Why are pretty films on wildlife so much more interesting than no-holds-barred environmental documentaries?

Whose Land is it Anyway: the i (Credit: Swaroop Uday)REMEMBER Hatari? Black beauty? Born Free? Gorrilas in the Mist- the story of the late Dianne Fossey among the great apes?

Remember, also, those awe-inspiring images on celluloid: the spectacle of a tiger stalking a sambar; a lioness gambolling with her cubs; thousands of birds banking in uncanny unison over an estuarine wilderness; the graceful grandeur of a thermal-borne buzzard; an eagle divebombing on its prey; the streamlined frolicking of the anthropophile dolphin; the exotic corals of the Pacific islands; the soughing, implacable power of the deserts; the cloying, impregnable density of the Amazonian rainforest; the miracle of cheeping newly-hatched chicks, programmed for a human dinner; the gangly tottering of zebra calves.

The list of animals clicked en flagrante is endless. Wildlife filming is a one-way mirror: we can watch your shenanigans from your breakfast to bedtime and you don't even know that we're watching. What omnipotence. Combined with a sensitive boom microphone that can catch, note by glorious note, the sound of the king of the jungle belching hugely after Romanesque gluttony, the wilderness comes alive aurally and visually like never before.

So far, so good. The question that rankles is: do animals caught with their hair and pants down, as it were, constitute "environmental films"? Or is there more to environment than flora and fauna at their most candid and innocent and blissful?

As was evident at the International Film Festival, with the lachrymose theme, Care for Nature, held in Bangalore recently, as many as 70 per cent of the 112 films screened spun like a blissed-out dervish around the soulful "beautiful nature" theme: wildlife and detailed lifestyles of animals, sometimes like a Margaret Mead paradisal over-the-top treatise. The remaining 30 per cent were deadpan serious documentaries on environmental issues, with more brain than weepy sentiment in them.

What is the secret behind prettified wildlife films elbowing often disturbing environmental footage out of the picture? Simple economics, actually: wildlife films are expensive to make, so they had better be seductive enough to recover the cost; filming equipment frequently has to be parked at one spot in a state of poised paralysis for the perfect shot. This equipment is far too costly for independent filmmakers with an environmental super-ego to hire for a day, leave alone for weeks.

Said activist-documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in the Moving Pictures Bulletin (issue 16, October 1993): "Finding production money isn't easy...Also, if you depend on money from a source like a local business or foreign TV, you may end up making a film which is very different from what you conceived." Even more tellingly, one of India's most dedicated documentary filmmakers, Manjira Datta, confessed, "All my sponsors have been foreign TV stations."
The 4F lobby So this is where the giant moneybags come in: like the National Geographic, the BBC, and the bleeding heart powerful American animals-before-people lobby. The films they bankroll have a singleminded purpose: documentation -- bit by painful bit, millimetre by millimetre, nanosecond by nanosecond. If a few shots of scientific interest happen to pass by, that's an added bonus.

What is clear here is that the 4F (Flora, Fauna, Fantabulous Fund) is firmly in the grip of a loosely Masonic lobby that is interested in the separation of "wildlife as environment" and "sociology as environment". Handsome, passionate pictures of the big cats making the beast with 2 backs are always greeted with gasps of awe (which is why a tiger's penis fetches a fortune in the human aphrodisiac market) and a plaque or 2 for the intrepid, whisper-quiet filmmakers (tigers, like most things with a heartbeat, loathe coitus interruptus).

But the films do damn-all for uncomfortable questions about humanecimated tiger habitat, the effect that tigers on a government-sponsored gene-pooling carousel have on humans living in their proximity, and the most insistent question about the ethics of survival: well-fed humans or well-fed tigers. The experience so far has been that the 2 have been made inversely proportional. And few environmental films have had the courage and broadmindedness to show both sides of the picture without partisanship.

Such films are a part of that environmental school of thought which was earlier propagated by organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose rock-steady focus was the protection of animals. Human beings were reduced to bit players, marginalised in everything except the blah of the narrator. Humans have traditionally had language problems with the animals they seek to protect.

Although these wildlife films lack any concrete storyline, they still serve a purpose, however ineptly: they tell the audience mostly everything it wants to know about animals but doesn't know where to look.

This insistence on transfering the vagaries of environment on to animals was not accidental: it was, and still remains, the best way to divert people's attention from the fact that the rotting of the environment is a hardnosed issue of politics and economic equity -- not one limited solely to rescuing animals from the punji pit of extinction by heartless, indeed evil, poachers. Since the money for wildlife filmmaking comes from those interested in making money from the starry-eyed, it is no wonder that dedicated environmentalist filmmakers do their jobs as best as they can by literally passing the hat around.

The recipe for successful wildlife filming is simple: the film has to be a visual delight -- slick, closely edited to the point of sublimination, perfumed with glib altruism. So it was no surprise that, in Bangalore, this was the matrix for most films made on wildlife. All dealt with similar themes, and they could be anything: a year in the life of a tiger, or an elephant, or a kangaroo, topped off with an MFK -- mating, fighting, killing -- sequence. Rambos with 4 legs. Ironically, it is programmes of this ultra-simplified nature that are the most sought after by most audiences interested in environmental films. Our very own wildlife filmmakers, Rajesh and Ramesh Bedi, have rodeo ridden the tiger to death saddled on the same theme.

The other 30 per cent of the films at Bangalore would, by stretching definitions a bit, qualify as anthropomorphic documentaries, where humans are given a toehold in the picture. This greatly belated, relatively new, sub-genre of environmental films has been influenced by frantically increasing global environmental concerns: this sub-genre now tries to look at environmental complexities in their broader sense, but not out of corporate altruism, the 20th century's most enduring oxymoron. Said American TV magnate Ted Turner, "(TV networks are) worried about the environment for network television, not the environment of the world."

This cynicism would be a bit difficult to apply to the BBC's superb shorts, Earthfile and Healthfile, although they too tend to home in on environmental problems in the developing countries. Another offshoot of this trend is that many environmentalists are now turning into filmmakers.

Increasingly, environmental NGOs are also taking to video documentation, but with a purpose that goes beyond mere resourcing. For instance, an NGO involved in promoting biogas chulhas or solar cookers would make what would count as an ad film, however technically tatty, promoting the use of non-conventional sources of energy. These films are plugs.

Often, these films are used as part of an NGO's campaign material and a means to lobby for their cause internationally. An example is Blowpipes and Bulldozers (1989), an Australian production which took the plight of the Penan people of Malaysia to the rest of the world.

Steriotyped image
The effect that such films have on viewers is often unbelievably stupendous. The film on the Penan people, for example, influenced a man to sit on a 50-day hungerstrike outside the Malaysian Embassy in Australia. Films made by the Penan people themselves have occasionally been smuggled into Japan, which contributes in large part to Malaysia's timber crisis.

From victim participation in the making of the films, the step to serious anti-colonial politicisation was a short hop. Even conscientised filmmakers from developed countries often walk into the pity trap, reinforcing stereotypical images of nude, rude natives. Tribals and local communities have too often been portrayed as passive victims of governments and corporations turned Shylock, or as necessary destinations for eco-tourists.

In all this, of course, there is more than a dash of social pornography -- the native as the white man's whipping boy. Since the West is now in the convulsive throes of self-deprecation, the images of starvation and poverty are rarely questioned.

In one of those rare, memorable occasions in 1992, an American serial production, Millennium, that took 10 years to complete and had a budget of US $7 million, sparked off a controversy on the treatment of such subjects by filmmakers. The 10-part serial dealt with the life of the world's indigenous peoples. Its maker, David Maybury-Lewis, was accused by some critics of glamourising the tribals and thereby reinforcing the divide between the tribal and the urbanite.

Like all other programmes, these serious environmental documentaries too have to compete with soaps and sports for air time. Additionally, they have to cope with a bigger problem: since, unlike the MFK variety of edge-of-the-seat films, they touch controversial, often convoluted, topics, politicians and lobbyists block their entry into the national network.

Says Gargi Sen, director of Because of Our Rights, a film on coalminers, "I generally ensure that a screening of my films is followed by a meaningful discussion or debate. Whether they are thinkers, politicians, academicians or environmentalists, it is necessary that the audience is provoked into looking for solutions." Manjira Datta follows the same format, as do other filmmakers who are only too aware that environmental films have scant entertainment value.

In an era of satellite television where there are multiple channels for the asking, one would expect more openings where environmental related programmes could be shown. But all that the boom has brought is funds spread thinly over a wide spectrum of issues. As for brand new environment programmes, forget it. Distributors can no longer expect a few major sales to offset the cost of making quality films. One of the UK's biggest distibutors, Central Television Enterprises, for instance, has never recouped more than half the cost of producing an environmental documentary.

Some time ago, Discovery Channel, an European satellite broadcaster, said that it would only pay US $4,000 for an hour's environmental programme, a fraction of the cost of a rough-hewn pilot. This caution has inevitably lowered quality. Paul Yansen, a French film juror of international repute, blames the high cost of production and the lack of encouragement from broadcast companies for the scrounger's existence of environmental filmmakers. According to him, "In France, only 4 or 5 filmmakers have tried to make any environmental films."

Says M A Parathasarthy, chairperson, Films and Festivals Association, "The chocolate box (as he calls the 'beautiful nature' theme) environmental films, although very attractive, are expensive ventures; not many producers, apart from the National Geographic or the BBC can afford to commission such films. What have come instead are many films on environmental activism that are low on cost of production." And to hell with quality.

Thankfully, green film festivals are a bighearted if penurious outlet which, after years of nose to the grind, have made environmental films a part of general film festivals. Two entries by Indian filmmakers, The Weeping Rice Bowl, a film on the Green Revolution and its short-lived benefits in Kerala, and Silent Valley, won an award each in Earth Vision '92. Then, The Last Migration, a film by Mike Pandey on the stalemated human-animal conflict, won 1994's Green Oscar. More recently, it won the 3rd prize at the Care for Nature festival at Bangalore.

Unfortunately, these films may be popular with experts and jurors, but they stick in the public's craw like a frowzy, conscience-stricken schoolmarm who has ethical problems with callow and self-serving bourgeous comfort. The so-called "civilisations" equate nature solely with wildlife -- how to, for instance, bring up tiger cubs after having shot the mother full of holes for her pelt. In one such screening at Bangalore, people were chafing to walk out because of a lack of animal footage. This is why a large number of films that are telecast on TV are unable to shake off the old save-the-animals theme and the stereotypes that go with it.

Says Jerry Ward, head of the audiovisual unit of the US National Park Service, "It is very difficult to sell serious environmental films to the TV channels. And if the audience seems to like only the MFK kind of films, that is what we have to cater to."

Says Neil Curry, a South African envrionmental film maker, "Just visually pleasing films may succeed in catching momentary audience interest but they cannot really convey environmental concerns." However, a prime reason for the failure of the new genre of films in finding a market or an audience is the knock-kneed but uncompromising approach of environmental filmmakers. Filmmakers put in a lot of hard work by working on shoestring budgets that allow no sage advice; what they forget, however, is that films are a powerful medium of communicating and should be used as such.

Says Curry, "Environmental filmaking has become a very cutthroat field with more filmmakers than environment journalists. Its a business proposition rather than any alturistic work. Therefore, what's required is a more professional approach, keeping in mind the viewer's preferences."

"The network," says James Reston of New York Times, "will only cover the environment when you get a picture of a forest that died."

Another shortcoming of serious environmental films is that they don't really educate the people -- politics, proselytising et al. Audiences like simple information that they can relate to. A plus point of wildlife films is that in addition to their excellent presentation, they impart interesting, often novel, information. "There is hardly any film made by environmental filmmakers in India that can be used for educational purposes," says Umesh Mathur of the public sector ET&T, which tries gamely to be a 1-stop clearing house for educational videos for schools and institutions. "I have only foreign films in my environment catalogue because nobody makes these films in India."

Thus it is important that environmentalists take a relook at what they have been trying to sell and not just blame the bureaucracy. Says Kenichi Musoka, executive director of the NHK, Japanese broadcasting station, "I feel that it is not necessary that films have to have a high budget. Low budget films can be telecast, provided it measures up to telecast standards, has a broad appeal to the viewer, and is understandable and interesting to laypersons."

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