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Posted at: Feb 19, 2017, 1:19 AM; last updated: Feb 19, 2017, 1:19 AM (IST)

The saviour of the gentle giant

Jupinderjit Singh in Chandigarh
The saviour of the gentle giant
When Brigitte Uttar Kornetzky came to India in the summer of 2012, she just wanted to have lots of sun. Her fascination was India, multi-dimensional, richly diverse. On the second day of her arrival in Delhi, she hit the road to Rajasthan. Near Jaipur, she says she saw a line of men-driven elephants walking on hot tarmac road. She asked the taxi driver to follow the herd, forgetting her own destination: the Pink City. The diversion became the real journey of her life.

She came face-to-face with the voiceless animal, the gentle giant exploited by locals and tourists for joy rides in scorching heat.

The Germany-born, US-educated and Switzerland-based filmmaker had made documentaries in war-hit Botswana (southern Africa), on the blind in Sierra Leone (West Africa) and on human rights abuse in Iran and other parts of Africa. There, the sufferers told her about their pain -- unlike the elephants. 

Following a queue of elephants, each driven by a Mahaut, Brigitte reached Hathi Gaon, a village where elephants live with the families of the Mahauts, their masters. Developed by Rajasthan government, the village was designed for better care of the animals, but seemed to have been forgotten by the authorities. Here she met Sita, a badly wounded and sick elephant. She had a fever, infection in limbs, swollen feet and a deep wound on the front left thigh, which was inflicted by an angry Mahaut as she refused to carry more tourists.

“They had no idea about modern treatment. They used some ancient medicine or voodoo,” recalled Brigitte. She went to Kerala to find a remedy for her. She prevailed upon the local authorities to get help of a veterinarian, but nothing helped Sita, she died. 

Sita became the subject of her documentary. She had already recorded her plight in the ‘village of elephants’ as well as at work at the Amber Fort near Jaipur, where tourists, climbed happily on the saddle and she took them around. 

Brigitte filmed the animals as she saw them: no narrative, no pre-planned script; she filmed the mahauts bathing them, riding them, and forcing them. She portrayed them writhing in pain as mahuats and unqualified physicians watched. The scenes were deeply disturbing – one of them showing water pipe being put inside the wound of Sita to clean the wound!

“A documentary filmmaker takes a life ‘by the head’, or the roots, to go on a research trip with the camera. As long as you have not fallen into the well, you do not have to pull anyone out by one’s hair. My films have close-ups, unadorned, in a sense, what is called uncomfortable. The artof it comes later,” says Brigitte.

The ides of the documentary ‘Where the Elephant Sleeps’ came while she was in the taxi, the day she sighted the animal. “That the idea would cost me four years I didn’t know. I often ask people where the real elephants are, the way I read about them, the wilderness where 30,000 of them live. I saw them only in cages or shackles,” she said.

Brigitte hopes the real aim of the documentary -- shortlisted for an award by the Rajasthan government -- would be realized. “It is not a commercial venture. It is being screened with the help of social workers, donors in various parts of Rajasthan besides Delhi and other places. I can only hope that ‘Where the Elephant Sleeps’ contributes to a deeper understanding of one of the greatest, protective creations of our planet. I want more Sitas saved.”

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