The Movie Waffler Documentary Review - Lion Ark | The Movie Waffler

Documentary Review - Lion Ark

Investigation into the treatment of circus lions in Bolivia.

Directed by: Tim Phillips
Featuring: Jan Creamer, Remy Ballivan, Bob Barker

Lion Ark is a production by activist charity Animal Defenders International, which details the eponymous ‘Operation Lion Ark’. Following a two year investigation into conditions for circus animals across South America, ADI’s testimony was critical in the eventual ban on the possession of circus animals in the country of Bolivia. One year after the ban, concentrating their efforts on cleaning up the remains of the Bolivian circus trade, we join ADI President Jan Creamer and her team of activists, veterinarians and wildlife professionals as they undertake a reclaim-and-rescue mission for which the film is named. As you might imagine, their specific aim is the rescue of African lions, many raised in captivity and with attendant health and psychological problems.
The documentary is on one level quite unpretentious and earnest, evidently the product of a motivated and concerned crew. The film begins briskly, in media res, with the ADI and Bolivian police, bartering with circus folk who will give up the animals (presumably under threat of arrest) but not the trailer that houses them, unless they are paid for it.
A sense of the dedication of the ADI teams is prominent and you can’t help but admire them as you see these slovenly, unhealthy lions, many of whom have lived their entire lives in cages that are barely twice their full body length. Specific scenes of animal cruelty are artfully integrated, by split screen or multiple-image, into interview sections, to avoid any sense of sensationalism or undue audience manipulation. What struck me most was the petty nature of a lot of the cruelty: a man striking an elephant in the face because its flapping ear is irritating him as he showers it from a hose, or another charm-school graduate with a lion cub on a lead, jabbing the handle of the lead in the animal’s head, just to show it who is boss.  
The downside to this film is the sense that you’re watching an abridged edit of a more thorough documentary. In the early hours of Operation Lion Ark, someone says “it looks like someone’s gotten wind of our plan.” Who? I wondered, and how? When they arrive at their first stop, they find the site abandoned, save for the lion cages. Surely there’s a story there that demanded a few words of follow up? The style of the film is documentary but the tone is decidedly propagandist, focusing on the valiant efforts of the ADI team and providing little context. 
In the first ten minutes of the film, Jan Creamer makes her case for the battle against animal cruelty, and it amounts, to my ear, to a sincere statement of of personal conviction but not a presentation of the hard case against animal captivity or cruelty. This is a well-made film, for animal rights enthusiasts and wannabe activists who want to see how an operation can be done (hint: secure the bankroll!). It might make you feel a bit better about the world to know that such effective operations exist, so why not have a look. Also, weirdness fans will enjoy the unexpected cameo by Zorro, who strolls by to shake the crew's hands and congratulate them on their good work. “We could have done with him earlier” someone says… now, that would have been a scene of rare greatness.

Rúairí Conneely