The A Plus Interview

With 'Love & Bananas,' Ashley Bell Educates Audiences On The Plight Of Asian Elephants

"[Audiences] feel like they know elephants by the time we're done."

The A Plus Interview reimagines the celebrity interview by inviting artists to answer a short series of brief, poignant questions that strive to be more meaningful than those asked by others. Check back each month for the latest installment.

For Ashley Bell, seeing Love & Bananas come to fruition feels like "a submarine that's finally emerging." After all, it's been a five-year journey to create her passion project following the rescue Noi Na, a 70-year-old Asian elephant who is partially blind and had been used for trekking.

The 31-year-old actress best known for 2010's The Last Exorcism and its 2013 sequel, among other projects, has always been attuned to non-humans and the Earth alike. Bell was raised vegetarian ("pretty much vegan," she notes), and grew up using cruelty-free products, living with rescue dogs, and having parents who raised her to respect both the environment and animals. She has always been mindful of her surroundings but, as life goes, it was "out of sight, out of mind" — that is until fully realizing the plight of Asian elephants.

Photo Credit: Ashley Bell
Photo Credit: Ashley Bell

"When I had the concept of this documentary, I thought it was going to be a 'happily ever after' story, but that's coming from a very unaware place," Bell — who produced, directed, wrote, and appeared in Love & Bananas — tells A Plus about arriving in Southeast Asia, specifically Cambodia and Thailand, and seeing the "horrible condition" of the Asian elephants and the rampant deforestation. "All of this hit me and I said, 'I can't just tweet or post about this, I've got to do something. I can't just go on living my life, I have to figure out how to use my platform to do something.' And that was making a documentary to raise awareness."

To make this documentary, Bell teamed up with Lek Chailert, a Thailand-born Asian elephant conservationist who has been recognized the world over and founded the Save Elephant Foundation. They set out to rescue Noi Na, who had been used for trekking (aka the riding of elephants), and to "permanently break the chain" of abuse that the endangered Asian elephants such as Noi Na face on a daily basis. Noi Na wasn't working well and was set to be sold to a zoo, circus, or another form of entertainment until Chailert, with a team and Bell in tow, came to play the role of liberators.

"I set out to take human audiences on a journey. Lek brought us under her wing and we're bringing viewers in that position with us so they can just be with elephants, just be with the herd. Lek reads to them, she understands their body language, she reads their bodies [like] a map, and she knows vocally the emotion they're communicating with each other. The response we've gotten from audiences is that they feel like they know elephants by the time we're done."

Photo Credit: Ashley Bell
Photo Credit: Ashley Bell

Bell recalls the first day she arrived to Chailert's nature park, which is an elephant sanctuary, and seeing a group of elephants, most of them blind, interacting with a new toy — a 50-pound ball — and sniffing it with their trunks. Bell asked what they were doing and what they were communicating, and Chailert told her that the elephant that could see was explaining to the others that a new toy had arrived. This, mind you, was just within hours of Bell being introduced to these "majestic creatures."

"So then by the end of the film, when you see an elephant painting, throwing a basketball into a hoop, or giving a ride, it's just foreign to them compared to when you see an elephant just being an elephant, without ever being preachy."

Getting into telling this movie done correctly was a tricky thing for Bell who, at first, never wanted to appear on the screen. It wasn't until watching back some of the initial footage and realized that there was a real need to have someone be the bridge between the audience and the action that's happening on the screen. Bell, as an actress, says this wasn't to be a "vanity piece," and it wasn't until finding this appropriate role for her to play, a justified one, that she was comfortable appearing in the project. They were there to tell "an authentic story."

"The biggest thing Lek taught me was that love heals elephants," Bell adds. "Lek is getting elephants that are severely abused both mentally and physically. For instance, Noi Na still — even though she is not chained — still reaches for her food with an extended trunk as if she is chained. Lek just shared that with me. Every single captive elephant in the world has one thing in common: their spirit has been broken. Lek regards elephants as people, regards them with that level of respect, and they forgive humans. When she took the chains off Noi Na, within three minutes she was an elephant again. The transformation was instant."

Upon arriving back in the U.S. with more than 75 hours worth of footage, Bell and her team set out to make sure they got this story right, to get Chailert's spirit right. Noi Na was the star, the elephants were their stars. In the end, this was an elephant story, and Bell wanted to show audiences "their humor, their personality, their skin, the spark in their eye, and the little fur on their head."

"When I was a little girl, my dad sat me down and said that there are leaders and there are followers — and you have to be a leader," Bell explains. "It's scary in this world because there are a lot of followers and there are very few leaders. Lek is a leader. I have never seen somebody more effortlessly generous — every single action she takes is something outward. It's unbelievable. I want to get her message out to people, I want people to see a real hero."

Photo Credit: Ashley Bell
Photo Credit: Ashley Bell

Audiences won't just be getting a captivating story about elephants, they will hopefully be moved to take action. As Bell puts it, "Lek has always said the key to saving the species is education," so there are immediate things folks can do listed on the film's official site.

As Bell is a first-time filmmaker, she created an ebook that can be a source for other first-time filmmakers or those who are aspiring filmmakers. It's called Shoot It. Sell It. Show It.: How I Made an Independent Film With Grit and Google, and it offers readers an insight into "all of the hardships, adversity, tricks, tips, and ways to be prepared that they won't feel beaten up by the process."

For more information about Love & Bananas, you can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The documentary arrives in theaters April 22.

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