Ohio native Michael Webber first worked in television as a commercial director. He later served as writer, director, producer and visual-effects supervisor on hundreds of television and motion-picture projects and spent several of those years producing feature films for the bigwigs at Twentieth Century Fox and Lionsgate. But in 2008, after a friend loaned him a few books about people who keep exotic animals as pets, he decided it was time to make his own damn film.

Without the backing of a major studio, he directed, produced and shot The Elephant in the Living Room. A sometimes-harrowing look at exotic animals and the people who own them, it focuses primarily on the relationship between Dayton-based Outreach for Animals director Tim Harrison and locally based lion owner Terry Brumfield. Harrison wants Brumfield to give his lions up for adoption so they don’t have to live in cages. Brumfield is attached to the creatures and doesn’t want to let them go. And while Brumfield’s treatment borders on abuse, he clearly does love the lions and has a strong bond with both the parents and their cubs, which he takes on trips to the local convenience store.

“I think both of the characters were complex and not one-dimensional,” says Webber. “The lion owner was very honest about not knowing if he was doing the right thing. Tim Harrison was honest too. I liked exploring those areas in those two characters. You see the complexity of the people and the issue.”

In fact, Webber has been criticized for not taking a clear stand against exotic animal owners. Though it features plenty of news reports about the havoc these animals can wreak when they get loose or turn on their owners, his film offers a balanced view. You certainly won’t mistake Michael Webber for Michael Moore.

“I want to let the film speak for itself,” he says when asked about his personal opinion on exotic pet ownership. “I was not interested in telling people what to think. In the end, they can make up their own mind. There’s no narration. I wanted to explore both sides. When I started the film, it wasn’t an agenda film. My point is that I was more interested in asking questions than answering them. The people in the film have agendas, but I stay out of it and follow their stories. The stories would end where they end.”
The film has been making its way around the festival circuit, including the Cleveland International Film Festival. It screens on Friday, March 26; Saturday, March 27; and Sunday, March 28; see the web site for details. Webber will attend a film forum after the Saturday screening. — Jeff Niesel

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