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Eco Views from a Wildlife Film-maker: Rita Banerji

Interviewed by Sanandita Chakraborty

Photo source: Facebook


Are there any particular environmental issues or species that you feel are underrepresented or misunderstood in mainstream media? How do you approach highlighting lesser-known stories?


When we are talking about the environment, it is never in isolation. We cannot talk about one species or one subject. Whether you are living in a big city like Guwahati, or a smaller city like Tezpur, water is an issue. And human-animal conflict is an issue all across India. Every little thing in the environment is linked to the other. It is not as if something which we are doing, has only an impact on that area. It is a cumulative impact of everything which is happening across everywhere. When we talk about the environment, there is no special focus on any one animal or any particular issue. It is overall. What I think is missing is that environment is still not at the top of the mind when mainstream conversations are concerned. People can see the changing of weather every year, and Assam is so hot this time. Changes like floods and landslides are taking place ever very rapidly. But even then, the environment is not a top priority.


What are your thoughts on the role of social media and online platforms in promoting environmental films and creating a dialogue around conservation topics?


Social media is a very effective platform. It is one of the quickest mediums to share our work, especially through recent developments in Instagram and Facebook. A lot of discussions on the environment by different NGOs are happening on social media. So, it remains a very powerful online medium. And not just for outreach and campaign. If you look closely, the entire youth of Assam and Arunachal got together for the fight for Dihing Patkai, and it was all over social media. So, it does empower conservation efforts when done under the right zeal.


As a production company with extensive experience, what storytelling approaches does Dusty Foot Productions employ to engage audiences in documentary films focused on wildlife and social issues?


My whole background was in environment and films. I had worked with the River Bank Productions for many years previously. My interest was more in the camera initially, and then it went on to making wildlife films. It was after that that I started my own production house- The Dusty Foot. The core idea was to shoot wildlife stories, especially those about communities around wildlife sanctuaries. Most of our stories are related to wildlife conservation and the community’s interaction with it. Whether it is a film called “Right to Survive”, which looks at traditional fishers and the olive ridley turtles, “Wild Meat Trail”, which looks at hunting in the northeast, or “Gaur in my Garden” which looks at the human presence in the town of Kotagiri in Nilgiris. We realized that it was impossible to look at any wildlife without people. And our interest has been primarily around that, to tell stories about wildlife and people.


What role does visual storytelling play in inspiring people to engage with and protect the natural world? How can environmental films influence public opinion and by extension policy-making?


I feel visual media is a very strong tool. It crosses the barriers of language and education. It appeals to a larger audience. So, it is a very strong way of communicating ideas. If we look at the environmental history of India, a lot of wildlife films have made an impact on policy. For instance, take Shekhar Dattatri’s film on the Kudremukh mining tragedy.


One of the films that I was personally involved with was “The Shores of Silence”, which was based upon the Whale Shark Hunting in India. And that led to the ban on the killing of whale sharks later. More recently, if you look at the northeast of India, a small clip on the Amur falcon slaughter was shared by Dalvi, Bano Haralo and Shashank. 3 people; and that little clip ended up going so viral that it led to the ban on the killing of Amur falcons. So yes, a visual medium is a very strong way to communicate and inspire, especially if it’s made well, with all the facts checked, and with sincerity.


How do you collaborate with other professionals, such as researchers, conservationists, or photographers to create impactful environmental films?


We are mostly talking about documentaries here. That’s what I’ve been primarily associated with. And at the core of any documentary is that - it has to be factual. Your storytelling can be of whichever form you want, and that’s up to you; (how you make it innovative or interesting). But somewhere at the baseline, the facts have to be really strong and correct. And that is where the environmental filmmaker has to work with researchers, NGO workers, government officials, or any other community person who is concerned with that issue. So, in every way, it is collaboration. But at the end of the day, it is your film. Collaboration is only at the level of finding out about a subject more, going deeper into it, and finding different layers to the story. But ultimately, it is your film, and how you tell the story. And that’s what gives you an identity. There are all kinds of filmmakers working on the same subject, but the storytelling is what really gives you an edge.


How do you engage with local communities and indigenous groups when filming in their areas? How do you ensure that their voices and perspective are respectfully represented in your films?


The main thing for filmmakers is to spend a lot of time in these fields; and a lot of time with these people. Like for this film called, “Turtle Diaries”, we were collaborating with an NGO called the International Collective in Support of Fish Workers (ICSF). We got those initial contacts from them and then based on that we went and met the fishers. Then we just simply talked, even before we took out our cameras. And only then, if they were willing, did we interview them. Because they can easily tell you that they don’t want to be in a film. So, there is that. Even post the film, we mostly try and go back to show the film to the community. That’s what we’ve done with most of our films so far. It takes time. You go to these areas. You talk to them. And you spend time with them. With “Wild Meat Trail” for example, we filmed it over a period of 5 years. It wasn’t a short period. We talked to a lot of people, and we lived amongst them. And only then, we could go ahead and film with them. So with every film, it is a part of the process. And that’s common to all kinds of filmmaking really.


How do you incorporate scientific accuracy and factual information into your films while still maintaining a compelling and engaging narrative?


The core thing where the filmmaker has to work is to know where their story is placed. Is it about a town which has lost all its water? Is it about one single character who is saving water? Is it about a particular group that has brought water back to a village? Or is it about the life of an animal which is based around water and explores its impact on the larger ecosystem? For that story to come out, you are doing a lot of research. You are looking at a lot of stuff on the ground. You are meeting new people. And you are travelling to newer places.


At some point, somewhere, something will say that “Hey, that’s a great story”. And that’s where the role of the filmmaker comes in. But for that story to happen, you need to talk to researchers and scientists or any other experts in that particular field if it requires that. When you do that, what happens is, it helps you to film, it helps you to edit, it helps you to write your narrative. For example, I can do a dung beetle’s story as a filmmaker, observing it in a desert, going backwards, falling off a cliff and all that kind of stuff. And then suddenly I speak to a researcher, and he gives me these beautiful aspects of the dung beetle’s life, where it goes under a hole or steals from another’s. So, those kinds of scenes blow your mind. Now, when you are talking to a researcher, your story comes out much stronger. What you pick out of it, rests on what you do with your creative liberty as a filmmaker.


Can you share a memorable instance where Dusty Foot Production played a crucial role in overcoming unexpected challenges while filming in remote or challenging locations, ultimately enhancing the overall production value?


When you are in wildlife, you are mostly there for the love of it. When we were filming the mask nets of the olive ridley turtles, I remember, they only arrived at night for the nesting. We were seated by the beach for the entire night to filming with them. And you’d have sand all over your sheet and equipment, and a lot of the time, it used to be very humid. But once you see the turtles climbing up the beach, it’s one of the most fascinating sights. And it’s pitch dark, and you can’t really use lights. You can only use infrared lights to film the turtles, because under proper lights, they go back. So, it becomes very important to film carefully without disturbing the animal. But yeah, these moments, they just stay with you all your lives. And that’s the most beautiful part about filming; it’s very meditative, very peaceful. In the middle of the forest, even with the Amur falcons, there were moments where we went to film them the year that their killing was banned. And these falcons usually started flying around early in the morning, and that’s when you got a lot of the action. So, there are moments when you’re just sitting with your camera, and you’re looking at hundreds of falcons flying above you. Even the film does not matter at that moment nor does the story. The fact that you’re just being able to spend time in that landscape and see such miraculous things, is the reason you even continue working in the field.


When working on projects that require bridging the gap between technical and lay audiences, what strategies do you employ to make the content accessible and easily understandable for a wider audience?


Filmmaking itself is a tool. That’s what we do. And films are the output. There’s no special technique which we use. A film by default is a story. You’re not doing anything special between the movie and its technicality. The bottom line, however, is the story and how you tell it. You can use technology, or you can use basic cameras, but ultimately, it’s how you tell the story which constitutes the work of the communicator/filmmaker. You may be able to tell the story in a short 50-second reel, or you may take a whole 50 minutes of your time to tell another. Ultimately, it is how you tell the story. And that’s the way to bridge the gap.


Climate change is largely the result of the offshoot of the Industrial Revolution that took place in the 1800s Britain, with Britain then colonizing the entire world, leading to large-scale industrialization, urbanization and later on, globalization of the world. The very fact that settlements and livelihoods had to be then built around these industries is the main reason that human-animal conflict and the fight for habitat exist today. What is your take on this and do you agree with the existential perspective that climate change is but an accelerating factor leading to an inevitable human doom?


I think it is a very simplistic way of thinking about human beings and their relationship with industrialization as an accelerator of climate change. The truth is, if you go back a few hundred years, till the time that the first humans appeared, things were pretty sustainable. But as soon as humans appeared and agriculture happened, a different form of life took over, with forests being cut down and technologies changing. But it’s still very simplistic to say that industrialization happened, and so climate change is a natural progression.


We have enough scientific information and research now to show the impact of a forest, the links of an entire ecosystem and how it works. So, we are not living in a mysterious world, where we do not know what is happening; and a lot of it is even common sense. The fact that the water table under a city has a certain capacity, and you make the town into a carrying capacity which is way beyond that, that’s not a natural system. It is not natural that the water is disappearing; it is disappearing for a certain way of thinking, which is only looking at short-term gains.


And there’s always been two parallel thoughts to humankind. There’s one thought which has wanted to learn from nature in a deeper way, where you learn from a forest. And when you learn from a forest, you realize that the forest learns back from the feedback system. Every little thing, from a snail to a canopy to a tree, is part of a very thriving ecosystem. And it is thriving because it is contributing as well as gaining back from the same environment. Now, that line of thought has always existed. But there is another school of thought that did not look at nature that deeply, but looked at only one part of it. Like an assembly line, where you keep producing and producing, and there is no end to it. And that is where the capitalist thought process comes from. But there is no feedback into this system. You remain where you are, and there are certain people who gain. It is this thought process that leads to the whole imbalance.


Even in the northeast, in a remote village, there is a whole community living there, absolutely self-sufficient, enjoying a very good quality of life. They have water, they have food, they have greens. But it is this thought process that is making the younger generation think that “this is not valuable; I have to migrate to a city”. But, it’s not as if a computer cannot reach that person, roads cannot reach that person, or medical facilities cannot reach that person. So why can you not create a lifestyle around that ecosystem?


Besides that, life and death are very philosophical matters. But if you are talking about climate change, it is based on facts. It is based on research. It is based on examples. So, one has to really look at that and it’s up to them to see which parts they want to take up.


About the Interviewer:

Sanandita Chakraborty, is pursuing her Bachelor Degree in history at the Dept. of History, Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has conducted this interview as part of her internship programme in Media Production & Communications Division of Aaranyak.

You can reach her at 143priyom@gmail.com




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