The real Lion King makes his bow in White Lion
By Daniel Dercksen
With the release of The White Lion, the real Lion King makes his bow on the big screen from the heart of South Africa.
"We have taken a big decision releasing the film first in SA rather than elsewhere in the world," says Lion Whisperer and producer Kevin Richardson, who spent four years getting his pride of lions to strut their acting muscles.
"Typically South Africans always look to the west to see what happened there, but hopefully in 'White Lions' case we are going to have the west knocking on our door saying, "Hey what's this 'real Lion King' film you have over there that we don't have over here?"
The lions of The Kingdom of the White Lion who star in the film, in particular Thor who performs most of the principal action, all deserve Oscars for their moving performances.
"Thor is my oldest white lion and performed 95% of all the adult scenes in the film," says Richardson. "He'll be 8 years old this year and is extremely bouncy and energetic which alarms most people when they see him and me interact with each other."
The White Lion is not animated, animatronics, talking or singing lions, but the real thing, dominating the action with their mighty roars.
It is refreshing to watch a film where the animals are real and performing without using dubbed voices to express their thoughts.
"Isn't it just!!" Richardson agrees.
"This was always one of the restrictions placed by the Executive Producer. It makes achieving the performance much more difficult as putting a voice over the animals is so much easier to explain their thoughts. But hey, what's life without a challenge."
The White Lion is the long-time dream of one of the owners of the Johannesburg Lion Park, Rodney Fuhr, who served as Executive Producer alongside his wife Ilana.
"This film has been 28 years in the making," says Richardson.
"I met Rodney around 13 years ago, whereby he told me about his story," says Richardson, who started working for him over a decade ago after graduating with a BSc in Anatomy and Physiology, and then started working at The SA Lion Park where he developed inseparable bonds with many of the lions.
"In early 2005 Rodney told me that he wanted to make the film and that I should start making the necessary arrangements. Before I knew it I was labelled "Producer" and producing 'White Lion', both because Rodney trusted me with handling the finances and because he knew that I had intimate relationships with the animals and knew what could and couldn't be achieved."
The impossible was achieved in The White Lion, telling the moving story of a rare white lion cub, who rises above many challenges to become one of the most powerful and revered lions in all of Africa.
"Such an exquisite beast certainly makes for a much more powerful story," says Richardson.
"For me, the beauty of this film is its reality component and inherent simplicity. I love the fact that Rodney's story never allowed it to become too complicated and was always anchored in the realms of what could happen in the wilds of Africa. So although White is a fictional feature film, and we have taken license on some issues, it is not beyond the scope of what could take place in the wild. The reality of what this little white lion endures, is quite real."
The White Lion marks the first production - entirely about lions - starring 'real' lions from South Africa.
Said Richardson: "To date most lion pictures shot in South Africa, have seen the import of trained lions. Our lions look great… they're lean, mean and heroic - not spoiled, fat and lazy."
For Richardson, who loved all animals since a kid, and has always held huge admiration for lions, believes that lions are so immensely popular and instantly likeable because of "the shear power that they exude,"
"They don't have to always be acting like they're tough. They are tough! Also lions have been symbols of royalty and power for centuries and have been given the title of "King of the Jungle" We learn this from an early age at school."
When watching the film it all seems so easy and simplistic, but for Richardson, it wasn't such an easy task.
"It was a labour of love and even some of my relationships with the lions were severed. I think what makes the film seem easy is the fact that we allowed the lions to 'act' naturally and gave them the time they needed to do what we wanted them to do."
What makes it even more astonishing, is that none of the lions were trained.
"I relied mostly on the bonds me and my close colleague Rodney Nombekana had with the animals," says Richardson.
"I think this is what also makes the lions performances so realistic. They weren't bopping their heads left and right looking for their next food reward but rather behaving as a lion would if left to his own devices."
Richardson agrees that The White Lion relied on the collaboration of many talented minds.
"That's why Michael Swan and me work so well together. Not only is he a brilliant cinematographer but he is also an avid animal lover and this enabled the lions to act out their own performances. I also was able to communicate what the lions were willing to do from a directing perspective. It made more sense for Michael to therefore direct the film as well."
Although The White Lions seems to follow a uncomplicated storyline, there is a serious conservation message at its heart.
Richardson hopes that this message will speak to all audiences.
"We need to realize that we as humans need to catch a serious wake up when it comes to conservation issues. I hope that after people see how beautiful these magnificent animals are on the big screen, they will stop for a moment and think about a world devoid of lions."
The White Lion also shows audiences what it is like to be human.
"It does show that there are good and bad people in the world, yesterday, today and tomorrow! Imagine a world of only good caring people! It's hard to imagine..... Police would have no jobs and there would be empty prisons everywhere. The only creature that if removed, the planet would thrive, are humans. Every other creature including pests like mosquitos and rats would have a negative impact on the environment if they were removed."
The White Lion is a film for the whole family and people of all ages to share.
"We thought about the films we fell in love with as kids and wanted 'White Lion' to be one of those type of films," says Richardson.
"It's so easy to push the boundaries and make the film much more unrealistic and sensationalistic, but we wanted to make a film that was true to life and at the same time tugged on the heart strings. We would love for kids of today telling their kids about 'White Lion', kind of like a Jock of the Bushveld."
For Richardson, it is a proud moment watching the response from audiences.
"It's so wonderful to see people walk out of screenings. Kids are wide eyed; some you can see have been wiping the tears away. Some adults are bewildered and others are deep in thought. This is great to see as it tells us that it appeals to a wide audience range. "
He hopes that local audiences "will not have preconceived ideas because it's locally produced but rather watch it with an open mind."
"I hope that they will embrace local content and realize that we are capable of producing great films if given half a chance. It's fantastic to say that this film is proudly South African in every dimension, from the lions to the financier. I also hope that people will appreciate our country and its natural heritage and realize that we as South Africans have a lot to be proud of!"
READ MORE ABOUT THE WHITE LION
For more information on Kevin Richardson and his lions visit www.lionwhisperer.co.za
Copyright © 2010 Daniel Dercksen