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Green, a film about a female orang-utan, exposes the devastating impacts of logging and land clearing for palm oil plantations.
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How a new generation of eco-filmmakers are challenging broadcasting convention

Laura Sevier

26th October, 2010

From the Age of Stupid to the End of the Line, and next year's Just Do It, independent filmmakers are innovating with radical film subjects and creating whole new funding streams, reports Laura Sevier

It was the kind of recognition that gives all budding, low-budget, environmental filmmakers hope.

At Wildscreen's showy award ceremony for what some have dubbed the ‘Green Oscars' of the natural world, the most prestigious prize of all was won by Patrick Rouxel, a one-man-band from France who still considers himself an amateur.

The ceremony was the climax of Wildscreen Festival, the world's largest international wildlife and environmental film festival held in the Bristol this October.

In a room packed with high achieving filmmakers and heavyweight broadcast execs, I watched Rouxel collect his ‘best in festival' WWF Golden Panda Award to rousing applause.

His winning film ‘Green', the story of a half-paralysed, rescued female orangutan in Indonesia, makes for moving viewing. The film cuts between the ape's final days lying on a mattress with an IV in her arm and shots of the beauty and destruction of the rainforest - in this case, the devastating impact of logging and land clearance for palm oil plantations.

Watching the 48-minute-long film, free to view at www.greenthefilm.com, it's hard to believe this beautifully shot and cleverly edited piece is the vision and product of one man.

‘I filmed it all myself and edited it on my Mac,' he explained at an earlier seminar. ‘I am completely independent, I'm not a professional and don't look for funds. It doesn't cost a lot of money to make a film if you do it on your own. All it takes is time. I'm not married and I don't have kids so I have a lot of time.' Fortunately for Rouxel, who used to work in special effects, he has friends in post-production who helped him out a little, mostly for free. But the real struggle is ‘getting it seen.'

He distributed the film freely on the internet and sent it to film festivals worldwide and has since won a string of awards and gained a distributor - although he says that ‘no conventional broadcasters want to screen it.'

Getting on the big screen

Rouxel's filmmaking method is inspiring but rare. Most filmmakers rely on significant investment to get their films made and securing this can take years.

The End of the Line director Rupert Murray tells me he is currently making a film about climate sceptics that he's finding difficult to fund. ‘TV funding is minimal so lots of people are finding funding through other means - NGOs, companies, organisations or private individuals. This is fine if the story chimes with the funder's ideology. But the trouble with a film about climate sceptics is that if we try and seek out funding everyone will have an idea about the line we take. It would compromise the impartiality.'

With The End of the Line he was more lucky - the film was funded initially by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation. It was a case of ‘hitting the right issue at the right time.' However, he says that if you want to make interesting films the reality is that you generally have to subsidise them whether they are fully funded or not. ‘Even if it's fully funded it doesn't necessarily mean you are. You have to create a system that works for you or find another way of making money that pays.' For a long time Murray had to do corporate films to pay for it - ‘one for a meal, one for the reel.'

Dan Stone, the filmmaker behind At the Edge of the World which chronicles the controversial Sea Shepherd Antarctic Campaign against a Japanese whaling fleet says that most of the film's costs were paid out of his own pocket. But the payoff is that ‘an environmental film has the opportunity to open people's eyes, to inspire an emotional investment in crucial issues. You hope that viewers will be motivated to do what they feel is right.'

Bright horizons

It's not all bleak for environmental or social action filmmakers. Murray points out that there hasn't been a reduction in the number of films being made. ‘Films get funded and people make them all the time.'

Specialist production companies do exist, like Participant Media in Los Angeles which finances, produces and distributes social action films and documentaries (‘quality entertainment about meaningful issues'). On its slate are Food Inc, An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove.

Murray's advice to filmmakers is ‘follow your passion and never give up.' He believes that if you think up ingenious ways to get cash, it helps you make ingenious films. And with independent funded films, you get to make the films you want...

Crowd Funding

Some radical filmmakers are bypassing the usual funding routes altogether and are finding creative ways to fund their films.

‘Filmmakers all feel the traditional funding sources are closing or drying up,' says Emily James, director of Just Do It, an independent production about climate activists in the UK. ‘You have to look at new moulds. Especially if the subject of your film doesn't fit into the editorial agendas of broadcasters or is unlikely to be a box office sell out.'

What's intriguing about Just Do It (now in post-production) is the crowd funding model the filmmakers are using to produce it. ‘The model aligns with the nature and object of the film which is about the power of groups, swarms and crowds,' says James.

The Age of Stupid used a similar crowd-funding model which allowed people to either invest in the film (a minimum of £5000) or donate.
With Just Do It, you can donate as little as £10 or up to £1000 and receive free tickets, signed DVDs and other rewards accordingly.

Just Do It are currently seeking funding for it's £20k in 20 days campaign, which ends Friday 29th October. Lush (the soap company) have agreed to match donations to Just Do It pound for pound, to reach a total of £20K over 20 days. Click here to get involved.

‘Just Do It isn't commercial and probably won't be profitable, but nonetheless needs to be made. We want this film to be seen by 1 Million people in 2011,' says James defiantly. The film will be released under a Creative Commons non-commercial license.

That way, the documentary is free of any commercial and editorial constraints and can be distributed anywhere, anyhow. The plan is to make it free via free internet downloads, ‘free-ish' DVDs, film festivals and guerrilla screenings.

Although people in the industry are starting to see crowd funding as ‘quite forward thinking', James warns that it's ‘very time consuming and won't necessarily work if a lot of projects do it as the novelty helps. You have to be really passionate about the subject of the film. It's not necessarily a model for how everything should be made.'

Getting seen

If making the film is one challenge, distributing and getting people to see it is another. ‘It's becoming more and more difficult to sell films to cinemas and broadcasters,' says Terry Stevens, on-line coordinator of Dogwoof, the ethically minded UK film distributor behind major environmental hits such as The Age of Stupid, Food Inc and The End of the Line.

Dogwoof, a social enterprise, works in innovative ways with filmmakers to get the films seen. ‘Every film we take on we back with a campaign that is integral to the film to try and tap into an audience as early as possible,' Steven says. To help the growth of this issue-led audience Dogwoof is launching its Good With Film site this November, an online interactive ‘hub' where you can find out more about the films, the issues and how to take action as well as book tickets or buy downloads and DVDs.

Dogwoof MD Andy Whittaker admits that focusing on social issue films is a risk but says, ‘we believe in these films and want them to reach as higher audience as possible.' To mitigate the risk, it selects sponsors (NGOs and brands) who fit with the film's message.

But the biggest challenge of all facing filmmakers (as if there weren't enough), according to Whittaker is ‘to make a good film that people will want to watch.'

Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist

 

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