Directors: Richard Ladkani, Kief Davidson
Watch The Ivory Game online in the UK: Netflix UK
An elephant is killed every 15 minutes. It sounds senseless, but that’s the shocking truth of the ivory trade in the modern world. It has grown to become a profitable, illegal, global business and a major threat to the animals’ existence. The Ivory Game is a window into that reality. It doesn’t just show us the facts; it makes sense of them with an urgent logic.
Shot undercover over 16 months by directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, that urgency drives the film; the pacing is relentless, as the movie feels less like a documentary than a thriller. Places flash up on screen, complete with snazzy maps pinpointing their location. Cameras are concealed in bags.
All that is contrasted with graceful shots of the elegant creatures in the wild and glimpses of the bloody result of poaching – a juxtaposition that makes the dwindling number of elephants horribly, tangibly tragic. But still, the ivory game continues. And, while there have been crackdowns on the trade in recent years, the game is still winning: it’s a cruel, self-perpetuating industry, driven by the fact that as the number of elephants dwindles, their value increases. Fewer elephants only means more money to be made.
That’s primarily due to the legalisation of distributing ivory in China, which offers a closing window for anyone to hawk their wares on the market. We see the burning of an ivory stockpile at one point, but the material’s scarcity paradoxically only makes it more desirable as a luxury good – a conundrum captured subtly by the opening credits, which carve out locations such as Hong Kong in beautiful etchings on faux ivory tusks.
One person holds in his hands the fate of the elephant, we’re told: the Chinese president. While you might expect a Michael Moore-style confrontation with the leader, though, The Ivory Game is more concerned with its undercover thrills. Events push forwards with tense, pulsating music underneath, like a globe-trotting conspiracy flick. There’s even a Big Bad: Shetani, the head of a poaching ring. The film’s message is perhaps lost somewhat in that framework, which doesn’t always work: at one nail-biting moment, someone’s hidden camera is found, a revelation that, brilliantly, unfolds solely in on-screen text messages, but the situation seems to be resolved quickly and we move on. Still, accessibility is no bad thing, and Verena Schönauer’s editing places The Ivory Game in the impressive line of modern, less conventional documentaries, such as Man on Wire, which plays out like a heist flick, Blackfish, with its overtones of horror, and The Imposter, with its unreliable narrator and deceptive direction. In the time it takes to watch the film, more than seven elephants have been killed. The result is a gripping depiction of a game whose rules are all too easy to understand.
Update (March 2017): China has announced that it will ban its ivory trade, with ivory factories to shut down by March 2017 and retail outlets to be closed by the end of the year.
The Ivory Game is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.