In August 2007, Los Angeles resident Aaron Leider sued L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis and the City of Los Angeles. ‘The zoo’s “cruel, abusive and illegal treatment” through use of chains, drugs, bullhooks and electric shocks,’ claimed Leider was harming the Asian elephants in the zoo’s care. One of them had been bobbing his head in a way an elephant does when stressed. This was Billy. A decade later, the attorney fighting the case lost.
In 2021, David Casselman, that same animal rights lawyer after a nearly forty-year legal career, became CEO, Ecoflix.
A not-for-profit global streaming platform, ‘dedicated to saving animals and the planet’, says the official website. It also mentions, ‘there will be no advertising.’ Launched during the global climate negotiations at CoP 26, Casselman clarifies, ‘we are not looking for celebrities or famous faces. Instead, we are looking for kindred spirits.’
This decade also marks a century of the thespian or star as narrator for documentaries. This has tilted even more in the direction of celebrities post 2000, as documentaries began to be more commercially viable. Maria Pramaggiore and Annabelle Honess Roe remind us of this in their recent book, Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary.“If the aim for these documentaries is to get wider press coverage and higher box office returns or viewing figures, then the celebrity voice-over strategy seems often to be successful.”
Is that Ecoflix’s aim then? A look at the wider behind-the-scenes team offers clues. Let’s look at the Board of Directors first.
American Beth Pratt has had a long association with two of the largest national parks in the US. Niall McCann, from Wales, wears many hats. Nat Geo Explorer, biologist and an anti-poaching charity he helped establish in Africa. Teo Alfero, also American, heads a California-based large-canine rescue center and sanctuary. Will Travers runs an animal charity in England. All four, white, with Beth, the only woman.
Their Advisory Board has Lek Chailert. Founder of a Thai non-profit working with elephants, the only Asian among them. The rest are all again white. Like much of their Executive team too.
Again, save one. The global south, as you can see, seems quite underrepresented.
Let us see what it does for viewers then? 100 per cent of all memberships are tax-deductible for US Taxpayers. This incentivizes US citizens to join perhaps. But global viewers will soon be able to upload their own nature videos, in an upcoming interactive map.
Currently, if a viewer becomes an Ecoflix member, one month of an annual membership fee will be donated directly to an Ecoflix partner NGO. But the platform confuses by saying that all profit in the not-for-profit streaming platform will be directed toward conservation. “Our impact team makes assessments based on a range of criteria including urgency, need, recommendations and track record.” A fair probe may check, is the partner NGO network connected to the Board in any manner?
Yes is the short answer. Of the thirteen Ecoflix partners listed, five work in animal care in the US. Many others have multi-country projects. The highest number come from Southeast Asia and Africa. Like Gentle Giants in Thailand which looks after captive elephants. Or Indonesia’s Danau Girang Field Centre involved in field research in conservation.
The African Conservation Foundation team again seems overwhelmingly white, even when African. It leads many projects it says on behalf of Africa’s endangered wildlife and habitat. Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection runs what is said to be Liberia’s very first chimpanzee sanctuary. Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre runs a zoo turned sanctuary for chimpanzees saved from wildlife trade.
Indian data shows that paid subscribers to OTT platforms have shot up since 2020. Wrestling overtook cricket in sport viewership on TV in India since 2018, with the rise in Oriya, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Assamese and Marathi content. With streaming platforms like Ecoflix, who say that any ‘kindred spirit’ will be able to upload nature related content, it remains to be seen how this plays out, in terms of representation of a wider range of voices, especially post the pandemic?
Pramaggiore and Honess Roe’s documentary research, also reminds us that, “Voices in documentary are inextricably linked to issues of power. To ‘have a voice’ in the wider world is in some sense to have power and recognition; similarly, the presence or absence of voices in documentaries grants power to some and denies it to others. The disposition of voices expresses the way in which the filmmaker exercises his or her power over the material of the film. Voices also determine the form of a documentary.”
So with a wide swathe of multi-continental presence, whose voices might have been included at the launch of this platform? The Ecoflix Foundation’s first and so far only original documentary is Free Billy.
The campaign’s description remains instructive, “perhaps the biggest surprise, Billy is not in an unenlightened zoo in a poor country, but in Los Angeles Zoo in California.”
Featured Image credit: Ecoflix’s Facebook page
Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies.
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