Acting is in Ashley Bell’s DNA. Her grandparents were vaudeville performers, and both of her parents are working actors. Bell’s parents weren’t thrilled when she informed them that she, too, intended to become an actor, but after seeing her commitment to the craft, they offered their full support, a gift for which she is eternally grateful. After studying acting at New York University, Bell went on to appear in a number of films. But it was when she met the renowned conservationist Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert and was exposed to the plight of Asian elephants that she knew she had a story to tell from behind the camera.
Bell’s documentary, Love and Bananas: An Elephant Story, was five years in the making: half a decade of waiting for the right elephant, the right time, and the right circumstances. The logistics involved in filming the rescue and more-than-500-mile transport of a partially blind, sick, 70-year-old Asian elephant were daunting, but Bell, inspired by the courage, determination, and will of Chailert, returned from Thailand and Cambodia with more than 75 hours of extraordinary footage. Love and Bananas has been screened in theaters nationwide, and in South Korea, Australia, and parts of Europe. On September 21, Bell and Chailert will present a screening of Love and Bananas at The Marjorie Luke Theatre, with all proceeds from the event going to benefit elephant and other wildlife sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. Bell spoke recently with the Santa Barbara Independent. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Talk about Lek Chailert. She’s a remarkable woman. She risks her life almost every day to protect elephants. Nothing is more important to Lek than treating these animals with respect and dignity — except maybe educating people about why it’s so vital to protect elephants from exploitation by trekking camps, circuses, and logging operations. Under Lek’s care, formerly captive elephants become elephants again.
How did you decide on the title of the film? It actually came to me immediately. Lek’s approach to working with elephants is essentially an excess of love and lots of bananas. The title is a metaphor for what elephants need, but we also wanted a title that might appeal to children and schools. Like Lek, I think our best hope to save elephants is through education. When people know better, they tend to do better.
Love and Bananas is your directorial debut. At any point did you worry that you had taken on more than you bargained for? Yes! I had my first panic attack when I came home with 75 hours of raw footage. I literally lay on the tile floor in my parents’ kitchen. My father said, “It’s okay, step-by-step.” And with the help of some incredible collaborators, we figured out how to tell the story in the most effective way and a bit differently from other wildlife documentaries.
You grew up in Los Angeles, but I understand you have a Santa Barbara connection. That’s right. When I was a little girl, my family had a beach house near Miramar Beach, and that’s where I spent many summers. I love Santa Barbara, and I’m so looking forward to screening Love and Bananas there.
Ashley Bell and Lek Chailert will present a screening of Love and Bananas on Friday, September 21, 7 p.m., at The Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.). See here for tickets.