Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson’s Netflix film The Ivory Game is a nail-biting exposé of the ivory trade and the imminent extinction of elephants. It’s certainly a powerful and essential viewing experience, but now, incredibly, the documentary has won the ultimate prize–a ban on the ivory trade in China.
The filmmakers had heard rumors of Chinese government officials watching their documentary and were, as Ladkani puts it, “cautiously optimistic.” But, he says, “When the news hit that all ivory trade would be banned by the end of 2017 we were just blown away.”
Davidson adds, “When we started making the film four years ago, it seemed implausible to us that China would ban ivory, mainly because it has been part of their culture for centuries.” To have achieved this ban is, he says, “the ultimate result, the ultimate payoff.”
The Ivory Game provides a close-up on the work of those who’ve battled for years to save elephants from the ivory trade, from undercover journalists in China to the Kenyan rangers who police the animals’ habitat. Ladkani and Davidson spoke to AwardsLine about their desperate fight to save a species and how they made a film that spans the globe.
How did you get started on this project?
Richard Ladkani: Well, it started about three and-a-half years ago. I read an article in The New York Times about the extinction of elephants. The headline was, “Ten Years to Extinction” and I couldn’t believe it. We had been looking for a new project together for over ten years. We did The Devil’s Miner together in 2004. We thought it was incredible that nobody knew about the elephants that we asked. We’re like, this is a war going on. It’s undercover, it’s like mafia. Chinese traffickers are involved and you have this iconic species. This is a film that needs to be made so we can let the world know about this and dig in. But it took a little while for us to get started because of all the dangers involved in making such a film. It wasn’t easy.
How did you track down the two Chinese journalists who got your hidden camera footage?
Kief Davidson: As you can imagine, the first conversations we started to have were like, how do we tackle such an enormous project? Because there are really so many layers to it. It’s very global. It’s an international problem. It’s not just one area or one bad guy or one person that you could really just point the finger at. So it really took a good year of research and development before we were able to really start honing in on who some of our characters could be. Where should we film this? Is this going to be a film just of Africa or is it going to go into Asia as well? It was a daunting task.
I think what was very interesting to both of us early on was the idea of finding people that were working undercover, people that were working in the shadows that were unsung heroes that no one may know about. We had access initially to a couple of people. There was one person we read about in an article and we started talking to him. Jane Goodall, who has actually been a champion for the film, introduced us to other people as well. Slowly, as you start with one person, other doors start opening up. It was really the undercover access that was fascinating to us and I think not only from just a pure storytelling point of view but also stylistically. How could we get in there and do something very different from anything that’s been made? Through the course of this, we felt like we were in the middle of a thriller. That ultimately lent itself to how the film’s style would ultimately be.
Richard Ladkani: None of these people had ever been on camera before and they didn’t want to be filmed. It was a huge hurdle to overcome to convince these people that it would be a good thing to film them and be with them and show the world what’s going on. So we said, “If we can’t be with you, we can’t bring change for the elephants. We can’t help you save the elephants.”
Kief Davidson: But we also really had to make a deal with them too. When you’re following people like that into dangerous situations, we can’t be the ones to expose them or get them into trouble. We really needed to be the flies on the wall and let them lead it. Under no circumstances would we ever slow them down, would we ever expose them. That’s actually a very big responsibility as a filmmaking team to have, not to expose their subjects when you have cameras. Very, very difficult.
When one of your undercover journalists has her hidden camera discovered, how terrifying that was for you? How did you handle it?
Richard Ladkani: When that camera got discovered, when she finally got out and called us, the first thing she said is, “You have to leave tonight. Re-book your tickets and get out of the country now because they will figure out that there is a larger team behind this and it will not take them more than a day to find you and then we’re all in trouble.” We had to re-book our tickets and basically flee China. Before that, we distributed all our footage. One put it in his socks and the other one put it with his toothbrushes and we put it on USB so we were hoping someone would get it out. We got out safe but it was tense until we were actually on the plane and taking off. It was crazy.
What was the most harrowing and difficult part of making this film?
Kief Davidson: I think overall, at least for me, what’s very difficult is ultimately responsibility that we sort of put on ourselves to portray this issue to the world as massively as possible. We were given the distinct honor from characters and people that are risking their lives every single day. They’re the ones really putting their lives on the line all the time. We wanted to ultimately make a film that would really convey that, that would really get people to care. That means spending a lot of time working, a lot of time shooting, a lot of time in post-production, to really do justice to these people that have really dedicated their lives to this cause. I think there’s always been that sort of feeling like, what is our part in this? What could we do beyond just actually making a film, but delivering a film that’s going to have impact, that’s going to be seen by a massive audience.
Richard Ladkani: The thing that we told people, and Kief said it very rightly, that we told people that, “If you let us into your world, we will help you save elephants because we will bring this to millions and millions of people.” That was actually the one thing, the one argument that, after they checked us out and they Googled us and they watched some films that we did, they figured that, “Okay, these guys are professionals and they know what they’re doing so let’s give it a shot. Then they kept testing us in the field, took us on the most crazy helicopter, plane flights into the Somali border area, camping, eating raw meat with the Masai and all these crazy things. Really testing if we can do this. We did well enough.
It was this responsibility. We saw so many dead elephants. Not even half of them are in the film because we couldn’t put more. I mean, we tried to put enough in that people get it. There is a real problem. You had to show death but we saw so much more of it. The more we went on, going back and forth between Hong Kong and Vietnam and Tanzania and Zambia and these countries, the more we understood the trade and the more we were like, “God, this is going to be a huge challenge to stop this.”
Leonardo DiCaprio came on as EP. Can you talk about his involvement and how that happened?
Kief Davidson: We started talking very early on about who the champions for this film should be. This stems not only from the celebrity standpoint, but just in general, the producers that we’re working with, everyone that ideally takes part in this film are going to be people who are super passionate and are going to use their voice to step up and do their part. We started showing Leo footage fairly early on. We were getting toward the tail end of shooting but we were just putting scenes together and he very much loved what he saw right away and said, “Hey, how can I come aboard? How could I help?” Again, I think it’s really about being with people that could also extend the reach of this and that’s something that Leo could do. When he talks, people tend to listen.
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