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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Elephants... Big elephants... Really Big

And now for something completely different...

While filming in Kerala, Southern India last month, I visited Punnathur Kotta - literally the "Elephant Fort". Once the palace of a local ruler, its now famous for being home to some 64 elephants, who work for and are owned by the local temple.


The oldest elephant here is around 75 years of age, and something of a megastar. There is an annual festival held here where hundreds of elephants from far and near come to take part in. As part of the festivities, a prize and title is handed out to the tallest elephant of them all. And this seasoned old guy took the title for many years until his retirement - not because of his superior height; he's not that tall. Instead, he learned somehow that if he raised his head and held it high, he would beat his taller rivals, and be declared the winner. And he became a legend because of it... Now that is style!

Anyway I was awestruck by the sheer size and girth of Kerala's elephants, especially the tusks that many of them were carrying. Having spent most of my elephant-watching time in Sri Lanka, it was quite an experience to be close to these giants - they just don't get that big in Sri Lanka (any more).

I recall an old tale about the ancient Kings of Sri Lanka donating the island's best tuskers to the Maharajahs of India as a goodwill token many centuries ago - and as a result, much of the modern-day progeny of South India's elephant population still carry genes from those exported Sri Lankan tuskers - well, that would explain a lot wouldn't it?

No wonder they're such beautiful beasts...





Sunday, August 24, 2008

Spirits... in a material world

Our society as we know it is divided into two clearly defined boundaries - Life and Death - and we hope to remain in the realms of the living as long as we possibly can. That's a given...

But a few weeks ago, I was given a new perspective of this seemingly obvious statement. We were filming in Manila, Philippines for Culture X, and I was anticipating shooting a curious little story about a group of, well - we'll call them urban refugees - who had sought out shelter in the city's sprawling cemetery. But this turned out to be on a far more extensive scale than even the reports and photo-essays I had read online, had hinted at.

We were met by an entire township; a bustling community of ten thousand souls, living and breathing - and surviving - in the company of the dead...

So many archaic mausoleums and ornate graveyards, originally designed to keep out the living and provide solace for the departed, were now standing open to the world; gates and doorways ajar, and children running in and around them like hordes of industrious ants.


Initially I found it tragic, but having let the scene absorb further; strangely poetic... Life in all its dynamic energies and colours, abounding in a sanctuary of silence.
They've all come from far off provinces to the so-called "promised land" - in search of fortune and luck. But reality hits hard and fast here, and most of them soon become destitute; struggling just to find enough food to feed their families. Some turn their backs on the city and return home. But many choose to stay, unwilling to let go of the dream so easily.

It is these resolute, determined few who find shelter in North Manila Cemetery. They've been coming here for over thirty years, and now those initial few have become thousands-strong.
Many of them do seem to exist in a dream-like state, isolated as they are from the comings and goings of the world beyond the cemetery gates. Some still hope that their dreams will come true - while others seem to have come to terms with their predicament, and are making the best of a bad situation...

All of them however have made peace with the souls that rest beneath their feet. Its an uneasy truce. And when night-time comes to this strange halfway house of the living and the dead, I can only imagine how the atmosphere changes...

They are a brave people; standing in their shoes for just a couple of days, I was immediately aware of how suddenly so much that we take for granted was out of their reach. No running water, hardly any electricity, and no sanitation...


It turned out to be a stronger story than I could ever have hoped for. We left the cemetery-dwellers with our thanks and fees for their services, and token gifts for the kids.
We toasted a successful shoot by sipping Iced Lattes beneath the shady bows of Manila's colourful Greenhills shopping complex. Its that easy to forget...

Back in the comforts of home however, I recall those restless spirits, trapped in a world that was never meant for them...