The Documentary Australia program at the Sydney Film Festival always has some interesting inclusions, and this year’s line-up is no exception. The new feature length documentary outing from television director/producers Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore, Tyke Elephant Outlaw, is a fascinating take-down of the practices of circuses that incorporate animal performers, the film in the vein of a smaller-scale Blackfish.
The film centers on a prolific, animal-activism defining event in August of 1994 that saw a circus elephant (Tyke) break from and attack its handlers before going on a rampage through Honolulu streets, after which it was executed in a barrage of gunfire by police officials. This sparked public outcry and permanently tarnished the already diminished brand of animal circuses. After briefly establishing the incident, Lambert and Moore treat us to a set of fascinating interviews with Tyke’s ex-trainers, the group that used to lease elephants out to circus shows, prolific animal rights activists who were at the forefront of campaigns to outlaw animal circuses in Honolulu, people in the circus animal industry, and even a man who acts as a lobbyist for circus groups pushing a line of ‘the circus is good, old fashioned, all-American fun’. It’s a proficient way to attack the material and paint a broad picture of why this event was important, as well as demonstrating the effects that the incident had on everyone down the chain. These interviews are intercut with footage of Tyke herself before her defining act of defiance and the event, which was widely recorded by members of the general public at the time as the event occurred right in the middle of the consumer-grade camcorder boom phase. It’s interesting that Lambert and Moore seek to draw comparison between Tyke’s actions and those of infamous anti-heroes from Westerns, and I wish they had pursued this line of logic further. However, in spite of this underutilized element, the film is well constructed and, at times, even captivating.
Funded by the ABC, and (presumably) subsequently sold to a number of different international television broadcasters, it’s great to see this screening theatrically on the festival circuit. It’s an important story, although perhaps not as important as the similar narrative in Blackfish as there is a far greater consensus publicly on the inhumanity of animal circus practices now than there was in regards to marine parks at the time of Blackfish‘s release. What Tyke does far better than Blackfish, though, is hold a far stronger grasp on the notion of objectivity, not demonizing those that still work in the circus industry, with an acknowledgement that there are far more intricacies informing individual decisions and motivations behind such a line of work than just the morality of the situation. This stands in stark contrast to Blackfish‘s decision to crucify those who continue to work with animals and deify individuals who have left the industry for ethical reasons. Instead, Lambert and Moore skillfully allow people to fall on their own swords, painting themselves into a corner with their own words and demonstrating a levels of cognitive dissonance and inhumanity through their own, unjudged actions. In this sense, Lambert and Moore manage to remove themselves from their content fairly well, leaving us with a very organic feeling documentary experience.
All in all Tyke Elephant Outlaw is well worth checking out for the curious, a strong effort that covers an interesting tale with interesting characters – the serious differences in opinion, and regular cognitive dissonance on display is fascinating – and while it’s by no means perfect, it plays well here and will screen even better on a televisual medium. Lambert and Moore have demonstrated that they can craft a very solid documentary and I’m interested to see what they work on next. In the wrong hands this could have been bloated and preachy or even cheesily constructed, but in their capable hands we are presented with something that is interesting, informative, well paced and level headed. True to their title, you will feel like Tyke is a hero by the end of the film; the actions of this elephant have changed the cultural response towards the use of animal performers and liberated numerous other elephants – in this sense, Tyke truly is an outlaw anti-hero.