CYNTHIA MOSS, world-renowned observer of elephant behavior, has no qualms about calling the lives of elephants "a soap opera." She likens being in the middle of a herd to joining a big family reunion. She says elephants experience joy, concern, and sometimes a wistful memory of recent ancestors.
Such anthropomorphic notions might cause shudders if they didn't come from a woman who is founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project and a Kenya senior associate of the African Wildlife Foundation. But once you've seen an upcoming PBS documentary about her work, you'll understand perfectly. You may even add a few metaphors of your own. "Echo of the Elephants" offers a media model of how documentary rigor can coexist with poetic license. This impressive film - an edition of the "Natur e" series airing Sunday, March 14 (8-9:30 p.m., check local listings) - pulls you into a world where life, death, recovery, and mutual support form a social history that has an undeniable story line.
Moss lives in that world: taking notes, teaching, and - for 18 months in 1990 and 1992 - working on this program. When I spoke with her by phone while she was in New York City the other day, I asked if a major media project like this - however carefully controlled - might not have altered the very thing the film was designed to capture: the elephants' natural behavior.
"We're just flies on the walls," she answered. "It very rarely affects them. Some of the older calves come and push on the car and lean on it and tusk it gently. That's the only time they really interact with us."
The rest of the time the elephants are minding their own business, in ways that call for high intelligence and what appears to be community spirit. The program focuses on a matriarch, the Echo of the title, and her just-born calf Eli, who cannot walk - a potentially fatal condition. In a heartening display of cooperative effort, mother and sister try to help. The sister walks away at times in an effort to motivate Eli to rise and follow. When he does get up, it is an exhilarating moment.
"Basically, the elephants wrote the script," Moss says. "We didn't know Eli was going to be born crippled and then be all right. That made the film right away. It happened in the first six weeks of filming."
But for all its inherent drama, the production spares us the overachieving narration and hyped action endemic to some nature programs. Nor does it resort to look-alike substitutes when tracing the history of an individual animal, as some documentaries do. "We didn`t fake anything," Moss says. "Every time you see Eli on the screen, it is Eli, not some other calf that happened to be doing the thing we wanted it to do. Every named animal in there is that animal."
And it is truly a story about elephants, not about someone studying elephants. "It's not supposed to be about me," Moss stresses. "It's just seen through my eyes." But she does appear in the production and shares the narration with host George Page. "The audience needs to be reminded every once in a while who's telling the story," Moss explains.
She was particular about whom she would let enter her special world to make this film. One who did enter was producer Marion Zunz - whose death just before the project's completion added a tragic note to the effort. Another was director-cinematographer Martyn Colbeck, who in his time has filmed everything from microscopic life to rhinos.
"I finally said `Here's somebody who really has an affinity for elephants and wildlife,' " Moss recalls, " `a calm, gentle, sensitive person.' I felt I could spend 12 hours a day in a car with this person." She laughs heartily at her own finickyness about whom she'll work with in the wild, where human interaction is going on you record elephant interaction.
Africa was not the place Moss expected to end up when she arrived in New York City fresh out of Smith College. But eventually she met well-known elephant biologist Ian Douglas Hamilton, and her interest in elephants blossomed. The day she and I spoke was on or close to the 25th anniversary of the date she had first flown off to Africa. That very night she was scheduled to leave for Africa again. I had the feeling she could hardly wait.