Interview with the Wilderland Film Festival Directors

By Josie Dowswell

On October 20th, Isaac Rice and Dan O’Neil took their Wildlife Film Festival, Wilderland, to the Norwich Science Festival. Wilderland has toured the country, showcasing 9 independent wildlife films, and I interviewed them about the art behind wildlife film making.   

Josephine: It’s lovely to meet you both! Could you both tell me a little bit about yourselves, and about what it was that drew you to wildlife filmmaking.

Isaac: My name is Isaac Rice and I got into wildlife filmmaking because I originally did a zoology degree, and wanted to make real change in conservation. I learnt that science and usual science communication wasn’t quite enough: discovering the information is one thing, communicating it is an entirely different thing. So, I did the BBC’s Wildlife Filmmaking course at UWE, in Bristol. While doing all that, we set this company up and decided that independent wildlife films are a massive way of getting these messages out. To broadcast these sorts of messages, some filmmakers can say certain things and can’t say others, whereas independent films are very free to say whatever they want. We decided that the independent films we’d seen weren’t really getting much of a platform, and we thought we should make a change to that.

Dan: My name’s Dan O’Neil, I’m in a very similar situation. I started as a zoologist and did lots of fieldwork in places like the Amazon and the Yucatán. Quite similarly to Isaac I loved all these places, and I thought it was incredible work that people were doing there, but my passion was really communicating it and getting that idea of conservation out to a wider audience. So I started making my own little films there, and that’s how I eventually met Isaac because I did that exact same masters at UWE. We used to do rock climbing together, and we saw all these amazing short films coming out of Bristol that weren’t getting out to a wider public. That’s what gave us this idea, to curate these films, this vast array of conservation inspirations into one night and to bring them round the country.

J: Wildlife documentaries are obviously massively popular. David Attenborough is a national icon. What is it, do you think, about film that makes it such a successful medium to communicate the topic?

D: I think film is all about story, it’s an art form. A lot of the time, conservation is written on paper and its very difficult for somebody who’s not a scientist to work through it and understand it. Film is a beautiful way of getting that scientific information and condensing it into a form of entertainment, where people can watch it and feel lost in the story, and also learn about what’s happening. I think that’s what’s so amazing and different about wildlife documentaries, you’re still using those three pillars, that three act, five act structure, to create something very similar to a film, but at the crux of it, you’re communicating true science and packaging it in a way that’s so entertaining. But what I think is extra amazing about wildlife filmmaking is that a lot of those places on film, 99.9% of people won’t get to see them for a multitude of different reasons. You’re basically giving the audience an opportunity to see what’s out there so they can feel inspired about nature and do their own part to conserve it, without having to spend huge amounts of money to go out and see it. It brings it right home to their living room or to a screen like tonight. That’s what I find so inspiring.

I: Story telling is the reason people are successful. It’s the reason our species has thrived as it has: we originally would have been around campfires and we’d be telling stories about how, oh, I found this area today and it had loads of food in it, or I had this and it gave me a funny stomach. When we told those stories when we were very primitive, it was the whole reason that we are what we are today. Meanwhile, if you add that story to film, to visual and audio, you can literally tell the story but also put an audience into it. And so if you put someone into an environment, as you can now, they’re going to want to conserve it as well as enjoy the story. We are genetically predisposed to enjoy it.

J: I read in another interview that you’ve tried to balance the more distressing, more upsetting films with the more happy and uplifting films. Do you think that wildlife films have more of an impact if they’re hard hitting and sad, or if they focus more on beauty and the wonder of the world? And which of those do you prefer for your own personal filmmaking practice?

I: It’s all about psychology. If you want to make a change, you have to think about the psychology of the people you’re trying to reach. If you tell them nothing is wrong, it’s beautiful, they’ll come away thinking, great! It’s very happy there, don’t need to do anything. But if you tell them, it’s doomed, there’s no chance, humans are evil, they’ll think, well, there’s nothing I can do, it’s too late. You need to hit that middle ground. You have to have a balance between saying, this is the truth, this is a really bad situation that this is in, but actually, don’t get too downhearted, there’s still so much left to conserve. You need a balance. That is what I would say to every single medium and what I personally like as well, a perfect balance.

D: Absolutely. When you turn something on and it makes you really sad, you’re probably going to turn it off, and then you’re never going to get the rest of that message. What can be great is if you give people something to fight for. If you saw Liz Bonnin’s documentary, Drowning In Plastic, that directly hits the individual, because every single piece of plastic that Liz Bonnin saw was pretty much caused by one person: such as a plastic bottle, that’s your choice to have a plastic bottle or not. I think it’s important to produce something that offers everyone a choice to have their own individual impact.

J: You’ve curated nine films out of around fifty. What were you looking for that made these nine films stand out above the rest?

D: For us, it’s definitely story. You could make an unbelievably powerful film on an iPhone, and if it has a fantastic story that people are being totally engaged by the entire way through, that’s going to be so much more powerful than a series of beautiful shots that have no substance to them. You can see that in our films tonight – there are absolutely stunning films, that have incredible cinematography, but there’s one in there that has a lot of archives from the ‘70s, its just grainy archive but it’s telling you the story of what really happened back then. That film is about chimps in Liberia. When the New York blood centre came to Liberia to do hepatitis research for vaccinations, they found chimps, and they took hundreds of them from the wild and put them into medical experimentation. This film looks at that story and what’s happening still today, and the aftermath. But it’s using a lot of those old shots from the past. When you’re watching that film, you’re not inspired by what you’re looking at in terms of visual cinematography, you’re inspired by the way it makes you feel inside.

I: For me it was very simple, I watched the films as a consumer and if I wanted to turn it off then it wouldn’t be put forward to our judge panel. And if I didn’t feel at the end inspired, then that wasn’t fulfilling the purpose of the festival so it wouldn’t be selected. So it was very much just watching as I would watch something on tv in my living room.

D: It’s about diversity as well. There were so many stories that had that power over us, but we didn’t put them all in because we wanted to curate an evening that had so many different facets of inspiration. It wasn’t just, this situation is happening, and we want loads of films of that specific type. We show lots of different narratives: we have an animation that gives you a brief history of our planet in a jovial fun way, but actually has a very hard-hitting message, all the way to a live action drama with scripts and actors, which isn’t what you’d usually expect from a wildlife documentary festival. That one is about trophy hunting, and I think by using actors and scripts you can really hit the crux of that topic. So it’s about diversity, of not just species and messages but also different types of cinema. There are so many different ways to tell a story and that’s what we really tried to do with the night.

J: Mm, so you need different ways of telling different stories.

D: Yes, that’s what’s so exciting about it. One of them is a really experimental film, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but it’s really moving. It’s called A Voice Above Nature.

I: It’s by a film maker called Annie Moyer, and she wanted to look at an issue that no one is talking about at all, about sound pollution in the oceans. There are so many issues that are covered to exhaustion, but that one is just never touched on. Because sound is so much more powerful in water than it is in the air, the sounds of all the boats and machinery in the ocean are way more impactful to ocean creatures than they would be on land. It looks at humpback whales specifically, and how their call is so imperative to how they find each other. Even though a whale is big, the ocean is relatively so much bigger – so how are they going to find each other to mate, to keep their species going? If these boats are drowning out these voices, it’s as if you were in a dark cave, and there was heavy drum and base music playing over, and you can’t find your mates. You’re not going to do it. And so you can’t find each other, so you’ll, y’know, you’ll die.

D: There’s an amazing thing in the film as well where one of the marine biologists talks about how, to understand communication, and to understand what’s going on around you, you first have to understand silence. It’s the idea that if we’re born into a world that’s just white noise and things happening all at once, how could we ever understand the communications that we have between us? If all of this noise is happening how are they ever going to be able to understand each other? First they have to understand silence. I think that was a powerful thing in the film.

I: There’s a fact in it which is incredible: a blue whale in England can communicate with a blue whale in Portugal. That’s the kind of distances that they need to be able to communicate, because there’s so few of them. But if there’s 10,000 boats between England and Portugal, that message isn’t getting through.

D: The majority of trade that happens globally happens over our oceans. Because we’re not in these industries, we don’t think about it that much, but actually all of those boats travelling across the seas are carrying all of the different types of trade that we need. But what’s amazing about this film is that it really does have hope. In a lot of situations, we think about pollution and think that there’s very little that we can do. Like plastic pollution, you can make those decisions now but you’re not really making an impact on what’s already gone out there. It’s the same with water: there’s only so much we can do to purify large scale water pollution. But sound pollution is totally different: because if we were to stop the practices we have right now, if we were to muffle engines on major boats – which is something that can be done – sound pollution as we know it could dissipate within 18 hours. That’s such a positive message. If these things get out there and people start talking about it enough that there becomes real legislation change, then we could really make a massive impact. And it’s not just whales, reefs are incredibly loud. There’s a lot of different things that involve communication in the oceans that can be saved.

J: My final question is, can you recommend to me a wildlife documentary that most people wouldn’t have heard of?

I: The one that first comes to mind is called Race to Extinction. It’s my favourite one and it’s so, so different. It looks at this team, primarily made up of film makers, but also conservationists, engineers, this vegan race car driver, and someone who specialises in projections onto skyscrapers. There’s a massive team of people, and they work together for this project to raise awareness about all the different species that are facing extinction. They’re in a race against extinction. they look at loads of different species and different stories, it’s full of lots of different examples of incredibly emotional film. It climaxes in this big end where they project all these amazing wildlife images and facts about their conservation status all over New York and on the empire state building. Just talking about it is giving me goose bumps! I’ve never been affected by a wildlife documentary as I have been by that. It’s incredible. Everyone should watch it.

D: There’s a weird film I saw which was a cross between a documentary and a drama called Chang: Drama of the Wilderness. I saw while I was in Laos many years ago, in an outdoor pop up cinema. It was made by the original filmmaker of King Kong before they made King Kong. This is one of the first films that those two film makers made, and it was basically about the daily struggles of living in the jungles of Thailand. The word ‘chang’ means elephant. The film is set up where they kill a huge number of leopards, tigers, and elephants on camera. Real killings of these animals. And I thought that film was amazing, because at the time, it was a different world: it’s an amazing way of looking at how we have changed over the last 100 years. Back then, everyone was terrified of these animals, and it was actually nominated for an academy award. It was seen by a myriad of different people. It’s really powerful to see how we’ve damaged the world over these 100 years, irreparably damaged it in some senses, but we have now got to a position where we care a hell of a lot more, and we would never make a film like that now. If people are interested in conservation, and interested in how conservation has evolved, that’s a really powerful film to look at. It is incredible, a really incredible film. Ernest Schoedsack, I think he name was.

The Wilderland Fim Festival has six more showings, in Stirling, Inverness, Shetland, Banchory, and Peebles, finishing in Musselburgh on the 22nd.

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