If traveling in war-torn areas, taking covert video or defending dangerous animals sounds like fun to you, you may have a problem. If all three sound like good career choices, you may work for National Geographic.
On Friday afternoon, on the Procrastinator’s screen, investigative journalist Bryan Christy was setting off on a personal warpath against some of the most dangerous criminals in the world — ivory poachers. He began in the shop of a master taxidermist, who was making him a fake elephant tusk. Into this tusk (a near-perfect replica of real ivory) was put a state-of-the-art GPS tracker. The idea was simple: if the poachers take the tusk, the tusk will reveal where the poachers are. The rest of the film followed Christy’s journey as he faced suspicious government authorities, dangerous criminals and thousands of families torn apart by ivory-driven violence. But as spectacular as Christy’s journey was, the Procrastinator was full of people for the man behind the camera — filmmaker John Heminway.
“Warlords of Ivory” marked the culmination of a long career — from television to marketing consultant to author of six books, Heminway’s life has been one of a thousand titles. But the title he is most known for is that of “filmmaker.” And strangely enough, he almost wasn’t in the film business.
“It was an accident,” he said, chuckling wryly. He reckoned it started with the same schoolboy hunger we all have for a good yarn. “What I was always drawn by was the story,” he said. “I was lucky to sit at the feet of some great storytellers in my life, and I’m still learning how to do it.” That learning has carried him across the globe, but most often it has taken him back to one place — Africa.
He describes his love for the continent as an “overbearing attraction.” After a school trip, he found himself enchanted by the vast lands he encountered. And so he kept returning. Three books and two National Geographic specials on Africa had to happen before “Warlords of Ivory” was made, but the final result is a powerful film.
Though Heminway claimed he “avoids advocacy films,” he also acknowledged “It’s clear we’re on the side of the elephants.” The film is, indeed, powerful commentary on the viciousness of the ivory trade, and its terrible cost in terms of natural life. However, “Warlords of Ivory” is surprisingly devoid of the animals. More than simply being about dead elephants, it is a film about people. Heminway is well aware of that emotional aspect. “When you read about this stuff, you can put a natural barrier between yourself and the story,” he said. The film doesn’t allow you that luxury. “It dawned on me … that the ivory trade is killing people, and destroying lives.” This is not just a conservation movie — it is a movie about the costs of our actions, and the ways that the world is connected.
Paul Theroux, the legendary travel writer, once said of Africa, “You go away for a long time and return a different person — you never come all the way back.” It seems John Heminway would agree. “There comes a time when it is not enough to make a beautiful film,” he said, staring out into a crowd of young faces. “Somewhere, there was a change from reporting on the world to changing the world.” In film studies, you learn that an essential element of any story is conflict; the world is seldom pure beauty, or pure tragedy. As the crowd filed out of the theater, there was an air of solemn contemplation — but it was an air tinged with hope.