Filmmaker Jacob Calle helped remove horns from rhinos in Klerksdorp, South Africa, to prevent them from being killed by poachers.
Filmmaker Jacob Calle helped remove horns from rhinos in Klerksdorp, South Africa, to prevent them from being killed by poachers.
Photo courtesy of Jacob Calle

Houston Filmmaker Peeks Into World of African Poachers

If you've ever set out with immovable convictions to shine a light on some illegal or immoral wrongdoing, what do you do when you realize the issue is more complex than you first guessed? If you're Jacob Calle, you ponder these new considerations from within the discomfort, darkness and danger of a vintage milk can.

Calle is a man of many artistic interests, but for more than two years now, he has focused on documentary filmmaking. Tonight he'll give Houston a sneak peek at his film, Vanishing Heartbeats. Along with a screening of Blood Lions, a 2015 documentary focusing on the lion bone trade and trophy hunting of canned lions, Calle will share tales of his adventures chasing his own story in various African countries. The screening and lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. at The Secret Group.

As it was originally storyboarded, Vanishing Heartbeats was a much different movie, one set to identify and vilify those engaged in the abhorrent practice of poaching, the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals. As he kept returning to Africa to film — four times now — something unexpected happened. Calle saw the human side of the issue. 

"I don't blame the poachers at all," he says. "Yes, this sounds insane, but when the employment rate is so low, these men just want to provide a good life for their families. I've been to their homes; I've met their wives and their children. I've got to know them on a personal level and I get it. This is not a black-and-white answer to a very difficult situation.

"Is it wrong and illegal? Absolutely," he adds. "Should they be punished? One hundred percent. But the world needs to see the bigger picture. Imprisoning poachers is only putting on a temporary Band-Aid. They'll be back,  and when a ranger kills them, they'll just be replaced."

This realization created a moral difficulty for Calle, but it's hardly been his lone hurdle in creating the film. Even though he's presenting the human side of the dilemma, every trip among Africa's rhinoceros and pangolin poachers is fraught with peril. He believes he still needs to return once more to finish his work.

These masked poachers showed Calle how they entered entered wildlife parks to kill rhinos.
These masked poachers showed Calle how they entered entered wildlife parks to kill rhinos.
Photo courtesy of Jacob Calle

"The film is 85 percent complete in terms of the footage I need," Calle says. "I was only supposed to go to Africa once, but always find a reason to go back once more. This will be my fifth time returning. I'll be heading back off alone with the poachers as they've gained my trust and will be getting footage that the world has never seen before. I've been on thin ice for a while with these men and it's only getting hotter, so hopefully this will be my last, but I can guarantee anyone that this film is unlike any other conservation film."

He's learned other lessons while creating the film. For instance, he's found it's best not to be a "gear head" in the wild. He's using a Canon Rebel T3i to shoot lots of the footage.

"While it's a fantastic traveling camera and has great quality for this line of work, it's not terribly flashy and will not turn heads when I'm in the villages; otherwise I could get robbed. Hell, I'll get robbed for much less than this, but you get the idea," he said. "When you're alone in the middle of a gorilla fight, you don't want to be shooting on a Canon XF305 because if a gorilla breaks it, you're going to be one sad dude walking down that mountain...I was that sad dude."

Calle is still raising funds to finance his independent work, which he hopes to complete by 2019 to submit to film festivals. The $10 admission to tonight's event will help complete the work, but Calle is also donating half the ticket sales to the Texas Wildlife Rescue Center.

Calle said he's trying to present the human side of poaching because no one else has.

"When Houdini locked himself inside a milk jug filled with water, he did it because no one else did. When Evel Knievel jumped Snake Canyon, he did it because no one else did," Calle says. "Hell, even Johnny Knoxville from Jackass had to defenestrate himself from the house because he had a large bull about to run him over. He did this because no one else did.

"There are always two sides of a story, and I wanted to give poachers a soapbox to explain their illegal lifestyle," he continues. "I would like to educate the viewer that the government needs to be more involved and help the low-income communities rather than just kill or send them off to jail. Rhinos will not be saved this way. This is an untold story and I want to make this because there's nothing like it."

Tonight's screening of Blood Lions and Vanishing Heartbeats, plus a Q&A will filmmaker Jacob Calle, begins 7:30 p.m. at The Secret Group, 2101 Polk. Tickets are $10.

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