Adapted from an essay written by English novelist George Orwell, the 11-minute short film Shooting an Elephant is the story of a young British policeman working in Burma who is tasked with killing an elephant that has rampaged through a local bazaar and killed a man. It’s not as easy as raising his rifle and pulling the trigger, however, for the officer, who begins to wrestle with the idea that the animal does not deserve to die. Scholars regard Orwell’s essay as a metaphor on the effects of British imperialism on the Burmese people during this time.
During an interview with Remezcla, Juan Pablo Rothie, Venezuelan director of Shooting an Elephant, spoke about the parallels between Orwell’s story and the police violence happening in today’s society and also talked about the collaboration he undertook with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter to create the film.
Shooting an Elephant premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival April 16 at 5:45pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park. Encore screenings take place April 19 at 5:45pm and April 21 at 3:15pm. A final screening can be seen April 23 at 8:30pm at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea.
What was it specifically about this Orwell essay that you connect with so deeply?
Orwell seems to be writing very personally about his own shortcomings around this incident. I’d like to think this short story was a key moment in his own progression as a writer – the moment where it all clicked and he became Orwell. His self-loathing and shame bubbles just beneath the surface of every observation. He hates the empire builders, the uniform he must wear, the role he must play, himself. He disdains the local people he must “police.” The whole thing is wrong and he’s powerless until he writes to fight against it. I’d like to think that he is writing about a pivotal moment in his own life when he realized he had lost a piece of his humanity by serving the empire builders.
What sort of message do you hope this film conveys, especially in today’s environment where tragic police violence is always in the headlines?
I hope this film connects with people everywhere. Orwell was really writing about his own fears and false pride. So, this topic has a very universal and sad underpinning that knows no specific time period. Every time someone in a uniform resorts to violence to solve a problem I always find myself asking, “Why?” Why did that policeman really shoot that unarmed kid? Why do horrors like Mai Lai or Abu Ghraib actually occur? And while there can never be an absolute answer, I’d like to think in part because people in uniform, who feel like they must represent some sort of authority, just don’t want to look foolish.
What do you feel Orwell meant when he wrote, “When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys?”
I think this statement is pretty self evident. Orwell was white, so he was writing from his own perspective of the British Empire. But, take the racial description out of this statement and you get to a real truth. When anyone turns tyrant they destroy their own freedom. Freedom of the soul. Freedom of spirit. Freedom of action. Whoever “makes the rules” finds they must enforce those rules or their entire house of cards comes crumbling down on them.
Some people would argue that police officers have a difficult job and that it’s hard enough to do that job without society holding them accountable for decisions they have to make, sometimes in seconds. What would you tell those people?
This film is not an indictment of the police. It’s an effort to explore a very specific incident that may speak to the human condition. Police have a very hard and essential task to perform in a democracy – to “keep the peace” and ensure that every person is protected. However, police are human and humans are emotional creatures. So, there is an inherent and internal struggle that goes on in the roles that must be played. I guess I’d tell these people that it is important to try to understand the human aspects of everybody in an equation. If there are repetitive transgressions or tragedies in policing, [however], then maybe it is the system and culture and incentives of policing that should be debated.
What did Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alec Sokolow (Toy Story) bring to this project and what was it like working with him?
He wrote the script and produced it with me. When I got permission to adapt Orwell’s story into a film, I quickly realized it was a major undertaking and Alec stepped in to help me realize my ambitions. Working with Alec on this project is an experience I’ll never forget. It’s what making movies is all about: a collaboration, a debate, a bond, a friendship, and a common passion to bring great ideas and stories to life. He is extremely talented, and truly one of the great champions of his game. But more importantly he’s a kind and generous soul. In my darkest moments throughout this process, he was there with all his resources and this film is as much his as mine.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on remezcla.com and tribecafilm.com.