The Integrity of the Documentary Thriller Aesthetic

Directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson confront the issue of the illegal Ivory trade in The Ivory Game, released exclusively on Netflix. The stylistic execution of the subject or rather their approach is one in their own words that they “fell” into. While documenting the real life events, the film has the stylistic feel and presence of a Documentary Thriller that could raise questions of integrity. This cinematic aesthetic however is an organic consequence of Ladkani and Davidson’s time with those persons they encounter on both sides of the illegal Ivory trade.

In conversation with Aesthetica, the co-directors reflected on the relationship between documentary and narrative fiction, their pursuit of a larger audience, and the patient process behind documenting their real life thriller.

A: There was a time when narrative features and documentaries were discussed independently of one another. It appears that this divide has now been bridged, allowing both to be discussed as storytelling forms. The visuals and music of The Ivory Game lend it a cinematic feel, and with it having been described as an “epic documentary thriller” how do you perceive the relationship between the two forms?
RL: Well the reason it looks like a thriller wasn’t so much that we said: “Hey, lets shoot a thriller and see if we can make it happen.” It wasn’t like that. It was basically that we got together with these people that put us in the back of their cars, and as soon as we were there, they were like: “Okay, we will infiltrate this network tomorrow… We have to meet the agent… Do you have the money? Yeah, okay we have the money… Put it in an envelope… We have to hide it in the back.” It was like that the whole time and we were: “God, this is like a thriller.” So we basically fell in the middle of what was like a James Bond or Jason Bourne kind of thing, but this was really going on. So all we had to do was point the camera at it, be the fly on the wall and there was no way this wouldn’t be a thriller because this was what we were seeing everyday. So there was no way to get around it really with the characters that we were following.

KD: Once you find yourselves in the middle of a real life thriller, then the way you go about constructing the rest of the film has to go along with that as well. So musically it is a very enhanced score and at the end of the day we had good production values on this. The cinematography is incredible and we had unbelievable talent, so the film really is elevated because it could be and it was. We are quite happy with it, but some people set out to make films that are: I am going to make it feel like a narrative feature film, and again that wasn’t really in the conversation. It was more how can we capture the drama of it as we saw it?

RL: We wanted this film to reach a very large audience and from the beginning one of our dream situations was to end up with Netflix – to go out to one hundred and ninety countries. They have eighty-six plus million subscribers and we wanted these people to see it in the millions. If you make a very artsy art house documentary on the topic, you will only get a fraction of these people. But if in a way it looks like a narrative film, then this is not a bad thing for attracting a large audience.

 It was funny because the trailer was released last week on YouTube and there were comments we were reading that said: “This looks like Narcos. I thought it was a new narrative, but it’s a documentary.” When you have people talking about it in this way, we smile and it’s cool because it will attract more people.

A: As documentary filmmakers, is it a case of walking that line where you safeguard the integrity of the facts while using drama to create a broader appeal?
KL: Well look, there are no recreations in this film. Everything you see in this movie is one hundred percent real and unfolded in front of our cameras. So that is a big distinction to other films that take that type of feature film approach. This was the real deal stuff. Actually there was something I read in an article the other day that said: “As filmmakers we don’t deal with Mission Impossible.” [Laughs] I was like: Okay, Tom Cruise isn’t in it, but we do have Leo DiCaprio as an EP.

A: Picking up on your point about falling into the middle of this thriller like chain of events, it would be forgiven for momentarily contemplating whether there are recreations. But in fact, the film suggests that the most dramatic stories are to be found out there in the real world.
RL: The thing is, why is this happening? Why have we so many almost unbelievable scenes in terms of what we were able to capture – actual arrests including the capture of Shetani, and in Uganda seeing this Chinese boy become an agent – a coming of age story – where he started out as a newbie, and then ends up as a main chief investigator in Vietnam who gets this crazy footage. It wasn’t just that we got lucky – why we got it was that we were filming for so long. We had amazing producers that gave us carte blanche, and if we needed the extra time we would get it because they were totally convinced that we had the access, and it was only a matter of time before we’d get great stuff. We just had to be in the right place at the right time and that means shooting for many, many days. I was also the cinematographer on the film and so I was on this for an hundred and eighty days. It was a long time over the period of one and a half years, and it was tough in terms of being there and always being on stand by. But we also had this technique of giving people cameras and so we had six different places where we trained people to use hidden cameras in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Vietnam, so that they could get these things. A lot of thought went into how we could get these things, and in the end it was a combination of luck and the right strategy and approach.

THE IVORY GAME is available now, exclusively on Netflix.

Paul Risker

1. Unit Still from The Ivory Game (2016). Heather Vines. Courtesy of Netflix.