Environmental Filmmaking As Advocacy
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
Can a really good documentary film change the way we think and act? Dozens of environmental filmmakers, coming to Washington this month, certainly hope so. The mainstream success of movies like "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Food Inc." showed the power of advocacy films to draw an audience. But it's harder to know whether these films, with a message, are actually prompting political or behavioral change.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
As Washington's Environmental Film Festival begins its 20th year with a two week run, starting March 13th, the filmmakers are eager to influence the national debate on everything from climate change to wildlife protection to how we grow our food. Joining me to explore what makes film a good vehicle for advocacy and the challenges of getting an audience to react is Alexandra Cousteau, founder and President of Blue Legacy, National Geographic Emerging Explorer she is. Alexandra Cousteau, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ALEXANDRA COUSTEAU
Thanks for having me, Kojo.
Also in studio with us is Chris Palmer, wildlife filmmaker, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking here at American University. Chris, good to see you again.
MR. CHRIS PALMER
Thank you, Kojo, good to be with you.
And joining us by telephone from California is Kip Pastor. Kip is an independent filmmaker and director of "In Organic We Trust." Kip, thank you for joining. us.
MR. KIP PASTOR
Hi, thanks a lot, Kojo.
Alexandra, I'll start with you. You're an expert on global water issues and founder of the nonprofit group Blue Legacy International. Your grandfathers television show "The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau" was an early inspiration for filmmakers. Talk about the Potomac River footage you're showing in the Environmental Film Festival on March 20th.
Well, it's a short film that we shot in 2010 as part of our Expedition Blue Planet North American tour. And it was an 18,800 mile expedition that lasted about five months and took us through Canada, the United States and Mexico, looking at some of the great water issues that we're facing here that we don't talk about enough. It was an interactive expedition so we made short films as we went along...
Ten minute films as you went along.
Exactly. And we shared them in real-time along with blogs and photo galleries. And people could check back in everyday and see where we were, who we were talking to and what we were looking at. So this film was our last film that we made as we got back to D.C. and we'll be screening it for the first time.
It'll show us what's in our backyard, "The Potomac River" footage. Kip Pastor "In Organic We Trust" is showing on March 16th and 23rd at the film festival. It's my understanding that a lot of that was shot in this area. What inspired you to make this film and what's it about?
Well, you know, I think what's so interesting about food is that it incorporates basically every socioeconomic political issue and environmental issue together with something everybody does, which is eat. And, you know, Washington is a great inspiration because there are really wonderful groups like Fresh Farm Markets who not only put on Farmers Markets and provide food access for low income shoppers through EBT systems and double dollar systems. But they're also providing funding to schools like Watkins Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C. where they have a school garden.
So the kids not only learn how to grow but they learn how to work together and they learn about nutrition and then they take them in the classroom and they learn how to cook it. And they take those recipes home to their parents. So sort of like what Tony was talking about before. You can expose the children to it and then they will really want to be engaged with it.
800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking about environmental films and advocacy. What movie made you want to change your behavior or write to your representative in Congress? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Kip, it's my understanding that your original plan was for a career in politics. Why did you decide to become a filmmaker instead?
Well, you know, I think they're very parallel career paths in terms of -- you know, I wanted to be involved in politics to help influence policy and have an opinion and a voice in the debate. And I found that filmmaking and media actually has, sometimes, a greater, broader audience. So, you know, to be able to provide information on certain issues so that people can sort of make up their own minds. You know, because we live in a democracy, a lot of these campaigns and a lot of change can come from grassroots movements.
Which brings me to you, Chris Palmer. With the success of movies like, oh, "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food, Inc.," it seems like advocacy moviemaking is on the rise. How have conditions changed over the past decade or so for environmental filmmakers with a message to share? And what are the biggest challenges such filmmakers face today? Feel free to jump in at any point, Alexandra. But, first, you, Chris.
Well, I think, Kojo, the biggest challenge filmmakers, like Kip and Alexandra and I, face is how to make these films actually make a difference. In other words, it's easy to make a film which is full of pretty pictures and doesn't actually impact people's behavior or public policy. And this is language I commend Kip and Alexandra for 'cause they made films that are very aimed at shaping policy and shaping people's behavior. And so that's the biggest challenge.
How do you make films that really have an impact? And you do it through producing films, as Kip and Alexandra know, with compelling characters, great stories, humor, drama, and then combining it into a campaign. It's not just a film. It's a film where you reach out to NGOs. It's a film where you involve, recruit activists. It's a film where you raise money, where you influence legislation. So films have now a much bigger -- I should say should have a much bigger role than in the past they might have had. So it...
Alexandra, what do you say is the biggest challenges you face today in that regard?
Well, for us, the work that we do is really aimed at shaping the conversation. And the theme of my films is always about water and the idea that our water is interconnected. And so how do we get people to look at the water in their own backyards, look at the water in their community and understand that they're a part of the stewardship of that resource and their involvement in their community and those issues as very important? So shaping the conversation around a dinner table, in a town hall, in a school is really important.
And, hopefully, these short films that we produce and the work of other filmmakers can help people understand what that conversation is.
Kip, what are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Well, you know, I think, to just go back to that campaign idea, you know, that's something that we're working hard at right now. So not only is it about screening the film, but it's about engaging the audience and having events that are around the screening so that it is the initial point of departure of the conversation. You know, I think what a lot of filmmakers run into is, of course, budgetary issues.
But the beauty of what we do is that it's storytelling, and it's passionate storytelling. And what I found is that that passion transcends to the audience, especially when you can get their feedback and their thoughts and their opinions as well.
Kip Pastor is an independent filmmaker. He is the director of "In Organic We Trust." He joins us by phone from California. Alexandra Cousteau joins us in studio. She is founder and president of Blue Legacy and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Chris Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker. He is director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University.
If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you find most compelling about movies with a strong point of view? Chris Palmer, it would seem like the Internet and the proliferation of television stations would create more places for filmmakers to show their work. How hard is it to find a venue for environmental films?
It is quite hard, Kojo. There are many more venues, as you point out. When I got into this business in the early 1980s, there was just a handful. Now, there are many places, but the audience per venue is very small. In other words, when they're so spread out like this, so many stations, so many networks you can go to, the number of people watching is small. But there's a big, more fundamental problem, which is that conservation is not something which is popular with networks.
It usually doesn't attract an audience unless you do it very skillfully. "An Inconvenient Truth" is an exception to that rule, but, typically, historically, networks have veered away, been wary of conservation because it doesn't attract ratings. And they are driven by ratings. So that's my answer to that.
800-433-8850. You mentioned, Alexandra, that while you were traveling, you were doing 10-minute movies along the way. And the Internet became very valuable in that regard for you, wasn't it?
It absolutely was. We were extremely excited by the response that we received in both our 2009 global expedition and our 2010 U.S. expedition. We were in the field for months at a time, traveling and telling these stories, and inviting people to check back in with us. And my hope was that it would be an interactive experience for people. You know, when my grandfather started his films back in the '60s, it was a very different environment.
As Chris mentioned, you know, today, we've got hundreds of channels to choose from. But, back then, I think there were two or three channels. You know, Cousteau on Sunday nights was something that everybody would tune into.
Gather around the television for it.
Exactly. So, you know, shaping the conversation and engaging people was a lot easier. And everywhere in the world that I travel, people remember that, and every marine biologist I've ever met, I think, was inspired by my grandfather. But, today, it's different, and I think inviting people to follow along with us, rather than distilling a three-month expedition into a series of films, but actually letting people come along and be part of the ride and engage with us, talk with us, help us out, share our films, help shape the conversation in their community, was a very successful model.
And we're looking forward to continuing that.
We should mention that the dates of the Environmental Film Festival in the nation's capital runs March 13 through the 25th. You can find a link to the festival website at kojoshow.org. You can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What role do you think documentary films are playing in boosting environmental activism? 800-433-8850. Chris, many environmental films are trying to advocate for greater awareness of a problem or to encourage a change in public policy. Do we have any way of gauging how effective they are in doing that?
We actually don't, Kojo. It's very hard to find metrics that make any sense in this area. One problem is there are so many actors in each of these areas. I mean, you've got people writing op-ed pieces, people making films, non-profit groups lobbying on the Hill. So it's very hard to separate out what a film's impact is on a public policy issue. But, basically, based on anecdotes, we think these films have a big impact. That's why the Environmental Film Festival is so important 'cause it's a venue for showing these wonderful films that do actually influence people.
Though I should point out that in the last 30, 40 years, when we've had an explosion of these environmental films, the state of our environment's actually gone down, in my opinion. And so it does raise the question of how effective these films are and what we can we do to make these films more effective, more powerful by linking them to campaigns, doing the sort of thing that Kip and Alexandra are doing with their films. This is what's going to make them impactful.
Kip Pastor, how important is it for you to actually see the reactions that people have to your film so that you can gauge as to how effective you're being?
Well, you know, I think that is a fundamental important element to it. You know, as Alexandra was saying, you know, technology, in many ways, has made it easier to disseminate messages through the Internet, but, simultaneously, it's made it harder to actually engage with those people. You know, so you can put it on the Internet and you can have hundreds of thousands of people see it. But when they're doing that on their computers or their television sets alone, it's less likely to foster change.
That's why I think getting people together, as Chris was saying, and doing campaigns with events and panels and actually getting that feedback in person is extremely important. And I think that, whenever you do screen, you do get a good audience reaction. And people want to be engaged, and people do have questions.
On to the telephones. Here is Robert in Gaithersburg, Md. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Yes. Hello. Thank you. Listen, I live just up here in Gaithersburg. I'm a regular guy. I see deforestation happening around my neighborhood regularly. I rarely see shows that are really grassroots, small local shows that says, we've got a little town center coming up here. It's going to destroy two, three, 400 hundred acres of wildlife buffer habitat. We see a lot of shows on the Amazon and, you know, places all over the world.
But what about right here in our backyard, little wildlife buffers of three, four, 500 acres that are habitat for deer, raccoon, owl, fox, groundhogs, you name it, but are being devastated by developers that want to put in retail, commercial, parking lots, more runoff, more global warming, more houses, more condos?
Where are the documentaries that address this issue, is your question, Robert?
There are, but usually, it's on a large scale. I'm looking for something that...
I'm a local guy. I'm trying to fight City Hall and fight these developers that want to pave every single inch of green space left in suburbia.
Well, here is Chris Palmer who knows that, these days, people are making documentaries with cellphones. But go ahead, please.
Well, Robert, first of all, thank you for your question. And you don't sound like a regular guy at all to me. You sound like a great guy. We need more activist citizens like you. And I think there are people around, many filmmakers around who don't make films for Discovery, for National Geographic, for the BBC. They make small films. And the question is how to get those films out to a lot of people. The model that Alexandra's been using, I think, is a good one, getting them on the Internet, using local PBS stations to see them and then combining that with lobbying, with educational programs.
So I think it is possible. And, Robert, I encourage you to not just call here, which is great, but, you know, pick up a spear here and pick up a camera yourself and shoot some of this stuff and come to a place where I -- like, for where I teach at American University. Find an energetic graduate student who'd be delighted to work with you, and get on the Internet and promote it through social media. You can do a lot.
Development. I'm not against development. And I know Gaithersburg needs tax revenue. I know they're relishing at the idea of the tax revenue they're going to get from this little Watkins Mill Town Center, but you've got to plan for wildlife buffers. We need buffers. We need buildings, but then we need buffers...
I think we hear you. I think we hear you loudly and clearly, Robert. Thank you so much for your call. On to Sheila in Potomac, Md. Sheila, your turn.
Hi, Kojo. I'm just wondering if your guests have heard of SnagFilms. It's a local startup here in D.C. It was started by Ted Leonsis and Steve Case. And they put documentaries on the Internet. They have them available on the Internet, and you can stream them to your television or iPad or whatever.
Yes. Absolutely. It's a wonderful creation. And we should all use it. It's possible to search on it, to find things that you need, so I encourage you to use it. Thanks for bringing it up, Sheila. It's a very good thing, and I admire it.
Thank you very much for your call. Alexandra, one of the things you do is you tapped the people in the towns where you shot the footage. What response did you get when you showed the people the rough-cut films of the water issues in their own communities?
We had, actually, a wonderful response. A lot of these people had never seen their water. They'd never touched their water. And yet they would say to me, you know, I wish I could travel like you. I wish I could see the things that you see. And I said, but you don't understand. I've come to your backyard. I've come to your community. These are the things that I want to see. And so I would often partner with local water keeper groups. And we would take them out onto the water.
And they would accompany us when we would be shooting their river. And then we would screen it at a school or screen it at a town hall or out in a park, and the response was a lot of excitement. And people wanted to become part of, you know, the local efforts to protect their watershed, to protect their buffers, to protect what they had because, all of a sudden, through these images, they understood the value of what they have at home.
Thank you so much for your call. Here's Dennis in Front Royal, Va. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Hi. I'd like the response of the previous caller that talked about buffers, and I want to make a film to show that the dangers of this rampant environmentalism and this buffer mentality, how deer are multiplying. We have too much wildlife, and people's cars are being hit in Fairfax and in the Maryland area. And, you know, we need to really push back. And I'm going to use these techniques you've been teaching us about.
You mean the techniques of environmental film? Uh-oh, I think we have lost Dennis. But, of course, the problem with deer in Rock Creek Park, there was a piece, I guess, in today's Washington Post or yesterday's Washington Post about the 400 deer who now live in Rock Creek Park and what we can do about that. What do you say to that, Chris Palmer?
Well, I appreciate Dennis' call and his concern over deer. But I just want to point out that we have problems like climate change, plastic waste, overfishing, toxins, dirty air, loss of biodiversity, and so these are big problems, Dennis. And I mean, the point you're making is a one that you and Robert need to debate, and your colleagues, in these communities. But, in the meantime, there are huge problems.
And we're not all extreme environmentalists. We are people who want to have a healthy environmentally sane country, a world where there's a future for our children.
Kip Pastor, how do environmental filmmakers find funding for their projects? Who is supporting your kind of cinematic advocacy?
Well, you know, I mean, that is definitely a struggle. But there are a lot of really great programs out there. My film was fiscally sponsored by the International Documentary Association, which essentially allowed me to raise money as a non-profit, even though I was not a non-profit, so that I can go to foundations. And everyone who wants to give money to the film can actually get tax write-offs for it, so they get something for their money right away. And I think that that's a really helpful program in raising money.
But, you know, it's grant writing. It's going to a lot of those organizations that have a stake in it, that are passionate about it, and finding key individuals.
On to Cordelia in Herndon, Va. Cordelia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Yes. Hi. Good afternoon, everybody. I know this might be a little off-topic. I do want to say, though, that I'm so glad that Cousteau name is carrying on his legacy. But I have a question, as a generation who grew up faithfully watching Jacques Cousteau's show and just loving it and the things that we learned. And it always had such a human interest in it. Like, he had the nurse who survived the sinking of the Brittanic, and they actually were there at the ship.
And it just added a lot to it. And I'm wondering, in this day of animal channels and everything else, we never really see his shows. I was wondering if that -- you know, is it a family -- kept in a family archive, or was there some reason -- 'cause I know my son (unintelligible).
At a time when we seem to be seeing everything else ever made, correct? Alexandra?
Oh, I would love to see the Cousteau films back on the air. And I really couldn't tell you why they aren't right now. I know in...
They're certainly not the family.
No. It's not us. I mean, I -- they're showing different parts of the world, but not in the United States. Although, I wish they were. They were wonderful films.
Cordelia, thank you very much for your call. They indeed were. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Except I need to remind you, the Environmental Film Festival in the nation's capital runs March 13 through the 25th. You can find a link to the festival website at kojoshow.org. Kip Pastor is an independent filmmaker and director of "In Organic We Trust," which is playing at the festival. Kip Pastor, thank you for joining us.
Kojo, thank you so much.
Chris Palmer's a wildlife filmmaker and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Chris Palmer, good to see you again.
Delighted to be here, Kojo.
And Alexandra Cousteau is founder and president of Blue Legacy. She's also at National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Alexandra, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, Kojo. It was a pleasure.
And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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