ENTRÉE – HOW THE FILM CAME ABOUT
The starting point of my documentary about women animal tamers came from my personal fascination toward these courageous women with extraordinary careers. Even as a young girl, I was attracted by one such tamer from “Salto Mortale”, a 1960s television series. I wanted to become a tiger tamer, just like she was. Now, as a 50-year-old filmmaker, I try to explore the realities of these daring women and what it actually takes to carry out this dangerous profession. I want to make visible what is hidden behind the image of the glittering sexy woman, and what her professional life looks like away from the limelight. What kind of relationship do they have with these dangerous animals, and how do they experience their situation as women?
The longer I dealt with the reality of this professional world, the more complex the film project became. Women have performed as animal tamers since the beginning of circuses, yet they have always been an exceptional phenomenon. There is an apparent contrast between docile woman and wild beast, which generates a lot of attention: “La belle et la bête”, the beautiful woman with the power of gentleness – what an imposing image.
Today there are only a handful of women working as big animal trainers, and they are becoming an ever-rarer species. As such, it was something of an adventure to find women working in the field and track them down in various countries. Finally I decided to follow Namayca Bauer, Carmen Zander, Anosa Kouta, and Nadezhda Takshantova and her daughter Aliya. They won me over with their professionalism, their artistic nature, and their sixth sense for their animals. At the same time I could see how differently they approach the art of animal taming and how unique their respective everyday lives are in the various countries.
In spite of all the differences among the protagonists such as age, family situation and performance opportunities, they all have one clear commonality: they all love their job and their animals more than anything. They know their gentle beasts very well, spending many hours per day with them, both in the ring and regularly caring for them, feeding them, and training them. And they know that these are, after all, dangerous predators. This is no reason for them to be afraid of their animals – but it requires absolute attention. Anything can happen in just one second of distraction. This is what I witnessed at the beginning of my research trip to Russia, when an accident almost occurred due to a moment of carelessness. This incident just served to sharpen my perception of the animals.
The more time I spent with the animal tamers, the more I respected these women for their courage. Struggle is part and parcel of their daily business, whether in working with the animals, in providing them sufficient meat, in competition amongst the performers, or in facing the attacks upon them by radical animal rights activists.
THE CULTURE OF DOMESTICATION
The animal taming profession is threatened with extinction. Soon there will be no more lions and tigers shown in circuses. In numerous countries around the world – across Scandinavia and in Belgium, Greece, Austria, Israel, Mexico, Peru, and Singapore, there is already a ban on predatory animals performing in circuses. In Germany and other European countries such as England, a law is being drafted. The possibilities for performing are decreasing every year for these female tamers and their male counterparts, and the bleaker their prospects, the bigger their worries. What will become of their beloved animals?
I see these animal tamers as representing another world – a mysterious, magical world. The first people to capture and train wild predatory animals were the priests and priestesses of ancient Egypt. They directly faced down these overwhelmingly powerful animals, symbolically vanquishing death. In contrast to gladiators who killed the animals to delight spectators, they conquer the threat without violence. Today the art of up-close-and-personal animal taming is being eliminated from the circus whilst films featuring battles against dragons or robots conquer the big screen. These forms of taming find huge success because we as humans have an archaic desire for challenges that involve overwhelming forces; an image of struggle that often recurs in our dreams when we are chased by wild animals.
PRESENCE OF WOMEN
Performances featuring humans and predatory animals come down to a game between dominance and submission; the hunter and the hunted. If, however, an attractive female tamer is in the ring, another component – that of eroticism – is added into the mix, and the game becomes more complex. This element can be seen in my film in the comparison between the Egyptian tamer and her brother: he acts aggressively whilst performing, whereas Anosa’s dominance comes across as affectionate. But in the crack of a whip it changes instantaneously into clear superiority. All my protagonists are skilled in staging this feminine charade, be it due to their costumes, their performance or the type of show they are presenting.
The young Frenchwoman Namayca also creates another image: that of the paradisiacal world when human and animal lived in harmony. During her act she runs like a gazelle amongst her pride of lions, and jumps with them over obstacles. These moments are magical, and at the same time extremely dangerous, because if the young woman were to fall down, the animals would immediately pounce upon her and rip her to shreds.
CHALLENGES OF FILMING
Filming with such dangerous animals requires taking various precautions. A film crew brings an increased risk to the tamer, as the animals react to us, resulting in unrest amongst the group. It was particularly challenging with Carmen’s camera-shy tigress Imani, who responded immediately to the cameraman, the man with the mysterious “third eye” and its creeping movement. Even the sound man produced a special challenge, because the animals constantly wanted to play with what to them looked like a fur ball – his microphone in a fluffy protective covering. In this respect, we had to use a variety of tricks to obtain good recordings of the animals’ sounds and their breathing. The unusual filming situation resulted in an elaborately thought out reworking of the soundtrack including sound effects, and demanded a special musical concept that contrasts with the usual circus music. I was aware from the outset that sound would be of great importance in the design of the film, in order for the sound to correspond to the visual impact of these beautiful women and their attractive animals.
As a child, watching a female animal tamer perform was a formative experience. The magic of this art form came through during filming and was by no means lost behind the curtains. That enchantment is still there, but it has changed through knowing how hard the work really is, the struggles inherent in working within the circus world, and how multifaceted the women’s roles are. Yet all this created for me a new magic: their absolute and unconditional devotion. In this way, these glittering tamers of beasts in the ring have shown –with their attention and their respect –how dependent we as humans are on the interaction with animals and nature.