When directors James Dartnall and Jack Wylson met Tim Edwards at Bristol University in the biological sciences department back in 2004, little did they know that 10 years later they would be winning the award for Best UK film at the London Independent Film Festival for their work on Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk.
Mahout is a South East Asian word for ‘man who works with or tends to elephants’. The award-winning feature documentary, produced by Pink Banana Studios is the first collaborative project for James and Jack forming the guise of JDJW Films. The film follows the story of Tim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops, as he embarks on a 4-week journey transporting a group of Asian elephants across Nepal.
The full feature was graded at The Mill by London based colourist Matt Osborne who worked closely with the directors to gently enhance the natural colours and contrast of the film. He comments, “It was fantastic to work with Jack and James on my first feature length grade, which was incredibly rewarding. They are two very passionate people both with a great eye for detail and it really was a great experience to work along side them.”
We caught up with James and Jack who tell us more about how this opportunity came about, and what it was like tracking elephants over Nepal….
The Expedition Begins
When the three of us met back in 2004, Tim would tell stories of his time in Nepal where he grew-up, and both of us always dreamt of one day visiting…
Tim & James stayed in contact after graduating, but it wasn’t until 5 years later when Tim suddenly emailed James out of the blue, that an opportunity arose. Knowing James to be a keen photographer, Tim asked him to fly out to Nepal and join him whilst he moved some of his elephants from one lodge to another - as you do!
Tim wanted to create a photographic blog for the Tiger Tops website. After a catch-up Skype call, James decided there was a much bigger story to tell, and that covering the expedition properly would involve more than just photographs – this is when the idea for a documentary arose. Next thing we knew, we were landing in Kathmandu together just three days later!
The shoot itself was incredibly difficult. We were camping and roughing-it for the whole trip, so the monsoon rains, scorching heat, pervading dust and other challenges we faced along the way were just as much a problem for us as for the team moving the elephants. It was a constant nightmare trying to keep our equipment clean and dry in the conditions - one night we were trying to sleep in our tents in inches of water, holding our cameras on our chests to keep them safe!
Another big problem we had was power. We didn’t have any means of charging our camera and laptop batteries other than a makeshift car battery adapter, plugged into a 1950’s ex-army Land Rover (one of the expedition vehicles). We had a couple of tense moments willing our media onto hard-drives whilst the laptop battery dropped below 5%!
Being able to film the elephants was an incredible experience, and you couldn’t help but wonder what they must have thought of us... They were always calm around the cameras, but they have such an intelligent air about them, we often wondered if they were getting tired of us!
We used to sit and wait for them, having scouted ahead and set up a shot… the only problem was we couldn’t communicate with the Mahouts (who spoke Nepali), so we’d often sit waiting and just as they elephants were about to enter shot, the mahouts would stop in a cafe and have a tea break. One time they diverted the elephants behind us, had a drink from the river, and then came back up to the road - having missed our shot entirely!
The High and Lows
There were so many highs and lows of the experience; I think the expedition itself is something that we will never forget. Spending three weeks sleeping in tents with elephants crashing around just a few meters away is not an experience that many people are lucky enough to have. Not only that, but getting to know each of the characters and personalities of the crew and also their elephants was a real privilege and insight.
In terms of lows, we had a couple of desperate days on the expedition where we lost media and equipment. We had no spares, which was an oversight! James’ Zacuto Z-Finder fell in a river; we also lost a Go Pro in some rapids on the same day, but did manage to find that again which was a huge relief. Ironically, Jack dropped a lens just as we were unpacking back in Kathmandu right at the end of the journey!
What’s next? More films! It’s a tough industry, and filmmaking - especially when there is no budget - is an all-consuming occupation. We had to ask a lot of favours to finish Mahout to the standard we knew it deserved, and now we look at it and think “if we can do this with no budget, imagine what we could create with one!”
Thank you both for that fascinating insight into your adventures in Kathmandu!
Not only was this feature created for free, but is also raising money for the ITNC, a project that was set up by Jack and James to help Asian elephants across Nepal fight deadly tuberculosis. So far they have raised over $10,000 by selling prints – more of which will be on sale this summer.
James is currently working on two more self-funded documentaries; the first follows two inexperienced rowers as they prepare for and attempt to row across the Atlantic in a 7 meter boat unassisted. The other follows 8 amateur surfers as they set out to ride the last remaining free waves of the Maldives before they are controversially privatized by the tourist authorities. Keep an eye of for both this summer.
The team is also off again in a couple of months to visit Tim’s latest lodge in Sri Lanka – watch this space for Mahout the sequel!