The Toronto Film Festival has always welcomed issue-oriented films. “The Ivory Game,” Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s documentary about the illegal ivory trade and the battle to save Africa’s elephants, not only fits that brief, it also marks a major step in the evolution of Red Bull Media House’s Terra Mater Factual Studios. It also marks changes in film production technology.
Terra Mater has a well-established, global profile in television, but the company is a newcomer in the theatrical realm, says Terra Mater CEO Walter Koehler. “Without doubt, ‘The Ivory Game’ marks our arrival on the international theatrical-feature stage,” he says.
The film, which is also screening in Telluride, focuses on the unsung heroes fighting on the front lines of what Ladkani describes as “a senseless war,” including the “activists, rangers, undercover investigators and tough-as-nails conservationists who champion the same honorable cause — the survival of elephants.”
Terra Mater, part of Austria’s Red Bull Media House (yes, of the energy drink fame), partnered on the project with Netflix, Seattle-based Vulcan Prods., and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way.
The endeavor, says Koehler, “was a dangerous journey, but one worth every risk.”
The filmmakers, who worked together on 2005 doc “The Devil’s Miner,” found their subject in 2013 when Ladkani read The New York Times series “The Price of Ivory,” which Davidson says, “quantified the horrific frenzy of elephant murders.”
A legal market for ivory in China, while limited to 5 tons a year, has resulted in a thriving black market, hundreds of tons of ivory flowing through that country annually, huge profits for organized crime, widespread corruption, the enrichment of African warlords, and increased poaching.
Considering the ambitious nature of shooting across the globe, the filmmakers set their sights on Vienna-based Terra Mater, which had amassed plenty of experience producing wildlife documentaries in remote areas around the world.
The company welcomed the opportunity. “We developed the film from the start, commencing first with a recce [reconnaissance] shoot,” Koehler says. “The results were striking. When Richard called from Kenya to say that we were the first team onsite when Satao, one of few remaining ‘big tuskers,’ was slaughtered, we knew we must move straight into production. No time could be lost if we were to fight for a ban on the illegal trade of ivory.”
Ladkani says the film was shot using many different cameras as they needed a special tool kit to dynamically cover this real-world wildlife crime thriller without putting anyone in danger and yet immerse the audience in the midst of undercover operations around the world.
The team used a drone whenever possible as well as a big chopper for more cinematic scenes, and continuously shot with multiple cameras, GoPros, bodycams, and spy-button cams, Ladkani adds. During police crack-downs, they used night-vision cameras, often wearing bullet-proof vests.
Davidson adds, “We hid cameras in bags, shirts and eyewear and also used the latest technology in tracker gear to follow — and protect — our undercover informants from a distance when they met their targets, putting their own lives on the line.”
One arrest, which took place in Lusaka, Zambia, was shot with 13 different cameras as police officers stormed an ivory traffickers compound, says Ladkani.
The documentary attracted DiCaprio’s interest early on, according to Joanne Reay, Terra Mater’s head of cinema. Likewise, Netflix reps saw the film during post-production and immediately felt that it was a documentary that the world should see, says Koehler.
Being in the right place at the right time also proved difficult, Ladkani says. “When we heard about the imminent arrest of one of the biggest ivory traffickers in Africa, we were covering operations in Hong Kong and had less than 24 hours to make it to Tanzania in time for the arrest operation.”
Adds Koehler, “In a stunning piece of filmmaking, we captured the moment of arrest.”