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'A film seen by 50 empowered people is far more effective than a film seen by 50 million passive tel

By Lalitha Sridhar

In a wide-ranging interview, award-winning wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri talks about filmmaking and conservation, and how filmmakers can be a bridge between the two. Dattatri is also founder of the Chennai-based Trust for Environmental Education and co-founder of Nature Quest, a forum that promotes conservation through creative collaboration and interactive events that aim to increase awareness and appreciation for nature

Do you feel that enough is being done for wildlife preservation in our country by the authorities and by private organisations?
I'll put it this way -- the magnitude of the problems facing our wildlife is so enormous that if we were to double our efforts overnight, it still would not be enough. Unless we the people of this nation become far more proactive and demand stronger measures to protect and preserve what's left, the government is not going to do very much more.

There are a few extremely vociferous and effective private organisations that are crusading tirelessly to preserve our forests and wildlife, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. We need many more small effective groups around each national park and wildlife sanctuary focusing on the problems of that area. And, most importantly, NGOs and wildlife authorities must work together to solve the complex problems that beset conservation.

What do you feel is lacking?
At the government level what's lacking is political will. For the great majority of our bureaucrats and politicians, wildlife conservation is a non-issue, not even worth lip service. What is worse, many of them are involved in aiding and abetting the continued destruction of our forests.

On the one hand, we have dedicated forest officers and forest guards putting their lives and careers on the line to protect what's left. On the other hand, we have their political bosses signing death warrants for our forests by de-notifying protected areas and giving out mining licences. It's a highly demoralising situation. But why blame the establishment alone? Unless we the people wake up to the fact that this is our precious heritage that is being pillaged and plundered, nothing will change. Forests and wildlife are national treasures that belong to all of us and the responsibility for the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage rests equally on our shoulders.

Most of us buy into the myth that overpopulation and poverty, two intractable problems of this country, are mainly responsible for the destruction of forests and wildlife. And, that the process of destruction is inexorable. In actual fact, a great many conservation problems are not caused by the poverty or needs of many, but the greed of a few. Analyse most conservation problems carefully and you'll discover a small number of people or a cartel or industry plundering common resources for self-enrichment. Very often, eliminating these selfish interests is enough to solve a major problem. While poverty and overpopulation have to be tackled urgently for the long-term good of our environment and forests, simply blaming these factors for all our problems is not correct.

When did you get interested in wildlife, why filmmaking, and how did you hone your skills?
Even as a child I was fascinated by nature. Unfortunately, between the ages of five and nine, this interest manifested itself in a rather destructive way, and I'm afraid I used the catapult rather freely as a means to bring down small birds and animals for closer investigation. Luckily, it was at this time that my sister introduced me to books by Gerald Durrell. These, and other books on wildlife, gave my interest focus and direction and by the age of 10 I had discarded my catapult. At the age of 13, I visited the snake park in Chennai, fell in love with snakes and began working there as a volunteer. One thing led to another and I've ended up hunting wildlife with a camera!

What helped immensely was having a supportive family and older colleagues who reposed enormous faith in me. I never planned this as a career, but grabbed all the opportunities that came my way with both hands. In 1984, an American filmmaking couple, John and Louise Riber, came to Chennai to make a film on snakebites and I was deputed to help them. They knew very little about snakes, and I knew nothing about filmmaking, and we sort of learnt from each other.

After that, it was many years of trial and error and learning on the job while making small documentaries. In 1989, a few colleagues and I began a two-year film project on Silent Valley, which I shot and coordinated. The film won several prestigious international awards and proved to be an important stepping-stone. In 1991, an Inlaks scholarship gave me an opportunity to spend eight months working with Oxford Scientific Films in the UK -- an experience that gave me much-needed exposure to the latest techniques in wildlife filmmaking, and, equally importantly, helped me make useful contacts in the profession. I returned to India with an assignment to shoot footage for a Channel 4 wildlife documentary series called Wild India. Since then I've been busy with various projects and continue to hone my skills.

What is the role of wildlife and nature films? What is your personal approach to this medium?
The level of wildlife and conservation awareness in this country is abysmal. Take the school and college curricula, for instance. Even zoology courses in colleges don't deal seriously enough with these vital issues. Thank god for television! By bringing wildlife into peoples' drawing rooms, documentaries are helping sensitise people to the beauty of nature and the problems faced by wildlife around the world. It's incredible how many people, even in remote villages, are now watching nature programmes on Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

My personal approach to wildlife filmmaking vis-à-vis television programmes has been to try and strike a balance between showing the beauty and wonder of nature, and the problems. There is a very fine line. Let's face it, most people watch television to be entertained. If you can make an entertaining wildlife programme and slip in a few poignant messages there is a greater chance of acceptance by the audience. Depress them too much and they'll just change channels. Also, I think it is important to leave people, particularly the younger generation, with a sense of hope. Wildlife conservation is an uphill battle, but it is not a hopeless one. There is so much in this country that is still worth preserving, still worth fighting for.

How do you zero in on a subject, and what about funding?
I usually choose subjects that I feel passionately about. It could be a place, a species or an issue. The greatest attraction has always been the opportunity to learn about a particular subject in great depth and the challenge of bringing the story to the screen to the best of my ability. Making wildlife films involves months of filming in remote locations and that is a real joy.

As for funding, there never was any money available in India for making high quality wildlife films. The accomplished Indian wildlife filmmaker has always had to look for funds from overseas channels like National Geographic, Discovery and BBC. Unfortunately, even these sources are gradually drying up.

The `old fashioned' way of making natural history films, where crews spend months, even years, getting to know a place and its wildlife and painstakingly documenting never-before-seen behaviour has, quite literally, gone out of fashion. Ever since the new kind of 'interactive' programming, which features 'macho' presenters prodding snakes out of their holes and jumping on crocodiles, became hugely popular broadcasters have discovered that these programmes are much cheaper and far quicker to produce and get higher ratings than conventional wildlife programmes. For the cost and time taken to produce one `classic' natural history film you could make an entire series of these presenter-driven programmes. By and large, the Golden Era of natural history filmmaking appears to be over.

Are there any other specific challenges in making wildlife films in India?
Increasingly, the most challenging part of making wildlife films in India is the cost of filming in the wild. Many states have hiked filming fees to a level where wildlife filmmaking is no longer viable. I think this is incredibly shortsighted and self-defeating. Nature films are a tremendous advertisement, not only for the state but also for the nation. By out-pricing our sanctuaries and national parks, and thus effectively preventing people from making films on our country's wildlife, we are missing tremendous opportunities to show the world what an amazing country this still is.

More importantly, we are depriving our own people from learning more about their natural heritage. Wildlife filmmakers `take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints' and should be encouraged, not penalised.

What are the rewards for a wildlife filmmaker?
If what drives you is a passion for the wild, the work is its own reward and everything else -- money, awards, recognition -- is a bonus. If you're commissioned to make a film by one of the big international broadcasters, you can make a decent living doing what you love and have the satisfaction of seeing your films aired worldwide. That's a good situation to be in.

A filmmaker can also occasionally be a catalyst for change and that can be enormously satisfying. During the last couple of years I have been making shorter films on specific issues threatening wildlife and wild habitats, often in collaboration with conservationists in different parts of the country. These films are not meant for broadcast but for target audiences, particularly comprising decision-makers.

I have come to believe that films on local conservation issues have greater impact, leading to action, when they are carefully targeted at specific captive audiences. A film seen by 50, even five people who are empowered and willing to act is far more effective than a film that's seen by 50 million passive television viewers. I have seen how films made by others and by me have had a direct impact on conservation and I hope to do more work of this kind.

2003 Panna (under production) for the Wildlife Institute of India and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. A short film to educate visitors to this little-known tiger reserve in central India. (producer/cameraman/scriptwriter)
2003 Kudremukh -- A Unique Wilderness for the Karnataka Forest Department. A 15 minute film to educate visitors, particularly students, on the uniqueness of the Kudremukh National Park in south India and the need to preserve its sanctity.
2003 The Killing Fields -- Orissa's appalling turtle crisis -- a pro bono project. A 17 minute film that outlines the conflict between sea turtles and mechanised fishing, and ways to resolve major turtle conservation problems in the
state of Orissa in India.(producer/cameraman/scriptwriter)
2002 The Ridley's Last Stand, a self-financed production for conservation awareness. A video documentary on why 15,000 olive ridley sea turtles are dying in Orissa on the east coast of India, and what can be done to stop this.(producer/cameraman/scriptwriter)
2001 Mindless Mining -- the tragedy of Kudremukh -- a pro bono project. A short video on the devastation caused by iron ore mining in one of the best rainforest national parks in India.(producer/cameraman/scriptwriter)
1999 Monsoon: India's God of Life for Natural History Ltd, New Zealand. Super 16 mm, 1 hour documentary on the influence of the southwest monsoon on India's wildlife and wild habitats.(producer/cameraman/scriptwriter)
1997 Land of the Tiger for BBC Natural History Unit, UK. A 16 mm, six-part series on the wildlife of the Indian subcontinent.(wildlife cameraman on some episodes)
1997 Nagarahole -- Tales from an Indian Jungle, an Eco Media Production in association with Scandinature Films.
Super 16 mm, 1 hour natural history film on a national park in south India. (producer/cameraman and scriptwriter)
1994 The Good Snake for National Geographic Television. A 16 mm, 1/2 hour film on a year in the life of a female cobra.(co-producer/cameraman)
1992 Wild India -- North-South Productions for Channel 4, UK. A 16 mm, 3-part series on Indian wildlife.(wildlife cameraman)
1990 Silent Valley -- An Indian Rainforest, an Eco Media Production. A 16 mm, 1 hour natural history film on a south Indian rainforest.(director/cameraman)
1988 Seeds of Hope, an Eco Media Production. A 16 mm, 1/2 hour documentary on tree nurseries.(director/cameraman)
1987 A Cooperative for Snakecatchers, an Eco Media Production. A 16 mm, 1/2 hour documentary on the Irula snakecatchers of south India.(director/cameraman)
1986 Project Tiger for Sanctuary Films, India. A 16 mm television series on Project Tiger reserves in India.(cameraman for two 1/2 hour episodes)
1985 Snakebite, an Eco Media Production. A 16 mm, 1/2 hour docudrama on snakebite in India.(assistant director)
Awards received:
A Cooperative for Snakecatchers
National Award (India) for Best Film on Ecology and Environment, 1987

Seeds of Hope
National Award (India) for Best Agricultural Film, 1988

Silent Valley -- An Indian Rainforest
National Award (India) for Best Film on Ecology and Environment, 1991
National Award (India) for Best Cinematography (non-feature category), 1991
Special Jury Award, Jackson Hole Festival, USA, 1991
Citta de Sondrio Award, Italy 1991
Best Nature Film Award, Earthvision Festival, Japan 1992

Nagarahole -- Tales from an Indian Jungle
Special Jury Award, International Wildlife Film Festival, Montana, USA, 1998
Special Jury Award, Sondrio International Festival on Parks and Protected Areas, 1998
Arlette Vincent Prize, Valvert Internation Wildlife Film Festival, Brussels, 1999

The Ridley's Last Stand
Award for Conservation Advocacy, International Wildlife Film Festival, Montana, USA, 2003


(Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based freelance journalist)

(InfoChange News & Features, October 2003)