Local journalist and documentary filmmaker Leslie Griffith has produced a wrenching, soul-pummeling movie, “When Giants Fall,” vividly detailing the slaughter of African elephants for their ivory — and giving them about five years before extinction.

A big draw at the recent Ashland Independent Film Festival, it was shown Friday for the Southern Oregon University Film Club. It’s making the film festival circuit — including in the offending lands of Africa and China — and gathering acclaim with critics and audiences before general release, says Griffith.

“Never in the history of the world has there been hundreds of countries marching in defense of another species,” she said in an interview. “It’s the beginning of a worldwide movement and it’s the only way our grandchildren are going to see these wise and magnificent creatures.” 

Griffith, the winner of nine Emmys (and 37 nominations), says she moved to Jacksonville because “it’s more expansive here and I have the peace I need to make this film.” The world is vaguely aware that something terrible is happening to elephants, she said, and she hopes the film will bring it into focus for the world’s media so the political will can be found to bring poaching under control.

The film uses shots of bloody elephant corpses sparingly, focusing on tender interviews of people in anti-poaching campaigns, declaiming that elephants are as intelligent as humans and must be saved. It follows the money, detailing how ivory is the currency Africans use to buy arms.

The arms industry is arming both sides, poachers and anti-poachers, creating a new arms race. Over 1,000 anti-poachers have been killed, the movie notes, as it shows their huge cemetery. You may want to hate the poachers, but they’re just young boys living in poverty with nowhere else to make a buck. The big consumer of ivory and everything else on the continent is China. The U.S. is the number-two ivory consumer.

On the film’s Facebook page, Griffith says half the elephants — more than 4,000 — were poached in Tanzania’s national park in just the past year.

Filming for two years in Africa, you wonder if Griffith was afraid for her life.

“Yes, I was. Anyone who pulls out a camera in Africa should be afraid,” she says. “I was knocked down by security in Mombasa (Kenya) and they took my camera. They would have taken me, too, if I hadn’t run as fast as I could.”

The film leaves you with little hope and a new insight into the depths of greed, poverty and violence in the human heart. But there’s a pushback too, shown in anti-poaching marches all over the world.

“If the pushback is strong and keeps mounting, we can save them,” Griffith says. 

One of Oregon’s congressmen, Peter DeFazio, is a strong supporter of sanctions for ivory consumer nations and she urged support for his efforts.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.