They lifted the curtain. Freedom Roared.
Category: Documentary / Wildlife
Country: U.S. / United Kingdom
Runtime: 97 min.
Director: Tim Phillips
Producer: Jan Creamer, Tim Phillips
More action adventure than traditional documentary, Lion Ark follows the world’s most ambitious and daring animal rescue with a narrative meticulously compiled from film, interviews, conversations and the reactions of participants as events actually unfold. The real stars are twenty-five lions saved from appalling conditions all over Bolivia and airlifted 5,000 miles to safety and freedom in Colorado.
It is also a story of bravery, compassion, camaraderie and determination, of people working without a safety net and how a poor but proud country said ‘no’ to cruelty. All set against events that changed attitudes to animals across an entire continent.
A shocking undercover investigation leads to a ban on animal circuses in Bolivia. But the circuses simply defy the law. The team behind the investigation and campaign to secure the law, Animal Defenders International, 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 the lions airlifted 5,000 miles to freedom in Colorado.
While it is not uncommon for documentaries to be built around a single dramatic event that has been captured on film, Lion Ark instead weaves every aspect of the documentary through the very dramatic events as they are actually unfolding.
These are the reactions, thoughts and emotions of the participants, not in retrospect, but as the events take place, when they do not know whether they will succeed or fail. As well as an exciting adventure this is a remarkable piece of history showing how ground breaking laws are secured and then enforced (including the huge obstacles to enforcement for countries with limited resources).
Even the celebrities such award winning TV legend Bob Barker and CSI actress Jorja Fox, or members of the Bolivian and US Congresses, do so as participants rather than distant commentators.
Filmed primarily on Red this is also a surprisingly beautiful film, from the striking Bolivian settings to the film’s biggest stars -¬ the lions. But it is not rose-tinted, it is sweat, grit, frustration, desperation, and determination that overcomes the seemingly insurmountable odds to get the lions to safety.
Even the score of Lion Ark owes more to dramas than traditional documentary with a sweeping original score punctuated by eclectic contributions by the likes of Joan Jett and less known South American garage bands.
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 carrying the lions. 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.
Light aircraft zip across the jungle and even a battered C130 Hercules is employed as the team chase after circuses. The team go toe to toe with furious circus owners and even angrier lions, and face treacherous journeys as trucks loaded with lions teeter on perilous mountain passes. The lions are nursed back to health in field station built from scratch as the animals are rescued, with rescuers desperately holding together, rusting, collapsing cages that are the only thing between them and angry lions. This is front-line animal rescue without a safety net.
We count down to the nail biting, 5,000 mile Lion Ark airlift to Colorado, but even then, storm clouds gather. The team battles through the harsh rainy season, which threatens to wash away their plans and leave them stranded. Then 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 he slowly emerges from his torment.
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, with cheering in the street 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.
The events at the heart of Lion Ark shows how a small group of people ignited change across the entire continent with new laws following in Peru, Ecuador and Paraguay, and similar measures before Congresses in Brazil and Colombia and even the U.S.
This is 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!
NOTE: Synopsis are typically provided directly by the filmmaker themselves. Often English is not their first language. We ask reader’s understanding for less-than-perfect language and grammar