Earlier this year, Dayton filmmaker Mike Webber began screening The Elephant in the Living Room, his first documentary feature (after four producing credits on films with 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate). The film explores the controversy surrounding raising the deadliest and most exotic animals on earth as common household pets through a story that follows the journey of two men at the heart of the issue: Tim Harrison, an Ohio police officer whose mission is to protect exotic animals and the public, and Terry Brumfield, a big-hearted man who struggles to keep two pet African lions that he loves like his own family.
The initial hometown screenings led to a series of film festival invitations and a string of awards (Best Documentary: Sedona International Film Festival, Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and the Burbank International Film Festival, as well as the ACE Award from Silverdocs/American Film Institute/Discovery Channel). Now The Elephant in the Living Room returns to Ohio for a state tour before a national rollout scheduled for the start of next year.
CityBeat recently phoned Webber to discuss the subject of his documentary and the current state of documentary filmmaking.
CityBeat: Just a few weeks ago, as we were arranging this interview, I turned on one of the morning shows and there was a story about exotic pets and how people are handling them. The topic feels like one that sneaks up on audiences. There hasn’t been one big event recently to trigger discussion, but its always just beneath the full-on media radar.
Mike Webber: I know exactly what you’re talking about. What you experienced actually happened to me, and is partially why I ended up taking this on as a documentary. When I first learned about it, I read two books on the subject that were written by veteran Oakwood public safety officer Tim Harrison (Wild Times: Tales from the Suburban Safari and Wildlife Warrior: More Tales of Suburban Safaris) and when I read those books, I thought this can’t possibly be true.
But what those books did is they put that on my radar and once it was there, I saw it everywhere I went, whether it was on a television report, Inside Edition or something like that, or in a newspaper or a magazine. Then, once it was on the radar, I noticed that this was happening everywhere and it was happening all the time. And so the sheer quantity of it was what surprised me.
Now I believe that you or I could go and take out any kind of obscure occurrence in society and take it and put it in front of people and saw, “Wow, doesn’t this just blow your mind?” And they would say, “Yeah, that’s really obscure.” But the fascinating thing about this is it’s not obscure at all. It’s something that is so shocking and interesting, but none of it is illegal and it is right there for us to see. Again, once it’s on your radar, at that point you will notice that it is everywhere. So that’s all I did. I started paying attention and that’s when I realized this was the elephant in the living room. This big, enormous thing that’s going on in our country and no one is really recognizing it.
CityBeat: The film garnered a lot of attention at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival this summer against other noteworthy documentaries like Waiting for Superman from Davis Guggenheim, which turns the spotlight on the problems within the U.S. educational system, an issue that is certainly always there, but it hits us in a different way, in a flashpoint that forces us to pay attention. But this too is always there.
MW: You’re right, and I think that’s the power of the documentary. We’ve all seen Dateline NBC reports on exotic animals, we’ve seen local reports, we’ve seen national reports, and so we see those things often in the news, in much the same way as Waiting for Superman. It’s not a mystery to any of us that we’re in the middle of an education crisis. How many times have we seen that? You can’t turn the TV on without us talking about it.
But what Superman does, and what Elephant does, is tell the story. If you look at The Elephant in the Living Room, it contextualizes everything going on in the country and it tells the personal story of two key figures in this issue. It tells a narrative story about this, and so when people go and experience that in a theater with hundreds of other strangers and you follow this story in dramatic fashion, that has a completely different effect on people from an entertainment standpoint, from an education and awareness standpoint, you take it personally. When people get affected in that way, that’s when the awareness starts to explode.
This is such a hot topic in Ohio at this very moment. You’ve got the governor (Ted Strickland) proposing to ban the selling and possession of dangerous exotic pets in Ohio, and that’s the first time it has ever happened, along with all of the previous events (a man was just killed in Cleveland by a pet bear) and now this film, which just helps to blow the lid off this topic.
CityBeat: With this being your first foray into documentary filmmaking, what differences do you feel you bring to the genre?
MW: I come from the world of fiction films. I wasn’t interested in educating people. I applied all of the same principles from fiction films to a documentary. I say that to mean that this is not an agenda movie. To the extent that people learn something about the issue of exotic pets, that’s just in addition to my goal of making a much more three-dimensional movie experience. It gets back to telling an interesting story with compelling characters.
And there’s another thing that makes it incredibly different than other documentaries: One of the most common elements is the filmmaker who is usually the main figure in the doc. If you think about most of the successful and widely recognized documentaries, the personality of the filmmaker appears onscreen. It is about, on some level, the filmmaker’s journey or discovery of the issue. But I’m not there.
Opens Nov. 5. Read Jason Gargano's review here and find theaters/show times and see the trailer.