Elephants in crisis

Richard Ladkani talks about The Ivory Game and the threat of extinction.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Clay Tweel, Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani, Dawn Porter, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg with Thom Powers
Clay Tweel, Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani, Dawn Porter, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg with Thom Powers Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 2013, Sigourney Weaver, Chuck Close, Iman, Joel Ehrenkranz, James Franco, Agnes Gund, and Uma Thurman hosted a screening of Simon Trevor's White Gold, narrated by Hillary Clinton, produced by Arne Glimcher, on the organised poaching of elephant tusks, at the Museum of Modern Art with Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Meredith Vieira, Christie Brinkley, and #Horror's Tara Subkoff in support.

The Ivory Game cinematographer/co-director Richard Ladkani
The Ivory Game cinematographer/co-director Richard Ladkani Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 2014, Kathryn Bigelow’s Last Days (Annapurna Pictures) screened at the New York Film Festival before The Crisis In Elephant Poaching panel discussion.

Following the DOC NYC Unfolding Stories panel with the directors of Gleason, Trapped, Weiner, and The Ivory Game (Leonardo DiCaprio executive producer), moderated by Thom Powers, I spoke with Richard Ladkani at the Vulcan Productions reception - two days after Donald J Trump had become president-elect.

Ladkani and Kief Davidson structure their film like a thriller and why not? Whatever it takes to have people stop pleading ignorance. The investigations the documentary combines take place on different continents and are all interconnected. China is the greatest market for ivory, Hong Kong, the harbor of entry. Loopholes of legality allow for fraud on a massive scale.

In Tanzania, the head of a poaching syndicate, a man called Shétani, which translates as The Devil, employs an army of men to kill elephants for their ivory on a massive scale and cross country borders. Only a sketch of him exists. An international band of advocates work together to put a stop to the abomination the ivory trade is.

"The most prestigious animal of all animals ..."
"The most prestigious animal of all animals ..."

Anne-Katrin Titze: During the panel, Kief mentioned Trump hunting elephants with his sons. How do you feel about what is happening this week in connection with your film?

Richard Ladkani: I feel like with Trump being elected we have to triple our efforts. Everything will become harder and more difficult to convince people to fight.

AKT: You're up to it?

RL: Of course! I take a challenge, you know, at any time. It just means more fighting, more weight behind it. Things just have become a lot more emotional and powerful at the same time and we have big obstacles, bigger enemies to fight. But I don't give up because of that. I take a challenge and I rise up to the occasion.

AKT: You are Austrian, living in Munich. How did you first get involved with this project? What is your relationship to elephants?

Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani: "We've known each other for 20 years."
Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani: "We've known each other for 20 years." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RL: I read about this in The New York Times. There was an article [a series of articles and multimedia] called The Price Of Ivory in early 2013 and it said that the elephants are going extinct within ten years. And reading that, I was shocked because I had never heard about it.

There was this giant war going on in Africa and Asia and people were dying. And it was super dangerous and mafia and syndicates and terrorists involved. And I was like, oh my god, you have this most beautiful elephant - an iconic species, top of the food chain.

I mean, not top of the food chain - the most prestigious animal of all animals, even more than the lion going extinct under our eyes within ten years, and no one is doing anything about it! No one is revolutionising about it, you know, like rioting about it? I felt like we have to do something. And because it had all the ingredients to make a great movie. Which is like - you have the villains, you have the good guys, you have the innocent elephants, the beautiful scenic wildlife and all that.

White Gold director Simon Trevor
White Gold director Simon Trevor Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We were like, okay, this can turn out to be a movie and we can make a difference by telling millions of people what is going on and having them come on board to join the fight to save the species.

AKT: How did you connect with your co-director?

RL: He is a good friend of mine. We've known each other for 20 years. We've been thinking about doing a joint project for a long time. We did one film called The Devil's Miner in 2004 and since then we've been wondering - will we come together again? We're on different continents - he is in LA, I am in Germany. It's not easy, nine hours apart.

But we felt that if we joined forces on a big topic like that which is so global and so big, we'll be more powerful and be able to make a bigger difference and raise enough money to do it and have a real trans-continental, global project. So we joined forces to be stronger.

AKT: How was Munich reacting to Trump being elected? Were you there or were you already here in New York?

The Ivory Game poster
The Ivory Game poster

RL: Yeah, yeah. Everyone's shocked, everyone's afraid and scared and very nervous about what's going to come. Europe is already drifting apart. There's a big rift. You have all the right-wing parties that are rising to power. You have the populist movement. And now, the most powerful country in the world being led by a populist... in my opinion.

AKT: Who has hunted elephants for fun?

RL: Yeah, who is also a trophy hunter. And he and his children go out …

AKT: You say in your film - if nothing changes, in 15 years we won't have any more elephants.

RL: They're gone, yeah. Exactly. For us, it makes us nervous and we'll see. We'll see.

DOC NYC remaining screening: Tuesday, November 15 at 11:45am - Cinepolis Chelsea

The Ivory Game is in cinemas in the US and the UK.

DOC NYC runs through November 17.

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