A film in English, with an international scope and appeal is the ambition of this project, which is my heartfelt and very personal response to an upsetting experience that I personally witnessed.
This project is my way of refusing to be powerless.
I desperately wanted to share this experience with families around the world so that everyone would understand that nature and wildlife are one of the most important things on earth.
Four years ago, I travelled around the world to make an incredible documentary series, Les Petits Princes. Over the course of several months, I was given the opportunity to meet children who had formed extraordinary bonds with wild and allegedly dangerous animals. I was dumbfounded to see Jack play with his hyena, Kathleen cuddle with her jaguar, Samantha tease her alligator and Michaela climb on her elephants. All the children had instinctively known how to connect emotionally with their animals. These fascinating stories were the proof, as far as I was concerned, that a true dialogue, a language, even a long-lasting attachment could be kindled and developed between children, the ambassadors of the human race, and those impressive wild animals.
Although every child had been in daily contact with their animals – without any protection – none of them had ever been attacked or wounded.
The actual idea for the film, however, came to me in South Africa. At the time, I met some kids, who lived on lion-breeding farms with their families. Some of these parents owned hundreds of lions, and spoke at length about the conservation of this endangered species, the need to educate our youth and about the reintroduction of lions into natural habitats to increase the species’ population. Often the kids I met were filled with a boundless love for lions, and were able to pass on the conservation message with great conviction and passion.
My wife, Prune de Maistre, who was traveling with me, and I were highly enthusiastic about this adventure. But once we’d left those farms, we quickly became disillusioned: several associations, owners of shelters for mistreated animals and lawyers fighting against the exploitation of lions, shattered our dream. These lion breeding farms are a hoax, a deceitful smoke screen for a deplorable activity. We, along with the many tourists who came from far and wide to visit these farms, had been lied to: lions raised on these farms are not intended to be released into the wild, but are destined to be sold to the hunting industry. In other words, the lions we’d seen, that we believed to be protected and cherished were soon to be shot and killed in horrendous circumstances – trapped in enclosed areas making them harmless and easy targets – in exchange for enormous sums of money.
We never found out first-hand the veracity of these assertions, but such practices are well known in South Africa. Nevertheless, we were distressed by this experience. The discovery of the appalling activity known as ‘Canned Hunting’, which is legal in South Africa, profoundly shocked us. The sudden awareness of this deliberate and hypocritical hoax was a horrible blow. But above and beyond that, a question came to my mind that has haunted me ever since: How would the kids we met react the day that they discovered the truth about their parents’ activities?
It became obvious to me that I had to make a film about the subject: to imagine the life of a child who creates a powerful bond with a lion and then discovers the unbearable truth!
Prune then started writing the screenplay, and Mia and the White Lion was born.
However, in order for this project to succeed, there was one major issue to resolve: How would it be possible to direct this whole thing? How would one film a child actor alongside a 550lb/250kilo killing machine?
The idea seemed impossible and bordering on the absurd, until another documentary that I made two years later gave me the solution. In fact, I had the opportunity to make a documentary about an extraordinary man: Kevin Richardson. Meeting the man who’s been nicknamed the ‘lion whisperer’ opened my eyes to a new world that immersed me in another dimension: that of a sincere and equal bond with the most terrifying animals.
Kevin lives near a reserve outside Pretoria called “Welgedacht Game Reserve,” with 27 lions, 19 hyenas and 4 black leopards. He calls each animal by its name, has lived with them from the day they were born, and has a friendly, emotional and unique bond with each and every one of them. When you see him with his lions, you can’t believe your eyes; the emotion is so intense that it moves you to tears. He pets and kisses them, takes them in his arms without ever receiving an aggressive gesture in return. But Kevin isn’t a trainer; he truly gets to know and wins over each big cat, which is what makes the man-animal bond indestructible and so captivating. What the children, whom I had filmed all over the world two years earlier, had instinctively created with each animal, Kevin has understood, experimented with, replicated and formalized.
As I saw it, this exceptional, one-of-a-kind man obviously had the capacity to impart his very particular approach to a child actor so that the child could tame the lion and shoot the film by the animal’s side without taking any risks.
A beautiful idea: a real lion, a real child, their highly intimate bond emphasized and celebrated in order to carry a message supporting wildlife preservation.
I spoke to Kevin about it, and even if he was very excited about the concept, he immediately pointed out to me all of the obstacles in making such a film around this idea. Creating a real bond with a wild animal would take a great deal of time and required close contact with the animal from the moment it was born.
It was thus necessary to imagine a totally unknown filming concept.
We spoke for days on end and established together a methodology to make my filmmaker’s dream come true. A film shoot that would last 3 years, the time necessary for a lion cub to become an adult, so that the child actor could develop and incorporate Kevin’s know-how, and build his or her own natural bond with the lion.
The child and the lion will thus grow up together and we will come regularly to film them, within the story’s scenery, allowing us to witness the evolution of their relationship: the birth of their friendship, their own language, the strengthening of their bonds, their games, discoveries, complicity, etc…
Over the years, we are going to shoot the screenplay, but also numerous spontaneous and natural sequences that will show the veritable bond they will have inevitably created, and which will add to the narrative framework.
This methodology also allows for unique shots and impromptu scenes, usually impossible to obtain on a classic film shoot. Furthermore, this process will allow the child and the lion to develop an exceptional bond which will strengthen the fiction and allow for an inimitable sincerity.
– Gilles de Maistre