60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Elephant" is a highly personal meditation on racism, violence, and trauma


A still from the film Elephant shows a woman sitting in a chair with her head bent low.

The opening scene of Elephant shows a young Black woman at the inner entrance of her apartment, wiping away tears. Remnants of blood are visible on her body and the door. The movie is shot almost entirely inside this small apartment, where the protagonist, played by director Maria Judice, confines herself after experiencing something intense and distressing. 

The scenes that follow unfold very slowly, without narration and with minimal sound. The pace and volume allow us viewers to linger on the details of the sparse surroundings. A second young woman—who we later learn is the protagonist’s sister—enters the apartment by the side door and begins to clean the apartment and quietly support her sibling. 

The young woman finds moments of solace and healing—in her bath, or surrounded by her gorgeous potted plants—but “real” life intrudes. The first voice we hear comes from outside her walls, disembodied and wrapped in static: an anonymous manager leaves a voice message to check in on the young woman, speaking supportive words in a tone that feels halting and hollow. Gradually, through subsequent scraps of conversation, we learn that the woman witnessed a policeman kill a young man of color at her doorstep and we understand that she is afraid to venture back outside.

More people visit one at a time: friends, relatives, possible crushes, former lovers. Each encounter feels intimate and open-ended, with shifting tones that shift between light, tense, questioning, exhortative, and funny. Woven throughout these visits are written recipes of sorts for teas, meditation affirmations, and one that proclaims "Good w/ Everything Salsa."

Yet this film does not suggest a sure-fire recipe for recovering from trauma. There’s no key takeaway, no attempt made to provide a tidy answer. The young woman experiences healing through a combination of community, family, and time—time spent in stillness, reflection, and rest that feels like a luxury in our era. There is a sequence where the protagonist scrolls through online news of tragedy after tragedy over a disquieting soundtrack of sharp, painful breaths. This is clearly a dead end on her path to healing, and all too familiar.

What is attractive (and provocative and inspiring) about Elephant is its intimacy and pacing. Judice said the idea for her feature began in 2016 during the Ferguson riots, and the large-scale social issues she confronts within it—racism, state violence, and trauma—remain intensely relevant. What makes the film remarkable is that it shows how one particular, deeply empathic woman of color confronts these problems herself, in ways that defy tidy explanations but involve ways of living that our culture undervalues.

Don’t be surprised if Elephant prompts you to reflect on your own life: on how you live it, and on who and what matters to you. 

Loren Bondurant is a desk clerk with AADL.

"Elephant" will screen in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 27 at 3 pm at the Michigan Theater, or online starting March 22. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).