Kat Kramer’s ‘Films That Change the World’

looking at an elephant on a photo safari
Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

It is an enormous honor and a vital privilege to be able to share a cinematic prayer for life in actorvist Kat Kramer’s cinema series “Films that Change the World.” Our ten years or really fifteen years in the making documentary “Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant” is a prayer for the wildlife of the world, centered on the spirit of the elephant, but it is also a prayer for the spirit of childhood and wonder and the voice of the native peoples who are the guardians of what remains of the wilderness. This year the theme of the series is “Sheroes” because women cohere the world, they give and sustain life, and are at the heart of human existence and increasingly it is the women of the world who are molding the future. 

My trajectory began honoring a truly remarkable group of concerned mothers. In my early 20s the nuclear issue and the enormous money the U.S. had spent during the Cold War on nuclear weapons haunted me. Money which could have been spent to serve humanity, health, education and life in all its aspects, was spent on potential annihilation. Reagan was elected in 1980 and I have shuddered ever since. At 24 I started to produce a documentary about women with a young woman called Barbara who died very early at 55. Her tenacity of vision to make a film on those who made quilts for peace, convinced me of the necessity to collaborate with her to make a documentary that would bear witness. The quilts were made from the hands of those who give life, who are its caretakers, as a message of solidarity to those fighting for peace on this very fragile planet. 

We followed the Boise Peace Quilt project for several years and the making of the most significant quilt the Joint Soviet American Peace Quilt presented to the chief arms negotiators in Geneva. We witnessed the heart of America holding ice cream socials in Idaho and went to Geneva with a message that we had to start to mold a better future: nuclear weapons need to be disarmed. We met the chief arms negotiators who made decisions on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The American negotiator believed as many still do, that having weapons deter war. Matriarchy met the patriarchy head on but with an article, a humble quilt, made from the utter devotion of mothers. The American chief arms negotiator was reluctant to meet with us at first. I spoke to his secretary and explained to him that the Russians had already met with the mothers from Idaho. It would be hard to explain to the media why the Americans could not meet with us. They let us in.  In 1987, the film was nominated for the Academy Award. The film did not defuse a single nuclear warhead or decrease the nuclear threat, but it bore witness to the extraordinary effort of women who give life before those who would endanger it in all its forms. For women do not wage war. 

They made quilts to remind humanity of our interconnectedness and fragility and to honor those who fight for life. The quilt bore the hand stitched portraits of Russian and American children — the future, if we are to have one. The Boise women also made a quilt for the people of Hiroshima, to Helen Caldicott, the physician, activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee and friend of Kat’s, who wrote “If you love this Planet,” Charlie Clements, who gave his services to the people of Nicaragua during the heyday of our involvement there and many others. Some could say it was naive, that the women were naive. That mothers were naive. But it is precisely their heart and their vote for life that resounded so. Some had never been out of the country. Their mission was impassioned and undaunted. Their work was to empower, to speak truth to power and hope that one day humanity would disarm. One of their main pieces was the Senatorial Quilt under which each and every member of the Senate was meant to sleep and record their thoughts and dreams in a journal. Each quilt took 1,000 hours of hand labor. The women of Boise showed a fortitude, vision and care that is rare but that many women around the world share in a patriarchally dominated and unequal world. Increasingly, as we see with our vice president and many more women senators in the U.S., those leading the way are women. Some are young women such as Greta in Sweden, Disha Ravi in India or Vanessa Nakate in Uganda, who speak truth to power and whose majestic voices are the clarion call of our time. They speak for the often marginalized and for the environment. This is why Kat’s theme for the 10th Anniversary of her series is “Sheroes For Change,” because increasingly those making a difference are the women of the world. And some of them will become mothers and their children will have to inherit this planet.

I feel I have known Kat for years, although we have never met. It is an honor to have been selected in a series, a seemingly humble series with an enormous message and a very large aperture, a series called “Films that Change the World.” Films enter our bloodstream like a small stream of consciousness, like vivid composites of poems and dreams from the waking world that in documentary form remind us of the essential and that bear urgent witness to the most pressing issues of our times. Among films, I believe the documentarians are often the true heroes of the film world, whether they be men or women because they put everything they have into realizing their work so that others may listen and hopefully act and respond to the human condition.

Documentaries and feature films take the pulse of the world and magnify fractals of reality so that the eye and the heart can join and activate our sense of responsibility and duty to our fellow humans and the planet. Film is the art form that delivers unprecedented power more compellingly than arguably any other. Kat’s discerning voice highlight some of the essential themes of our time. This strength and vision are hers and one that filmmakers need in this highly competitive world. She did have a decidedly remarkable head start with a father Stanley Kramer, who understood themes that others have shied away from and who directed some of the most poignant films ever made, films that were like arrows of light that broke through denial, whether they were about interracial issues such as the masterpiece “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Judgement at Nuremberg” or “On the Beach” with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on the aftermath of nuclear war, the shadow of which stills looms over the entire life force of the planet. Kat founded her cinema series “Kat Kramer’s Films That Change The World” to showcase socially conscious films and documentaries, and also to give new filmmakers a “voice.” Kat has presented films ranging from “Yentl” and “The Cove” to “Elephants And Man: A Litany Of Tragedy,” “Teach Your Children Well”, “FALLOUT,” “Bhopal; A Prayer For Rain,” “Grandma,” “The Hunting Ground” and “Love And Bananas: An Elephant Story.” Those are just a few of the titles of films exploring issues of women’s equality, animal-rights, LGBTQ bullying and school violence, environmental and nuclear issues, rape and women’s reproductive rights, wildlife protection and advocacy.

Having been obsessed with the monstrosity of nuclear war in my early 20s, it is perhaps not a coincidence that we met. “Radium Girls,” one of Kat’s selections, is a supremely sensitive feature film that tells us the truth about the military industrial complex when hundreds of young women who worked in factories in the early part of the 20th century to paint clocks and watch faces with radioactive self luminous radium paint, got sick, and many died. They were told the paint was harmless but as they began to develop cancer, they had to respond to the dire truth of the lie and the conditions they had been forced to work under. In 1928, five women in New Jersey challenged the factory employers which became one of the biggest cases of the era. They sued and eventually won as did five women in Illinois ten years later. To see the fine-tipped paint brushes “pointed” and placed on the women’s lips, after being dipped in radium, was to see a microcosm of what America would become — a consumer society more interested in the “products it manufactured than the immemorial ability to affirm the charm of existence,” as Nobel Laureate and activist Jane Adams would declare in the early 1930’s. In our time, the tragic lessons of the radium girls’ struggle to be heard, ripples in Flint Michigan, in so called minority neighborhoods who live near toxic waste dumps, among the Native Americans who have been poisoned by uranium, farmers who have been infected by pesticides and now the virus and the hundred and one other cases of abuse and manipulation by big industry and the government over and above the quality of life and rights of its citizens. All in the name of money and profit, which continues to this day across every facet of life. “Radium Girls” is executive produced by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. Tomlin is the leading Ambassador for “Kat Kramer’s Films That Change The World” and is an animal-rights activist, wildlife protector and an advocate for the environment and climate change.

“Radium Girls” is inspired and reminds one of what Erin Brockovich realized before in the film that bears her name, that each and every one of us is at the mercy of and in the clutches of industry’s malfeasance. We need to act as never before to confront the scourges of pesticides, teflon, arsenic, roundup, uranium and everything that seeps in our water supply, earth and air because the products of industry don’t just disappear, they eventually end up in our blood, and brain and hearts. And we are forever changed. We need to heed the bravery of those women in “Radium Girls” and the Gretas of the world, who say How Dare You, to those who put profits before posterity, money before children unborn. We have reached the point in some essential ways as monarch butterflies become a distant dream, where we are all radium girls. We, the people, can no longer be sacrificed. Or we will all fail. Life, liberty and even the possibility of the pursuit of happiness are all on the line as never before.

When we started “Walking Thunder” our main concern was Native peoples’ response, the world over, to climate change. We had heard concerns everywhere, from Indonesia to South America, that rain patterns were changing and the snows of Kilimanjaro were dissolving. And then when my son Lysander was just 3 or 4 years old, it hit home. The elephant tragedy had started all over again in the later part of the first decade of the century and I felt like a bullet was going through not only an incomparable species, one of the pillars of the world according to the Hindu cosmology, but also childhood. We helped sound the alarm by convincing Nat Geo to realize the first film “Battle for the Elephant” which helped galvanize Kenya’s Hands Off Our Wildlife movement and convinced Vanity Fair to run the tremendous article “Agony and Ivory” written by Alex Shoumatoff when no-one was listening in 2011. The article, unprecedented in journalism, helped galvanize the entire conservation world like a clarion call over the conscience of humanity. Incomparable vision and outreach through WildAid across China were magisterial in getting the campaign to stop buying ivory and eventually shutting down the market. An elephant was being killed every 15 minutes or so. Some 130,000 elephants were destroyed for man’s entertainment and profit. The slaughter of the innocents that began in the 1980’s had resumed.

Humanity has once again lost its mind but instead of concentrating on death, blood, ranger operations, and the military trying to stop the bad guys we decided to listen to those who knew the elephant best, because much of the oral tradition of Africa’s first peoples had never been heard before. To hear a child’s wonder and see the unfolding of a child in his critical years was a privilege and responsibility. What hope does childhood have, if we lose the elephant? How will they look their parents in the eyes and ask, how could you allow this to happen? What have you done to my world? In a time when 70 percent of the world’s wildlife population has disappeared in our lifetime, the lessons of “Walking Thunder” are irrevocable. What does the future of wildlife have to do with the future of childhood? Everything!

An essential part of the core of wonder and ability to respect the world would be gone. Elephants have influenced us like no other species since we walked out of Africa and migrated to the New World with the mammoths. They form part of our very spirit. Dumbo, Babar, the elephants in Lord of the Rings are only stories, part of the cultural offshoots of a titan, a near deity, but the real elephants, the ones who have fertilized Africa and Asia, we can’t bear losing, or civilization will crumble. Of that I am sure. Because we will have lost our footing forever.

For the Samburu, the elephant was part of their extended family. To hear that an elephant once helped a woman give birth in the world is a miracle and something you don’t hear on nature documentaries because the human equation has been left out. 

For far too long humans and other animals have been sundered, spiritually, and emotionally. But everywhere they form the matrix of the best part of why we are here on Earth. Animals have formed our core ever since we became a species. This 6th extinction is also about the dissolution of humanity.

We cannot survive without the elephants and the other species. We meant “Walking Thunder” as prayer and it was Marie, as a mother who was able to connect the film so that all the elements cohered. The photographs, the personal elements are the connective tissue and the way we began seeing. But the film came together as something larger. So much of the foundational integrity of the film is thanks to Marie’s tenacity not as a filmmaker but as someone who sees the whole landscape of concern. Women are much closer to the life force. They do not wage war. I believed the film would have a unique voice because a child too, even if a foreign voice, calls attention from the marrow of life and the sense of awe and majesty that is childhood’s birthright. We heard evidence of the human elephant bond few had ever heard before. It was not just about climate change and species preservation and even the future of childhood, but all of these and even more. Animals and plants and honoring story and place are the bedrock and firmament of existence. Honor them and we may have a chance.

Women who say they can communicate with elephants are saying something unique. Dame Daphne Sheldrick who ran the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, even thought they were telepathic. We don’t know really anything about the life force of the planet.

When humans, ruled by the Chinese market, started destroying elephants for trinkets, I thought that we are going to lose a central reason for being on this Earth. We are mad as a species. If we cannot save elephants we cannot save anything, including ourselves. Nor will we want to be here. We are still very close to the point of no return. This is the decade of reckoning where we have to want to be on this planet, not as passive observers and consumers but as active participants of a miracle. How could we dare to look for microbes on Mars when we are obliterating the elephants and whales and everything in between? The Native people never destroyed their world for fun, for entertainment, for luxury items. The Europeans, the Americans, as Lysander says at six, “kill to decorate their houses. It’s not important to decorate your house, the important thing is to live.” At eight he quoted the golden rule of Christ in front of the UN during the global March for Elephants initiated by Dame Daphne when he said,” Don’t do to elephants what you don’t want them to do to you!” 

If we could hear the message of our time, it is that the entire spectrum of life from elephants to dung beetles is on the chopping block. We have this decade to turn things around. Video games don’t bring you closer to nature and in a time when people are thinking of ways to download their memories into computers, we can say we had better wake up. Animals whom we have abused, and mutilated for countless millennia have wreaked their revenge with the virus. We now know we need much greater humility before Nature. The film is meant as a prayer to the life force but also a visual torch to what is ultimately our reason to be here. To nurture wonder, life, children and the other life forms.

Some of the most fundamental voices in “Walking Thunder” are women. The Samburu women whose tribe have a bond with elephants like no other. The women in Namibia who say elephants are their television, may not be Indigenous but they daily see elephants coming to drink at the cistern every day and talk to the elephants, “They understand our language.” The elephants are companions in ways we will never fully know, in mind and spirit and this is what we were aiming for in a film that really took us the entire century to realize.

Whether it is a political movement, a film seen through the eyes of a child, a family’s journey, or the imponderable conscience and weight of the elephant to existence itself, “Walking Thunder” is a journey that even moved Jane Goodall, who knows a few things about life. But films cannot just bear witness. Ideally they should remind the human spirit to fight and aspire for life and justice. Whether it is women who lost their lives to radium hiding behind a big lie, which all Americans have had to absorb of late, or the lie that we are superior to the other animals on Earth, now is the time to act to save what remains of the world’s species. For without the others, we are all lost, and civilization will quite simply come to an end. Women have known that for millennia.

One prophetic voice did understand that justice or injustice applied not only to humans but also to animals was Martin Luther King, Jr. That is why his words were chosen at the end of “Walking Thunder,” to remind us of the other beings of Earth, not just the elephant, but all animals. For without them we cease to be human.

One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.


Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

WALK THUNDER trailer from Last Stand Films on Vimeo.