Lion Ark is a vivid behind the scenes account of probably the most ambitious animal rescue ever undertaken, the finale of which sees 25 lions rescued from illegal traveling circuses across Bolivia being flown to safety in the USA.
A shocking undercover investigation leads to a ban on animal circuses in Bolivia. But the circuses defy the law. The team behind the investigation return, track down the illegal circuses and save every animal. We follow the confrontations, heartache and risks the team face, before an emotional finale sees 25 lions airlifted 5,000 miles to freedom in Colorado.
Whilst it is not uncommon for documentaries to take a single dramatic event captured on film and build around that, Lion Ark makes the entire film from those events with commentary and reaction from the participants as events actually unfold.
This is not a reconstruction or the fuzzy memories of interviewees, these are the reactions and feelings of the participants captured as events are actually unfolding. A remarkable piece of history.
Structured more like a drama than a documentary the story is told through the events caught on film with a narrative meticulously pieced together from recordings made at the time. Filmed primarily on Red this is also a surprisingly beautiful film from the striking Bolivian settings to the films biggest stars - the lions.
For two years a team of investigators from Animal Defenders International (ADI) infiltrated the South American circus industry, filming everything they saw. The findings shocked a continent. Bolivia banned animals in circuses. Most people thought that was it, but almost every circus defied the law – it was business and suffering as usual.
So, a year later the same team was back, tracking down the circuses and, in a series of raids, rescuing every animal. This is the story of how a small group of people came together to secure and then enforce an animal protection law when no one thought it was possible.
The movie opens in the middle of a fierce confrontation between rescuers and a circus owner brandishing a knife and slashing the tires of the trailer they are attempting to move lions in. You then learn the events that led the rescuers to this remote, dusty town and what drives our protagonists to give their all, risking life and limb for animals.
We share their laughter and tears and get to know the remarkable team. We are at their side as they face the challenges of the rescue, as they are threatened, and feel their raw emotions when things go wrong. There are even surprising moments of compassion and tenderness between the rescuers and the circus owners.
Each time the rescue team goes in to seize another group of animals, there is no knowing how events will enfold. Rusting, collapsing cages, furious circus owners and even angrier lions, and treacherous journeys this is frontline animal rescue without a safety net.
An intriguing mix of characters populate the story including the founders of ADI, a wildlife vet seeking redemption, officials and others whose lives are touched by this huge rescue operation. We learn what drives them and what led them here. Even philanthropist and TV personality Bob Barker, CSI actress Jorja Fox, and Members of the US and Bolivian Congresses make appearances, not as commentators but as participants in this incredible tale.
More action adventure than traditional documentary, Lion Ark uses conversations and interviews recorded at the time to tell the story, keeping the viewer in the moment.
Even the score of Lion Ark owes more to dramas than traditional documentary with a sweeping original score by Karel Havlicek, punctuated by eclectic contributions by the likes of Joan Jett and South American garage bands.
The rescuers face threats and danger as circuses are pursued through stunning scenery, light aircraft zip across the jungle, and trucks of lions teeter on perilous mountain passes. The lions are nursed back to health in a field station that is built from scratch as lions are rescued.
We count down to the nail biting, 5,000 mile Lion Ark airlift to Colorado, but even then storm clouds gather. The harsh rainy season threatens to wash away their plans and leave them stranded and a confrontational visit by the former circus animal owners leaves them on high alert.
You will be surprised and moved by the different characters of the lions – from the shy and timid to the fierce and defiant. The lions emerge as the real stars and you will be surprised as you find yourself rooting for the most aggressive lion of them all as it slowly emerges what he has been through.
Having seen the lions, filthy, starving and struggling to survive, eight to a cage when they are first found, you will never forget the moment when they race free in huge 20-acre enclosures of Colorado grassland. Free at last.
We see how the Bolivian people got behind this rescue. Of politicians, idealists, metal workers and a poor but proud country that said ‘no’ to cruelty. We see people cheering in the streets as one old lion heads to a new home after a lifetime of loneliness.
Lion Ark is a story of bravery, compassion, camaraderie and determination and how history was made where it was least expected – how people separated by language, culture, beliefs and sheer distance can be united by a common cause. How small numbers of people can change the world.
In the 18 months that followed Operation Lion Ark three more countries in South America (Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay) banned the use of wild animals in circuses and two more (Brazil and Colombia) have such legislation before their Congresses.
An uplifting movie with twists and turns that is still gritty, surprising, challenging, informative and pulls no punches. At last a film about a serious animal protection and environmental issues that will have you smiling and cheering!