By Maxine Trump
White Gold is a social issue documentary success. Directed and filmed by cinematographer Simon Trevor (famous for working as second-unit director on Gorillas in the Mist and Out of Africa) and produced by Pace Gallery founder Arne Gilmcher, White Gold had its world premiere at DOC NYC this week, playing to a packed house at NYC’s IFC Theater following a celebrity-studded screening at MOMA just a few days before (in attendance were Sigourney Weaver, unsurprisingly, and Hillary Clinton). Clinton does a fine job of narrating this film, bringing just the right level of emotion and level-headedness to what could otherwise have been an overwhelming story.
DOC NYC describes this film as a front-line exposé of the modern-day ivory trade. For any of us that have seen photos of the Trump sons gloating over their killing of an elephant, or the Go Daddy founder standing proudly over his prized hunt, this is a very timely doc. White Gold tells the history of the ivory trade and leaves us stupefied at the horrific levels of elephant killings throughout the decades. Just in the 1980s, we learn, there were an estimated 100,000 elephants killed per year. And in Uganda alone, a population of 8,000 elephants was reduced to just 160 animals.
The film spends a good deal of time on the 1980s, a tragic period for the animals, but then details how countries came to their aid. Zambia, for example, burnt piles of ivory to signal how important wildlife is to African nations. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listed elephants as endangered, and the world united in a ban on ivory trade. At this point, the documentary makes us feel hopeful, as these actions worked. The poaching levels were reduced and the elephant population rebounded.
White Gold then brings us to the present day and reveals that we are in the midst of a new ivory crisis. China’s demand for ivory has skyrocketed with the surge in Chinese prosperity, and the price of the material has increased twentyfold. The propaganda machine there has worked well, with much of the Chinese population even believing that elephant tusks grow back after they’re ripped out of the animal. It is impossible not to feel outraged by the irony that officials in China want to trade in ivory while we’re told that killing their protected panda is punishable by death.
(The doc doesn’t completely lay the blame at China’s door, however. The U.S. is, after all, the second-largest market for ivory. And in the post-screening Q&A at DOC NYC, Gilmcher told the audience that there are stores in Manhattan that still sell products made of the material and implored everyone not to wear it.)
Everyone needs to see this powerful and tragic film. At times, I wanted to cry or hide behind my fingers in response to what I saw. One of the filmmakers mentions that there is a chance in 7–10 years there won’t be a single elephant in Africa. That kind of statement makes you sit up and take notice.
But while its narrative is strong and emotional, White Gold is occasionally undercut by a handful of unfortunate shortcomings. The production company behind the doc, the African Environmental Film Foundation, is a small organization, and at times you can tell. The low quality of the wide, overhead shots don’t hold up well in a theatrical setting, and some of the out-of-focus interviews and sound issues can pull you right out of the story, which is a shame.
These technical issues never completely take over the film, though, which is a good thing. The doc fits the ambitions of the filmmakers, who have stated their intention is to bring White Gold to schools around the world. At just 38 minutes, it may be even more powerful when viewed on a small screen. And in a bold move, the film will even be shown in China, where Jackie Chan will replace Clinton as narrator, in Mandarin.
This is a film out to make a change and not be judged by ticket sales. It is the first of AEFF’s documentaries to receive international distribution, yet their other 28 titles have been seen by more African audiences than has any National Geographic or Discovery films, often through screenings set up in the open air for remote communities. What a way to see White Gold, surrounded by the sound of the wildlife in the bush as a backdrop.
During the DOC NYC Q&A, Trevor told an amazing story that would have been wonderful if included in the film. He was on the front porch of his house in Africa with 10 other people when a herd of elephants walked by. One approached them, held out its trunk and reached onto the porch to grab hold of a woman’s arm. After a short while, it let go, and when the elephant finally moved away it was revealed that it had grabbed the arm of a woman wearing an ivory bracelet. Elephants don’t ever forget, and the powerful documentary White Gold makes sure we won’t forget about them either.
White Gold has already screened at DOC NYC, but check out the AEFF website or Facebook page to find out when the film will be showing next.