The way that humans treat animals speaks as much to our cultural values as it does to the characteristics of the animals themselves. In the case of our treatment of elephants, filmmaker Klaus Reisinger believes the animals can speak for themselves.
That's the guiding philosophy behind "Life Size Memories," a two-hour documentary that received its world premiere screening Friday - and which will be screened again on Saturday and Sunday - at the CINE Film Festival in Missoula.
Shot and edited over the course of four years, "Life Size Memories" explores the lives of individual captive elephants in Burma, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.
But unlike most documentarians, Reisinger approached the project with the aim of telling the story of the elephants with as few human words as possible.
"We didn't want talking people, because the elephant is the main character, so we wanted the elephant to do most of the talking," said Reisinger, a native of Austria who came to Missoula this week for the film's inaugural showing. "It's so easy to set someone up and ask them what they think and then fill the soundtrack with blah-blah narrative. But to go into the situation, understand it, and translate it into a sequence that's told in images that gives the same impact emotionally and intellectually, that's the challenge we set out to achieve."
Reisinger and his French filmmaking partner, Frédérique Lengaigne, are certainly accustomed to letting images speak for themselves. Both spent years as war-zone news photographers, shooting human chaos from Russia to Haiti to Rwanda.
But back in 1996, the two began a filmmaking project, documenting the complex situation faced by wild elephants in Burma, which were coming into increased conflict with farmers. The resulting film, "Elephant Power," was picked up and distributed by National Geographic.
Since then, the two have documented the lives of seafaring nomads off the coast of Burma, explored the trade in rare maral deer antler velvet in Siberia and Korea, and continued their work as photojournalists.
In 2006, the pair decided to revisit the elephants they had documented a decade ago - this time with a somewhat different goal.
"We started taking life-sized portraits of elephants with a large-format camera, to be printed at exactly one-to-one scale," said Reisinger. "So we would take a photograph of the animal, and then measure it so that it could be printed exactly to size.
"Then, to go along with that, we also wanted to tell their individual biography of each elephant we photographed - what was his life story, what's his personality. So we interviewed people and got information for that as we went along photographing these elephants."
Amid that project, the two began filming as well, but this time with a more open-ended approach to their narrative.
"There's a narrative, but no spoken narrative," said Reisinger, noting that the film attempts to depict not only the conditions but also the pace of life for its subjects. "The point of the film is really to show that every animal - and we use elephants, but this is true for any animal - has a past, a biography, a history. Those are the elements that create an empathy for us, which is the foundation of conservation. If you don't get people's minds set on that, there's no way to get them to think about the cormorant or the weasel or the other animals that need protection."
After completing the film earlier this year, the two showed it to the sponsors who had underwritten the project. It was immediately picked up for theatrical and television distribution in Europe.
But before those debuts take place, Reisinger traveled across the Atlantic to Missoula for his first experience putting the film before the public.
He said he hopes that those who see the film here will find food for thought through its larger-than-life protagonists.
"We hope that the people should walk out and question their perceptions that they inherit, their previous prejudices," said Reisinger. "This is a film that doesn't answer any questions; it only asks questions and encourages people to think. This is not about learning or explaining; it's about trying to think differently."