"I Am Lion": A New Film Explores Consciousness and Sentience
An interview with award-winning filmmakers about their forthcoming documentary.
Posted July 13, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
"I’m ready to start looking from nature; from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. There is a lot of work to be done, and the media and wildlife filmmakers have a vital part to play in re-sensitizing humans to the nature of things and to the individuality of other animals." —Tarina Jozefowicz
What does it take to become a lion?
A few weeks ago, I was asked to view and comment on a forthcoming documentary from Tauana Films called I Am Lion by award-winning film producers Jürgen, Michael, and Tarina Jozefowicz. In an email, Tarina wrote that the film looks at humanity’s history with and deep-rooted perceptions of nonhuman animals, and explores consciousness in a captive, hand-reared lioness by observing how she learns and develops as she grows into a huntress in the wild. The lioness was born in a lion enclosure after her wild lion parents were captured on a cattle farm bordering the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. She was rescued from the enclosure and hand-reared.
I was intrigued and wound up watching the video three times. These are the rough notes I sent to her:
"I just watched your outstanding film. It's a gem; riveting, powerful, grounded in solid science with a wonderful story that unfolds in many different directions. It could be a game-changer. I really like how you weave in a grounded and factual narrative with awesome footage and feeling. It really explains what it is like to be a lioness/lion. I'll surely watch it again, because I'm sure I missed some material here and there. Thank you for sharing!
Among the many things that caught my eyes and ears and heart are: An ankle tap is a lion high-five; we all live in an 'interconnected sentient world'; how a hunt is a combination of adaptation and innovation; self-medication and how do they know what to do and how to do it; how growing up involves amazing transitions; we are more alike than we ever imagined; prey are not dumb food parcels waiting to be killed; the ever-changing relationship between lioness and human; that she had no lion role models; and the focus on individuality—each and every being has a unique personality."
I was thrilled Jürgen and Tarina could take the time to answer a few questions about their fascinating new film.
Why did you make I Am Lion?
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness signaled an important thought-shift in scientific enquiry and opened the door to a discussion about animal consciousness in wildlife films. In I Am Lion, the lioness and the man do not have names, because names are human constructs. The lioness is a sentient individual who learns from her experiences and grows in confidence and self-awareness through hard-won experience and through trial and error. [See "Scientists Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.]
How does it follow from your long-time interest in the lives of other animals?
I Am Lion is the culmination of 40 years of working with wild animals and indigenous peoples across southern Africa. Observing the huge social and territorial changes affecting both inevitably brings a measure of understanding. To many Africans, wildlife is the preserve of the privileged few; it occupies land where cattle and goats could graze. The human population in Africa is set to double over the next 30 years. The only "vacant land" will soon be game reserves currently occupied by wildlife. If we cannot change the perception of the indigenous custodians of wild animals, we’ll lose everything that cannot be domesticated or eaten. [See "Sentience and Conservation: Lessons from Southern Africa."]
Who is your intended audience?
Anyone who is prepared to look at other animals with an open mind, including conservationists, pet owners, zoo-keepers, game guides, tourists, animal activists as well as trophy hunters, poachers, and canned-lion breeders. Above all, we hope I Am Lion will open curious young eyes, minds, and hearts to the old mysteries and new discoveries in the natural world, which are waiting to be accessed by them and nurtured through science and keen observation.
What are some of your main messages? I love how you weave in the importance of instinct, learning, sentience, and consciousness.
The main message of I Am Lion is that the way we think about other animals affects their fate, that our perceptions have power. If we can change our mindset, we’ll change the way we treat other animals. If we learn their signals and watch them carefully, they’ll show us their inner lives and their individuality.
In I Am Lion, the man is well-meaning, but he is like a human parent; he fails to see changes in her. He perceives her as his creation; his very own pet. He doesn’t understand how hard she is struggling to become independent. He misses much, because he speaks “pidgin lion”; he doesn’t read the signals when she starts pushing the boundaries. We forget that our pets and the animals we meet in the wild know us. They’ve been watching us for centuries. They know our scents, they interpret our movements and our tone of voice. They’re way ahead of us in perception.
A number of scenes in the film show the lioness trying to communicate with the man. Wild lion communication is very subtle, but this lioness amplifies her vocalizations and movements when interacting with the man. Her behavior shows she knows he has a problem understanding, and she compensates for it with exaggerated speech and "gestures," as humans might when communicating with someone with a vision or hearing disability. In the film, the man personifies our inability to communicate with other animals, our often selfish desire to own a pet and to be loved, without understanding the inner life of the being we so dearly love.
Every "animal" is an individual with individual abilities, life experiences, and flaws. We have no moral right to decide their lives for them. We cannot own what was never given. Trust is not built overnight.
When Jürgen started filming he didn’t know the lioness. He’d never worked with a hand-reared lion before, so he let her set her boundaries, only discouraging her from jumping on him or trying to bite the camera. For the first three months of the shoot, she was curious but cautious and avoided walking past the camera. Then she suddenly accepted him into her "pride." She had taken time to get to know him and give him a lion persona; a male who kept his distance. He was part of the inner circle. She would lie near him in the shade and check in with him before every hunt, but she never rubbed heads with him or licked him, because she saw him as male. He went on to walk more than 800 kilometers with them over almost three years.
To us the lioness’s life personifies all the wild animals who come into conflict with humans; they become domesticated, or they die. We presume that she was fortunate to be rescued, because she wasn’t shot on a cattle farm, but what is a lion if not part of a pride and tuned into the wilderness? This lioness will never live a normal lion’s life. The man is happy, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. Does his dream justify her captive life? We think not, but we thought it fitting to give her individuality meaning by telling her story to the world. The young man means well. He has secured a 2,000-hectare area for her, where she will be able to live a relatively free life, but she’ll never be allowed to breed or be part of a wild pride. That is the tragedy of her life.
This lioness taught us more about individuality, sentience, and intelligence in lions than we ever thought possible. We hope I Am Lion will help others learn from her too.
Are you hopeful that people will come to see lions, other predators, and other animals as the unique beings they truly are and that these changes in perception will make a difference in the lives of these magnificent nonhumans and how they are treated?
Yes. I’m hopeful, because perceptions around our moral rights to power over other animals are already changing. Once the idea of all animals as individual sentient beings takes hold, changes in legal and cultural perceptions about the treatment of and coexistence with other species will follow. People want to see. It’s just a matter of guiding them there and pointing them towards a new way of looking and thinking.
It takes me at least seven days to tune back into the wilderness when I’ve been away. At first, I see nothing but dust and ants in my sugar. Then I start noticing things: lion tracks; black ants raiding a termite colony; a crimson-breasted shrike feasting on ant leftovers; a hornbill feeding scorpions to his mate. A week later, I begin to see the great interconnectedness of all things around me; the research that tells me the tree I’m sitting under shares nutrients with other trees around it and retracts its roots to make a place for saplings. I think of termites aerating the soil for the tree roots. I wonder, did the lioness have to go through the same "tuning process"?
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers and viewers?
My heartfelt thanks to neuropsychologist Angela Blazely, whose generosity of mind and spirit guided me through the semantics of neuroscience and neuropsychology. Thanks to generous donations from viewers of the television series we made about their story, the lioness will soon be released into a 2,000-hectare fenced and electrified "hunting ground" of her own.
Note: I have recently learned there are different views about I Am Lion and will accept respectful comments and hope for a useful and constructive conversation among all parties.