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Meet the Women Behind the Movie About Elephants That Will Change Your Life

Actress Ashley Bell and Activist Lek Chailert of “Love & Bananas” share their incredible journey saving elephants and why it matters to each of us.

There are certain movies that strike at the center of your soul and you know that something inside has changed forever. Love & Bananas is exactly that kind of movie. Written, directed and produced by actress and activist Ashley Bell, it’s less than an hour and a half long but its impact will last a lifetime.

The film follows Ashley and a team of elephant rescuers who embark on a daring 48-hour mission across Thailand to rescue a 70-year-old blind elephant named Noi Na.

That mission is led by Asian elephant conservationist Lek Chailert, a woman who, despite being honored over the years for her work — Women Heroes of Global Conservation in 2010, Time Magazine’s Heroes of Asia in 2005 and the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet” in 2001— is unfamiliar to most of us. Until now.

Elephant whisperer Lek Chailert
Elephant whisperer Lek Chailert

Love & Bananas is an incredible journey that instantly pulls you in and makes you feel as though you are right there with Ashley, Lek and the elephants.

At a recent screening in Hollywood, I was fortunate enough to meet Ashley and the film’s executive producer David Casselman, the person who first introduced Ashley to the plight of the Asian elephants and the founder of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, a one-million-acre animal and environmental conservation project.

Their passion is contagious and now it’s my mission to share this story with as many people as possible.

Mar Yvette with Ashley Bell
Mar Yvette with Ashley Bell

Find out what Ashley says to Homegirl Talk about making a documentary for people who hate documentaries, following your passion and why we all should care about elephants in the first place.

After seeing “Love & Bananas” I was completely blown away and, of course, in tears. The movie has a few hard-to-watch moments, but overall it has a very uplifting tone. How important or intentional was this? 

The goal of Love & Bananas was to make a documentary that was low on graphic content and high on action and solution. I wanted to make a film that people wouldn’t be scared to watch. You can’t find a solution to helping this species if audience members are covering their eyes and ears. The most rewarding part of the release is that so many kids have come to see the film.

Just like humans, elephant moms create strong bonds with their babies

A lot of people think documentaries are either too depressing or too boring. (LOL, sometimes it’s true.) Were you ever concerned that people would be turned off by this subject matter? 

Yes, 100%!  You say ‘animal documentary’ and people say, oh I don’t know if I can watch that.’ We could not afford for that to happen with Lek’s work and the plight facing the Asian elephant. The spirit in story comes from the hope and love with which Lek works with her elephant herd. Seeing footage of an elephant rescue that Lek went on was the most electric, terrifying, compelling, hopeful footage I’d ever seen I said to myself, everyone needs to meet this woman.

The title of the movie ‘Love & Bananas’ makes sense after someone watches the movie, but not necessarily beforehand. Did you ever consider something more specific and extreme like ‘Save the Elephants Now or We’re All Gonna Die!!!’?

The full title is Love and Bananas: An Elephant Story. No, actually we settled on the title early on and it stuck.  It encompasses the spirit in which Lek works and it kind of brings a smile to your face which is what happens when you meet an Asian elephant.

The filmmaker sharing lots of love

There are so many animals, not to mention people, that need help. Why elephants?

Elephants are a keystone species. Their existence helps numerous other animals and insects. They also help repopulate the forest because so many seeds depend on going through an elephant’s gut to germinate. There are only 40,000 Asian elephants left in the world, 1/3 of them in captivity. We cannot even begin to predict what will happen if this species disappears forever.

There’s a really intense moment in the movie when you, Lek and the team are trying to get a 70-year-old blind elephant into a truck so that you can drive her to a sanctuary 48 hours away. It was both inspiring and overwhelming to watch. How did/do you keep from getting discouraged in the face of such enormous challenges?

I took my cue off Lek, she is an indomitable force, fighting on the front line everyday to save this species. There was no time for emotion, because emotion clouds judgment. The only priority was making sure Noi Na made it to the sanctuary.

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One of the most important things the audience will learn from this movie is the truth about elephant trekking, or elephant riding. It’s a very popular thing to do when visiting places like Thailand. Tell us about it.

A majority of captive Asian elephants being used for entertainment have been through a process known as the crush box, where a baby elephant is taken away from its mother, it’s restrained in a wooden box and it is beat straight for a week until the bond between the elephant and the mother is replaced by the fear of man and the fear of the bull hook. If this doesn’t work in the first week it will be repeated until it works. After that they are taken to a training camp where they are trained to give rides or perform tricks.

The barbaric act of the “crush box” used to break down elephants

I have always been conflicted about zoos and other animal attractions. On one hand, I want to learn/see/support the conservation of animals … I figure at least they’re getting fed, sheltered and monitored. On the other hand, these animals are not free and that must affect their mental, emotional and physical health. How do we know which sort of wildlife parks or animal activities to support?

I can’t make a comment on all zoos and wildlife parks, but a large part of what we’re trying to do with Love & Bananas is to make people aware of ecotourism, and to travel humanely. On LoveandBananas.com you can sign a humane travel pledge that says you won’t support exotic animals being removed from their natural environment and separated from their families to be used for entertainment. World Animal Protection has a great database of humane animal attractions. In regards to elephants, Lek always says, “Let an elephant be an elephant.”

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You’re already a well-known actress in Hollywood. How do you think doing this documentary will affect your career choices moving forward?

As an actress you pull on life experience and working on Love & Bananas has been one of the most creative, illuminating and emotionally rewarding experiences of my life.

You wrote, directed, produced and carried this movie through. Was there ever a point when you thought this might be an out-of-reach dream?

Sure. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed. But we had the honor of getting Lek’s story and Lek introduced us to these incredible, sentient, charismatic giants. The responsibility to tell that story outweighed any personal frustrations.

What has this experience taught you about life in general?

The elephants helped me find my voice.

Mr. Chaiyapong, Ashley Bell and Lek Chailert sharing love and bananas
Mr. Chaiyapong, Ashley Bell and Lek Chailert sharing love and bananas

Is there one piece of advice or words of wisdom you want to share with women?

I made Love & Bananas to share the story of one woman that I felt the whole world needed to meet. That woman is Lek Chailert. She has devoted her life to saving Asian elephants and has gone through more adversity and sacrifice than most people would ever be confronted with and to this day she works with such love and compassion. I hope people and kids watch the film and meet her, and are inspired to live their life with a little more Lek.

Love & Bananas

Finally, how can people help?

The key to saving this species is education. You can download and watch Love and Bananas on iTunes and STARZ. A portion of proceeds will be donated to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, so just by watching the film you are helping elephants!

Also if you go to LoveandBananas.com we have an impact campaign with four action items:

1: Social media resources that you can share and post

2: A humane travel pledge

3: You can donate to the Love and Bananas fund to help Asian elephants

4: We offer community screenings so you can bring the film to your library, school or organization

5: Follow us on IG: @LoveAndBananas TWITTER: @LoveAndBananas FB: @LoveAndBananas

Spread the word to save these animals and learn more about the work by Lek Chailert.

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.