Couple's film portrays emotional elephants Call of the Wild

February 09, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Wildlife observers generally suppress the urge to speak of animals in human terms.

They take care to describe behavior and not speculate about motivation.

But talk about elephants with Dereck and Beverly Joubert, a husband/wife filmmaking team, who have lived for 14 years in the African bush, and you soon hear the words "emotion" and "grief" and even "soul."

"When we start dealing with animal emotion, it's something very difficult to prove," acknowledges Mr. Joubert.

Yet in describing a scene from their most recent film, "Reflections on Elephants," in which a large bull caresses an ivory tusk of a dead elephant, the filmmaker asserts, "we've seen enough of it to venture that he is feeling something -- definitely sadness, quite possibly mourning."

"You have a feeling that they know exactly who has died," adds Mrs. Joubert.

Indeed, during a recent interview in Washington, on a rare United States visit to promote the film's PBS showing tonight, she contends the two years she and her husband spent trailing a herd of elephants across Botswana have shown "there are so many qualities that are similar to humans."

Mr. Joubert goes farther. "All of our characteristics that we really care about are there in elephants. All the ones of human behavior we don't care for are not there."

The Jouberts' remarkable film documents maternal devotion, playfulness, courage, carelessness and, yes, apparent sadness.

It suggests they share a language, too: a low rumbling barely discernible by humans, yet which might be transmitted over 10 kilometers or more.

"It was important for us to do this film because they are intelligent, compassionate and emotional animals that need to be valued for that reason," contends Mr. Joubert.

Mrs. Joubert quotes the psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung, who said Africa was one of the only places that had not lost its soul.

"If it were to lose its elephants, it might," she suggests.

The couple, who spend up to 10 months a year living out of a four-wheel-drive vehicle as they trail animals, appeared last week before an audience at the National Geographic Society in Washington, previewing and discussing their film.

They came away encouraged, for no one challenged their assertions that elephants deserve more areas to roam free and protection from ivory poachers and other human predators.

"That indicates quite a serious change in mood," suggests Mr. Joubert, who notes that Botswana is the last nation in Africa where up to 60,000 elephants are able to range across a 40,000-square-mile migration pattern, thanks to a vast nature preserve.

Yet "Reflections on Elephants" documents the human threat to the big beasts. In one sequence, a group of elephants swims a river to enter neighboring Namibia, where protective measures are not in force and poachers thrive.

The human-to-elephant connection is a complex linkage, too, say the Jouberts. Its best expression, they say, is respect and freedom, not direct management.

Viewers of the film, for example, will likely feel some moral ambiguity, perhaps even outrage, over its dispassionate observation of young calves in peril.

In one sequence, which the filmmakers believe has never been )) recorded before, a matriarch-led herd of elephants adopts an orphan male calf that has been abandoned in a water hole.

Before the rescue, however, as the animal yowls pitiably and the camera picks up the gleaming eyes of hyenas in the nighttime scene, narrator Stacy Keach makes the situation sound dire.

Would the Jouberts have left the animal to its fate?

"Oh, in fact, we thought lions or hyenas were going to kill it," says Mr. Joubert. They would have filmed that scene, too.

"We had to decide very early in this business we are there to document, and play as small an influential role as possible," Mr. Joubert asserts, adding, "We've seen more failures of human adoptions of animals than successes, by far."

But he acknowledges, "it's particularly hard with elephants" to let nature take its course.

Mrs. Joubert says making films was not their plan when she and her husband first moved into the wild. And observing wildlife is a skill they had to learn.

The two, now in their middle 30s, warmly describe a love story that led them into a life of simplicity and adventure, in which each at times must trust the other absolutely.

Mrs. Joubert recounts recently hoisting her husband into a tree with a sling, so he could gain a filming vantage point.

"If he hadn't been nice to me, I might not have brought him down," she quips.

"The real key to working together is not to have any insurance, so there's no beneficiary," he shoots back.

They met and began dating in high school in their native Johannesburg, South Africa, discovering they shared a vague yet mutual desire to live a life in nature.

"Both Dereck and I knew we wanted to do something different in life, and we knew really very soon that we wanted to be able to share our work time with each other," relates Mrs. Joubert.

They began working at safari resorts and the Chobe Lion Research Institute in Botswana, and at one time operated their own excursion business. "We were in the bush for five years before we began filming," she says.

Mr. Joubert attributes the extraordinary vividness of their work to the fact they had learned animal behavior before they began to document it.

Their previous film, "Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas," was the highest-rated program on PBS in 1992 and recently was named Best of Festival at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

EMOTIONAL ELEPHANTS

What: "Reflections on Elephants," a National Geographic Special

When: 8 o'clock tonight

Where PBS stations, WMPT-Channels 22/67 and WETA-Channel 26

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