One would have to be made of stone to not be moved by Sangita Iyer’s award-winning documentary, Gods in Shackles, about the torture of elephants in temple rituals in India.
The movie opens with a scene shot during the largest festival of the year, in an immense square teeming with people and a line of elephants on either end. The elephants are bedecked in glittering color down their long foreheads and onto their trunks, and ridden by men who use sticks with barbed ends to keep them in line. Their beauty and height above the crowds make them a dramatic symbol and dazzling border to the intensity of the thirty-six hour continuous activity. I suppose it could be easy to forget that they are not merely decorations, and not an imperative part of this celebration.
Iyer, Toronto based journalist and documentary film maker, brings our attention to the fact that they are sentient and particularly sensitive beings, and this is being ignored in their treatment and use in ceremony. She points out their painfully raw ankles where the shackles rub them for hours on end, and reminds us that their feet, which are built for the softness of the grasslands, are tormented by hot pavement and unrelenting sun. Their feet are also made for many hours of movement a day, in order to find feed for their enormous frames. Standing still for hours at a stretch is in itself an excruciatingly painful practice.
Perhaps most frightening are the firecracker-like noises which punctuate the festival. The majestic elephants, with extremely keen hearing, are subject to these blasts without a way to react or move in response. What results when they do bolt or move suddenly out of fear and frustration is injury (or death) to nearby people or the elephants themselves. These avoidable tragedies are part of what drives Sangita forward in her quest to end this practice.
I sit at the world debut screening at Elephant Walk Restaurant in Cambridge, and know I am among like minds. There are PETA representatives, and people who are already sympathetic to the plight of these magnificent creatures. Many of us are nervous about watching the movie. I could not watch Lassie or Flipper as a child; even with predictably positive outcomes, I could not bear any potential (or imagined) suffering that might befall these stage animals. Now we are watching multiple ways in which these real life gentle giants are mistreated without thought.
I am prepared to avert my sightline during very graphic shots of wounds inflicted not only to the ankles, but ears and eyes as well. But the places that truly take my breath away are the scenes where Sangita herself is meeting the elephants, helping to bathe them and embracing them with the kind of love one sees between parent and child. Her joy is radiant and jumps off the screen – it is this passion which is infectious, and matched by her professionalism in documenting the fate of the elephants.
The event is also a fundraiser to help get the multiple award-garnering film to the seven cities where it will screen in India, and Kerala, Iyer’s home province. Although Iyer wants it distributed yesterday, she is aware that the process of moving it forward is circuitous and that each gradual step counts toward her goal of liberating the elephants and restoring them to the wild where they help maintain the delicate balance in the ecosystem.
It is a rare privilege to support this intensely focussed, humane, and inspired movement to return these beautiful animals to the place where their spirits soar. Visit www.godsinshackles.com