing Bunong ancestral land at an alarming rate. The elephant population has been decimated.
Some Bunong have accepted the disappearance of the elephant from their culture. Others are fighting to prevent it. Ultimately the debate surrounding the future of the elephant has become a debate about the fate of the tribe itself: Who should control the terms of change? Is it possible to retain their identity once the animal that defined them is gone?
“Elephants did not just appear out of nowhere. They come from human beings. Long ago, the rivers were full of magical fish. When the people ate the fish, they turned into elephants. Ever since then, we have gone into the forest in search of the elephant men – so we can live together again.”
RIDM – Montreal International Documentary Festival Official Competition 2014
Hot Docs Official Selection 2015
ONE WORLD - International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival Official Competition 2015
Last of the Elephant Men looks at the dual plight of the Bunong and elephants as a microcosm for the pressures facing cultural and biological diversity worldwide. The themes can be applied to almost any indigenous community, yet for us the emotional bond between the Bunong and the elephant makes this story even more poignant.
Many of the Bunong we met throughout research and filming inspired us to try to tell the story from their point of view, reflecting their belief in the shared destinies of elephants and humans. We spent months living with our subjects, building the trust required for them to allow us into their world. This trust allowed us incredible intimacy and the chance to let the story unfold in a natural and observational way – without interviews, voice-over or narration.
Making this film was an opportunity to express years of frustration at watching the wild and domestic elephant population decline throughout Southeast Asia; anger at the mistreatment of the Bunong and indigenous communities worldwide at the hands of the powerful; outrage at the rapid rates of illegal deforestation and the companies and individuals who directly or indirectly support this cycle.
Ultimately, we made this film as an elegy for the domestic elephant across Asia and the traditional cultures who have depended on these animals for generations. With the average age of most working elephants now over 50 and wild capture outlawed, the days of these beasts of burden are coming to an end throughout much of Asia. It is time to let the dwindling captive population disappear with dignity and focus our collective energy on protecting the remaining wild population and their habitat.
If a species like Asian elephant is to survive and one day thrive again in a country like Cambodia, there must be a combined effort between the government, NGOs and indigenous communities like Bunong. Yet without legal rights to their rivers and forests and equal treatment, the Bunong will continue to be alienated. It is our hope that by presenting a portrait of individuals struggling to defend a vital part of their national collective heritage, this film might help to provoke a shift in popular thinking.
DF et AB
“When an elephant is sick, the whole village is sick.
When an elephant is saved, everyone is saved.”
– Bunong legend
For centuries, the Bunong indigenous people of Eastern Cambodia lived with elephants, depending on them for every aspect of life. Now with the forest around them threatened by logging and mining companies, both the Bunong and the elephant face a desperate struggle to survive. Last of the Elephant Men follows three members of the tribe as they attempt to prevent the disappearance of the animal at the heart of their culture.
Filmed over several years in stunning and remote locations across Cambodia, Last of the Elephant Men is an elegy for the domestic elephant in Asia and a plea to protect the remaining wild population. The story follows three Bunong from different generations – each showcasing fascinating and moving aspects of the bond between people and elephants: the legendary elephant catcher Mrey, who, haunted by nightmares and a lingering illness, must appease the elephant spirits before his final voyage; Mane, a human rights lawyer searching to understand what happened to her own family’s elephant, while she fights to help her people keep their ancestral lands; and Duol, a teenager learning to become a mahout – an elephant rider – in order to support his parents and keep his traditional culture alive.
From remote jungles to the iconic temples of Angkor and the bustling streets of Phnom Penh, the film reveals an intimate portrait of Cambodia’s disintegrating heritage, remarkable human-animal interaction, and an indigenous people trying to find solutions to universal problems. Ultimately the themes of these stories apply to many traditional cultures – a microcosm for the link between biological and cultural diversity and the pressures they both face worldwide.