I've always believed that the truly great documentaries do more than simply entertain you. They do more than simply tell you untold stories. They do more than educate you.
The truly great documentaries change you in ways that you didn't even realize you wanted to be changed. As I found myself glued to the screen watching Lion Ark, I was mesmerized. By the end of the film, I was changed. Lion Ark takes an already incredible and unforgettable story and breathes life and passion and transformation into it without resorting to unnecessary theatrics or something so trivial as special effects.
Lion Ark is about these lions. Lion Ark is about compassion. Lion Ark is about bravery. Lion Ark is about what happens when a small group of individuals makes the decision to work together for a cause far greater than themselves.
The story of Lion Ark starts before the film itself. A shocking undercover investigation has resulted in the country of Bolivia banning animal circuses nationwide. Not particularly surprising in a nation that has struggled with poverty, the owners of these animal circuses defy the ban and so, once again, the investigative team heads back out throughout the country in an extraordinary effort to save the lives of 25 lions in what may be the most elaborate and complex animal rescue ever completed that culminates in the mind-boggling airlifting of 25 lions over 5,000 miles to freedom in Colorado.
What makes Lion Ark so extraordinary beyond the power of its story is that director Tim Phillips, Vice-President and co-founder of Animal Defenders International (ADI), has meticulously constructed a mesmerizing unfolding of the story that is short on news clips and reconstructions and filled to the brim with anxiety-inducing and emotionally involving footage that brings the entire drama to life as it is happening.
The movie opens in the middle of one of the investigative team's huge and risk confrontations, a scenario that played out time and again as they worked to track their way across the nation uncovering these now illegal circuses where treatment of these lions was questionable and heartbreaking at best and downright cruel at its worst.
The characters who are involved in this story are realistically brought to life because they are, after all, real people. At the center of the film, and appropriately so, is Animal Defenders International and those who support the organization's efforts including known animal welfare activist and philanthropist Bob Barker, CSI actress Jorja Fox, members of the U.S. and Bolivian Congresses and a host of animal welfare experts and ADI staff and volunteers.
Of course, this wouldn't be an accurate documentary if it portrayed anything other than these 25 lions being the true stars of the film and that is very much the case here. The cinematography from Tony Pattinson and Mark Whatmore is exhilarating and intimate, at times capturing the beauty of Bolivia and these animals while other times grabbing hold of the fear and anxiety of everything unfolding and refusing to even consider letting go.
Karel Havlicek serves up a stellar original score while the film also includes music from the likes of Joan Jett and South American garage bands.
If you fancy yourself an advocate for our animals, Lion Ark is one of your must-see films of 2013. If you have never really considered yourself an animal welfare activist, I'd dare say that Lion Ark will turn you into one.
The recently completed Lion Ark is just beginning its festival run and one can only hope that it ends up in Indy's own Heartland Film Festival, where its positive and inspiring message celebrating the human spirit would be a natural fit. If it does end up playing here in Indy, I definitely recommend checking it out. Wherever the film ends up, it is worth the effort to see it on the big screen where the majesty and beauty of the lions and this story truly come to life in ways that will, I'll say it again, change your life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic