PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Directed by Meghan Shea and Michael Rogers and executive-produced by Trina Dingler-Ebert, the 30-minute short In the Spirit of Laxmi serves as a testimony to exactly how close a wild animal - a leopard, to be precise - can become with a human being.

The film, which premiered at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April and won the best short documentary award at the Gold Coast Film Festival in Australia earlier this month, revolves around the bond between a former resort manager, Gerhard Wiehahn, and an abandoned young leopard.

The animal was found by forest rangers near Wiehahn's workplace, the Aman-i-Khas vacation complex, on the outskirts of Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.

When Wiehahn's employees first found the cub - which was later named Laxmi - they contacted wildlife professionals for help. Wiehahn wasn't sure if the weak cub was going to live. But he worked out a milk formula and hydrated, fed and nourished her.

'And from then on, he made a commitment to do what he could do for her. Not only to see her become healthy, but also see that she had a future that wasn't in a zoo,' says Shea, who came to Hong Kong recently to discuss the film.

Calling himself Laxmi's 'mother', Wiehahn spent 16 months living closely with the leopard. He nursed her back to health, and later trained her to hunt and protect herself to prepare her for rewilding. Wiehahn acted like a leopard the whole time, serving as the model for Laxmi to imitate.

When Laxmi grew up, Wiehahn decided to set her free. To prepare for her return, he even built a tree house in the forest so he could keep the animal company.

'The human-animal story was the exclusive focus of our film,' says Shea. 'Films that we've done before have more characters. The challenge of this film was to be entirely true to the two characters for 30 minutes.

'For this documentary, we made a conscious effort to keep the story at its most essential and elemental level. We could have interviewed other people about rewilding, but that wasn't the story. The story is about their relationship.'

The crew filmed for about three weeks, staying in the tree house and the forest. They shot footage of Laxmi's daily life and her interaction with Wiehahn. They filmed them wrestling each other and strolling around the forest together.

But Wiehahn filmed the last scenes of the film, expressing his feelings directly to camera.

'I think there's an authenticity to the moment,' says Shea. 'There's just the two of them and that's really intimate. Not that it wouldn't be wonderful to be there, but it wouldn't have been the same.'

There is an environmental message in their relationship, says Shea. 'In a larger way, I hope their relationship shows how we can have a positive interaction with the natural environment.'