Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to the problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen, Director Talk’s sister blog, speaks with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our earth. Click here  to find out more about the film and screenings. Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.

 

EOS: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this change have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so they built man-made lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake overflowed and filled all the others.

Bangalore used to be a retirement community, but suddenly all these IT companies moved there. The city grew really quickly, without an accompanying infrastructure. There were no sewage treatment plants, for instance. The trees and the gardens were razed to build homes and offices. The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you got some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking it seriously. Bangalore was the opposite.  It was visually extraordinary. Before we went we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]

 

EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP: In India the awareness is high because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.

 

EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN: When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the communities are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.

 

 

EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP: At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of a school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample.  It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowd sourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.

 

EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN: We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done, and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film because I don’t come from a science background, but I realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: I needed to understand it in order for the audience to understand it.

 

EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP: A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them make an impact understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientists in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos - Monterrey, Mexico. They invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals that could nourish the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

 

I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.

 

EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN: A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person conquering an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, ‘Here’s a problem that we have to fix.’ Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

EOS: What is it like to be a teenager facing this environmental crisis?

 

SP: Every year we put on a play in school. The scriptwriters based the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. I think young people who are really engaged in this realize that the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. It’s just something we have to do, because we can’t wait. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018

 

Seasons/Jacques Perrin (director), Stephane Durand (writer)

The writer/director team who brought us Winged Migration and Oceans now proffers a saga of animal life on land. This magical, hypnotic film goes back 20,000 years to a time before agriculture, when our hunter-gatherer forebears lived alongside animals with no thought of domesticating them. It takes us back to a time of natural order and resplendent biodiversity, when humans allowed animals to be their teachers. And it urges us to return to that time, to treasure the wild planet we inhabit, to make room for other species once again, and to care, each and every one of us, for the magnificent gift of life, which is not ours to own. •Availability: Opens in select cities November 25, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  What was your motivation for making this incredibly beautiful, unusual film?

JP: We always try to have aesthetics, but we didn’t make the movie for aesthetics. First is the theme of the movie. As you see, the planet can be so beautiful because of the diversity of trees, plants, and animals, but the diversity of animals is only in our minds, because in Europe we have fewer animals today. That’s why we begin the movie 11,000 years ago, because in this epoch we saw so many animals. If we consider wild animals today, it’s only in our mind, because we don’t have them anymore.

It is so important to know we are all wild. We were all wild. Before, animals and humans could live together. When we live together, there’s a notion of freedom. And freedom means wild. We can recoup that. We can return to that, to have new lands with animals and many plants. That moment is beginning just now, more or less in a good way, but in a good way when we understand what agriculture does. When we see how few fish there are in the sea, when we see attacks on nature and the planet, it’s terrible, but we didn’t make a movie on terrible things. Why make bad things? When we made the movie we were cautious; we know it’s not good but we feel good, because we believe in hope. And when we made the movie, the aesthetic is more or less hope. An expression of hope.

 

DT: You recounted 20,000 years of the history of Earth’s wild animals. Meanwhile, you depicted the evolution of humans through the eyes of animals. I thought that was a very interesting choice. Can you talk about that?

SD: You’re right. We wanted to tell this story about wild Europe 20,000 years ago through the point of view of the wild animals. One of the subjects is human beings coming into Europe as hunter gatherers at the beginning, and then new people coming from the East, the Middle East, and they start to cut the trees and grow cattle, grow crops…

JP: We make so many fiction movies, but so few movies on animals. We make five thousand movies in the world, ten thousand, without seeing animals except a very charming little dog in a garden. No! In this movie we tried to create space at the dimension of the animals. Animals give us the notion of freedom. They give this impression. If we have all the animals in the zoo, in some closed area, we don’t understand. We don’t understand the way of the wind, the way of nature.

SD: What we realized in doing this movie is that we share the same territories with wild animals. We share the same history. We wanted to show what happened in antiquity, during the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, but from the animals’ point of view, and it’s why we made this sequence about the First World War, for example.

 

DT: I found the scene where the wild horses are fighting really terrifying. For me, this scene really exemplified the magic of cinema, because you have a camera there, and crew, and equipment, but it ends up being something so raw and so powerful and so terrifying.

JP: Our camera was always on the same plane as the animals. Always. We were a meter, a meter and a half away, not fifty meters. Very occasionally we used a tele lens, but very little. We wanted to always be near the animals. If they went very fast, we went very fast. If they ran, we ran at the same moment. So the technique had to change, had to be created for that.

It’s the same with humans. When I speak with you, I look at you. I understand because I look at you. For animals, we don’t understand if we’re five, ten, twenty meters away. We must be very near to understand their mystery. For the movie about birds [Winged Migration] and for the animals in the sea [Oceans], we were also very, very near. Not like photography. We are not photographing. We are looking at movement. We want to be near the movement.

 

DT: The animals seemed to have great trust in you, given how close you were to them.  How did you accomplish that?

SD: It depends on which sequence you’re speaking about. There was shooting in the wild, with wild animals, when we would take a long time to hide and be close to the wild animals. Sometimes that was impossible, because in Europe animals have learned to be very shy and have been afraid of humans for centuries and centuries. So we use hand-raised animals, imprinted animals. We took small babies from zoos and parks with us, and we were part of the pack of wolves. We worked together. We lived together.

JP: For these kinds of animals, they are not wild, but they are free. That means we never trained the animals to do something. We didn’t teach them movement. They were absolutely free to make their own movement. It’s us; we adapted our technique to the function of the movement of the animals. We are at the orders of the animals. They are free. They give the impression of being wild, but they are only free.

 

DT: Were you using long lenses to get close to the wild animals?

JP: Ninety-five percent is near the animals.

 

DT: Jacques, what sparked your interest in making nature films?  You started out producing for Costa-Gavras.

JP: I made several political movies with Costa-Gavras. When we make this kind of movie about nature, we have something we must defend all over the world. Twenty years ago, people didn’t realize how badly we treated nature. I think it’s political. We can live better if we are in agreement with nature, with the trees, with the plants, so for that reason, it’s political. It’s not only the aesthetic—“Oh these birds are so beautiful, these fish are so beautiful, these animals are so beautiful.” They are in life more than we are. When we made Winged Migration, many of the birds flew more than 5000 kilometers one way and then back, every year. Humans can’t match that performance.

 

DT: Was that political aspect in the script? The animals were very adorable, but the encroachment of humans was what was driving the story.

SD: That’s really what we wanted to make you feel. We put the wild animals in front of the camera, while behind them we saw the human beings, some living like animals, some cutting the trees, some building big castles and making war. Some animals are afraid and disappear from Europe, while other animals are opportunists. They try to live with humans, like the owls in the castle, in the fields, even in the battlefield, as we saw in the sequence of the First World War. Animals try to find their food in between the bones and the bullets, and it’s really important for us to show this power of wildlife.

 

DT: What’s the most important thing that we humans can do now?

JP: Don’t’ worry too much about political things. Politicians always speak too late. I think the solution comes from the individual human being. A man lives near a lake and takes care of this lake. People who work in agriculture must understand why they should not use pesticides, insecticides. It’s up to each of us, you, me, to understand that we have a treasure. But it’s very fragile, this treasure, and year by year the diminution is terrible.

Sometimes we make good decisions, like what happened six months ago in Paris, with COP 21 [the Paris Accords]. That’s good. COP 22 [Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, November 2016] wasn’t so good; they didn’t say, “We’ll do that,” only “We hope we can do that” because people are afraid of so many things.

The most important is that nations must say enough, It’s our planet. Actually, it’s not our planet, it’s their planet, and if species disappear, it’s a disaster. We’ll be discussing an article in the New York Times about the disappearance of some species, but when a child hears someone say we must lose an animal, they don’t believe it. They see animals in the country, they see animals on television, and they know it’s wrong that we have less. What we can do is make movies, write books, begin some little associations, believe we can change things. But not political.

SD: At the end of the movie we are optimistic, because experience shows that in North America and in Europe lots of wild animals are coming back. Huge elks and bears and wolves, and big birds like vultures, raptors, cranes, they’re all coming back in North America and Europe. So nature is doing better now than fifty years ago. But not all nature, because animals in the countryside and farmland—small birds, butterflies, snails, frogs—are all going down and down and disappearing. There are different kinds of biodiversity. For some animals the news is very good; in Europe there have never been more bears than there are today. So that’s good, and that’s why we’re optimistic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016