Documentary filmmaking can take many different forms, and can delve into limitless topics. But the best documentaries are the ones that can get to the heart of a larger issue by focusing in on a specific case. In “The Eyes of Thailand,” filmmaker Windy Borman focuses on two Asian elephants that stepped on landmines—and Soraida Salwala, the woman who spent 10 years of her life making sure that the elephants could walk again, eventually with the use of prosthetics.
Borman’s film captures the trials and triumphs of Salwala and the elephants, Mosha and Motala, while also raising awareness about how landmines are still being used and maiming and killing innocent victims in Southeast Asia.
“The Eyes of Thailand” will have its world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival on Saturday. Narrated by Ashley Judd, the film was awarded an ACE Film Grant from the Human Society of the United States.
The film took Borman four and a half years to complete, and in 2010, she brought aboard Tim VandeSteeg to co-produce. VandeSteeg’s documentary “My Run” played Newport in 2010. VandeSteeg was there for the final push, and helped to bring Judd aboard as narrator.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Borman as she was getting ready for the premiere of “The Eyes of Thailand.”
Film Slate Magazine: How did this issue come to your attention? How did you learn about Soraida Salwala and these two elephants?
Windy Borman: I was actually in Thailand on a two month project. I was filming a theater company that was doing a fundraiser for the elephant hospital. And they did a site visit one day, so I’m tagging along with my camera, just to see what happens. And Soraida surprises us. She sits down, and talks to me on camera for two hours and says, ‘Come meet my elephants.’
So we go back to meet the elephants, and at that point, I had never heard of elephants stepping on landmines before. And just seeing them and just being like, trusting and sensitive and wise…The little one was so playful and it just really stayed with me and I came home, and I remember just logging all the footage from that tape, and when I got to the elephant hospital part I just started to cry. I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll never be able to write a check big enough, but as a filmmaker I can make a movie about this.’
FSM: But obviously, in making a film, if something grabs you like that…You want to be as specific as possible about filming a subject like this, one that grabs you could grab the audience as well.
WB: Definitely, definitely. I think sometimes we as filmmakers, we’re our own worst critics. We’re like, ‘I don’t know. Does this have enough juice? Do I really want to invest five years of my life into something (laughs)?’ And so I just threw all caution to the wind and said, ‘yes.’ It’s unacceptable for me to live in world where an endangered species is stepping on landmines.
Let alone women and children, other sentient beings. But when you see a two year old baby elephant waddling around on three legs…she had nothing to do with the conflict. And calling it collateral damage just seems really trite. So I want to do something about it.
That said, the story has changed, because I had three trips back to Thailand. I got into the issue in 2007, and then in 2009 Soraida sent me an e-mail and said the elephants are getting their [prosthetic] legs in two weeks and can you be here? And I was like (sheepishly), ‘Yes.’ So this was before Facebook and fundraising apps and Indie Go Go and things like that were really going, so I called everyone in my cell phone book, and by the end of the weekend I had enough money to buy a plane ticket and so I went to Thailand for two weeks.
So it was really wonderful to be there and also, now it felt like I’ve got the happy ending, because, sorry to give it away, but the elephants walked, and Soraida cried, and it was like, put a bow on it, it’s done. And then in 2010, two more elephants stepped on landmines. So I felt like there was an epilogue there, like we couldn’t just have the happy ending. We needed to do something else.
Then it also gave me an opportunity to go to this landmine conference that was happening in Laos. I got the chance to talk to these landmine experts and find out why are they using landmines in Southeast Asia?
FSM: Once you started gathering all of the footage, did you have an idea of how the narrative was coming together? How did you approach telling the story?
WB: I was actually behind the camera for most of the film—all because of a lack of resources—so out of necessity I was filming and doing sound and all that stuff. So I had a pretty good sense of what was filmed, and when you’re doing a narrative, I’m sure you’ve heard this adage of, ‘you write your film three times.’ You write it on paper, you write it in the field, and you write it again in the editing room. So the story changed on each of the three trips. I refined it a little bit. But when I came back from the last trip in 2010, we had brought on a screenwriter, Tim O’Brien. So he really helped me organize the transcripts—it’s over 50 hours of footage.
And he really helped me go, ‘Okay, to tell the story you’re envisioning, these quotes in this order.’ And we would push a paper edit back and forth and then refine it and refine it. That way our editor finally had something to work on in 2011.
FSM: How did you decide on submitting to Newport for the world premiere? Were there other festivals on the list, or was that what you primarily decided on?
WB: We submitted to several film festivals. Tim had a pre-existing relationship with Newport Beach. We actually sent them an early cut well before their deadline. And Erik Forssell (program director at Newport-ed.) watched the film and I remember getting this phone call from Tim and him going, ‘Can you talk right now?’ And I think that I was home sick or something, and I was like, ‘Really, right now?’ And he was like, ‘Really, it’s good news.’ And I was sitting there with my tea and everything, and Erik hops on the phone and he was like, ‘I love the film…I want the film, I want the world premiere, let me know what I need to do.’ So that was a great phone call to get when you’re not feeling well.
FSM: You have Ashley Judd as your narrator. How did that come about?
WB: That was really Tim. I give him all the credit for that…I always heard a woman, and I always heard someone with just a really wonderful, rich voice. And Ashley Judd was on the list, on the top of that list.
So Tim, as you know, is just really energetic and persistent, and he just worked the phones and at the end of February we got the word that Ashley was willing to do it and I flew to Nashville to record the voice-over and came back, and we dropped it in, and then had our final sound mix a couple of weeks later at Skywalker. It was all very fast, but it was like it was meant to be, and Ashley sounds fantastic.
FSM: Finally, what do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
WB: The film has two calls to action, or two causes. The first is protecting Asian elephants…I think a lot of times, African elephants get more press in the U.S. because of the ivory poaching and things like that. And then there’s this expectation of when you go to Asia, it’s ‘Oh, I’m going to feed an elephant, I’m going to ride an elephant.’ They’re separate species but they’re really similar. But they (Asian elephants) don’t have the same level of protection in Asia because they’re viewed as domesticated…
And the second one is we want everyone to encourage the remaining 37 countries to sign the mine ban treaty, because in order to get the assistance to get the mines out of the ground, you have to sign the mine ban treaty.
But bigger than that, I think that the film has these other overriding themes. It brings up questions from people like, ‘What impossible thing in your life have you tried to overcome?’ Or, what injustice do you see that you are willing to donate 10 years of your life for? And I think that it also forces us to ask questions about how we see ourselves in the environment we’ve created.