Making 'The Lost Elephant'

Making of 'The Lost Elephant'

Behind the Lost Elephant

Mark Aitken is an independent filmmaker who has worked on many First Light projects. Earlier this year he travelled to India to work on a filmmaking project with a group of very eager young students. This is what happened….

Last August I travelled to Bhubaneswar in Orissa, south of Kolkata on the east coast of India. Performing Arts Labs (PAL) were running a scriptwriting lab for Indian writers working on feature scripts for children’s films. I was asked to facilitate a film making course in tandem with the screenwriting along the lines of a First Light project. John Newbigin from the First Light board joined us there along with other scriptwriting tutors. The PAL course took place in a university while down a busy road full of reclining cows, I was introduced to a boarding school called the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) that had 17 000 students in attendance.

Orissa is the poorest part of India and its rural villages struggle to survive against an onslaught of free market economics, mineral exploitation and seismic cultural change. The students at KISS mainly come from these villages and only return home for two sweltering months during the summer. I met a class of 20 or so and as I imagined, the teenage boys and girls were very shy but keen to learn. None of them had ever even touched a camera so we were starting from scratch. I was shown around the school and there were kids endlessly walking in different directions like so many ants. The dining hall served 7000 plates per sitting and they consumed 2400kg of rice every day.

Circumstances didn’t allow enough time for too much technical training so I enlisted some students from the university to assist. The ideas all came from the KISS students and were drawn from memories of where they had come from. We settled on an elephant being the main character. He would visit the school, overcome his fear of people and the kids would give him things to take back to the forest. So far so good except casting didn’t have any elephants that week. We would have to improvise.

Over the next week we shot, recorded original music and edited the film with enormous friendly assistance from all concerned. I organised a screening and we filled the university cinema with 400 students. I’d grown accustomed to the regimented discipline so it was no surprise that the cinema was dead quiet even when full. But after the first screening of ‘The Lost Elephant’ all that changed. The atmosphere was charged and when I asked the students if they’d like to make more films, they cheered and chatted as if finding their voices for the first time. I can’t think of another screening I’ve attended where the audience was so electrified by seeing something they’d made. It was as if they’d been waiting for this moment all their lives.

Initiating a film culture in a school with 17000 students is pretty daunting but this was a start and I’m sure there’s many other places in India crying out for these opportunities. Most of these kids had never even seen a film before, let alone made one. This, coming from the country with the biggest film industry in the world. We showed the film again at the school in the dining hall. They put it on a loop and no-one would leave. Clearly, it would be a good idea to do more work in places like this. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.

Mark Aitken

You can watch the The Lost Elephant here