“The Eyes of Thailand” won the Humanitarian Award at the Newport Film Festival where it premiered last weekend to a sold out crowd. Director and producer Windy Borman acknowledges it has been four and a half years since she first visited the Friends of Asian Elephants Elephant Hospital in Lampang, Thailand and with her camera. There she was inspired by the founder of FAE, Soraida Salwala. Soraida is a warm, big-hearted and passionate muse, kind of like a Mother Therese for the elephants. Her caring is charismatic as it is compelling. In fact, her compassionate activism has not only inspired those around her to help but also through the making of this wonderful film, will ultimately raise the level of humanitarian reactions internationally.
Borman relates her story with skill to make it universally appealing: She is informative without being dry, exposes tragedy without being maudlin, and captures the light of hope shining through without being sentimental. Hers is the interconnected story of two global issues: the plight of the Asian elephant, and the continued suffering caused by land mines.
The elephant has been revered as the Buddha himself, and is the symbol of Thailand. And yet changing customs throughout the years have reduced their numbers to an endangered level. (From 40,000 to 2,600 in just 14 years.) Today the magnificent beast suffers for the customs, entertainment and profit of its “owners”, is regularly beaten and denied simple natural behaviors of elephants in the wild. Chained and made to carry people and other loads or perform tricks or stand hungry and thirsty for hours to become part of religious rituals, or walk in the busy traffic to beg for food.
Although logging with elephants has been outlawed in Thailand, it is still in play in Burma, which shares a long border with Thailand. There are elephants who still wander with some degree of freedom and regularly cross back and forth over the border.
Soraida had seen just about every kind of elephant injury and abuse since she was a young girl. She saw an injured elephant at the side of the road with no one to help it. This made a big impression on her and she was determined to help when she got older. The doors of her hospital are open to all injured elephants.
But ten years ago, she was brought the first case of an elephant who had stepped on a land mine. Motala’s foot had been blown off. The Burmese use land mines along the border for security. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Both humans and other animals today are killed and maimed by these land mine explosions in Burma and other countries around the world.
Humans’ interconnection with other animals is evident as we see dozens of cases of young people and old with limbs missing. It is a phenomenon which was addressed by Princess Diana when she was alive and by many activists around he world, and yet it still exists in many third world countries. Innocent lives, mostly of poor indigenous people, are ruined by random weapons which should have been banned globally years ago.
Besides elephants, our consciousness was raised on the insidious continued use of land mines, and a primer of who does and does not support the ban. (Shamefully, the U.S. does not support the ban, and evidently American companies are still making the weapons.)
Human prosthetic legs have been manufactured but never before had such an appliance been attempted for an animal as massive and heavy as an elephant.
Soraida had looked and hoped for something like that to help her beloved Motala who she continued to support and nurse and whose wounds took ten years to heal enough to consider an appliance. Putting weight on the wounded leg of course hurt her, and walking without it skewed her anatomical posture, so her movement was severely limited. Soraida attracted the services of a kind medical doctor, Dr. Therdchai Jivacate of the Prostheses Foundation. who was determined to help her help the elephants.
A younger elephant, Baby Mosha, was brought to the hospital with another land mine wound. Technology had become more advanced. Soraida and her Dr. Jivacate decided to try and create an artificial leg for the young elephant first. Since he was smaller it would make the process a bit smoother.
"The Eyes of Thailand" is the story of two elephants finally being fitted with prosthetic legs so they could walk again. But at its core it is the story of the driving heart and soul of one person who could make it happen. In telling this story, the audience experiences a clear window on the sad plight of the Thai elephant and the disaster of the remaining land mines in the world today. The story is presented clearly and scientifically, and would be suitable for people of all ages. The opening story of the Buddha is laid out in charming animation. It is narrated by Ashley Judd. Next stop for "The Eyes of Thailand" is the Wildlife Film Festival in Montana.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Thailand photos taken byJulia Ferdinand