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The real-life thriller behind the making of 'The Ivory Game'

by Darby Maloney | The Frame

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"The Ivory Game" directors Richard Ladkani and Keif Davidson. Anne Ackermann/Netflix

The new documentary “The Ivory Game” follows the people working to stop the slaughter of elephants who are tracked and killed for their tusks. Much of the film includes videos that are secretly recorded as the ivory moves through shadowy dealers on the black market. The effect is that of a thriller documentary, which is what directors Keif Davidson and Richard Landkani intended.

The Ivory Game trailer

When The Frame's John Horn met with the filmmakers after "The Ivory Game" made its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Davidson said that once they were shooting, they realized that they actually were in a real life thriller.

"These are people that are working in the shadows, they're undercover. It's extremely dangerous and you constantly feel that you are in the middle of all that," Davidson said.

In fact the filmmakers bought themselves bulletproof vests to ensure their safety. Landkani tells The Frame that they relied on hidden cameras to get the footage they needed.

"We had 16 GoPros. We had thermal imagery cameras for filming at night without any light, we had infrared. We had hidden cameras, [and] a drone with us at all times," Landkani said.

The hidden cameras were operated by the people in the film who work either independently or with non-governmental organizations to stop the ivory trade. The agreement that Davidson and Ladkani had with them was that they'd have the cameras, and it was up to them whether or not they'd use them. Also, the people insisted that the filmmakers had to accept whatever they shot. That is, the filmmakers could never ask them to retake something or repeat something. It was essentially run-and-gun filmmaking.

"The Ivory Game" director Kief Davidson.
"The Ivory Game" director Kief Davidson. Anne Ackermann/Netflix

The urgency that fueled the making of the movie was the very real threat of extinction.

Poachers kill an African elephant every 15 minutes. At that rate, the species will become extinct in about 15 years, all for tusks that are hacked off the carcasses of the elephants and carved into trinkets, jewelry and art — almost all of which passes through China.

The dilemma is this: it's illegal to hunt elephants in Africa, but in China there is a certain amount of ivory that can legally be bought and sold. However, the demand outpaces the supply, which means that illegal ivory gets funneled into the legal Chinese marketplace. Landkani lays the blame on the hands of people he says are "greedy" and want ivory as a "status symbol." Still, there are heroic Chinese figures — one character becomes a sort of James Bond figure — who are activists trying to stop the trafficking.

"The Ivory Game" director Richard Landkani.
"The Ivory Game" director Richard Landkani. Tobias Corts/Netflix

Landkani recounted what it was like to come upon a slaughtered elephant for the first time.

"It was an experience you'll never forget, because you know that this magnificent animal had lived just like 48 hours ago. And now it's dead, horribly slaughtered, the head is missing." Landkani went on to say how he handled that emotionally. "What you do is you protect yourself in a way from emotion by filming. You use your camera as a tool to do a job. Your job now is to tell the world what's going on. That's exactly why you're here. So you put your emotion away and you focus on the focus, the sound, getting it now and real." 

“The Ivory Game” is in limited theatrical release and in 190 countries — including countries in Africa — on Netflix Nov. 4. The company is still negotiating to get the film seen in China.

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