Popular on Variety
2021 has been a robust year in the way of films exploring the lives of environmental conservationists. At the Variety Documentary Day sponsored by National Geographic, “Becoming Cousteau”…
2021 has been a robust year in the way of films exploring the lives of environmental conservationists.
At the Variety Documentary Day sponsored by National Geographic, “Becoming Cousteau” director Liz Garbus shared what drove her to explore the life and environmental trajectory of legendary French explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.
“I was genetically drawn to him, since he was imprinted into my DNA as a child when I loved watching his show every week,” she said. “[I had] a conversation with my own child, who I realized was growing up on a full diet of under-sea television, but had never heard about this guy in the red cap who was such an iconic figure in my childhood. So I started to kind of look into [whether] I could go online and show my son Theo some of [Cousteau’s] film and the TV show, and I couldn’t find anything. And that just made me feel very curious about what had happened to this man. I started to look into it and understand his transformation over time from adventurer to protector to this hubristic worldview as a ‘conqueror’ to someone who is much more humbled and interested in conservation and protection. It felt to me like it was a story for this moment.”
Sally Aitken, director of “Playing With Sharks,” said that her route to the story of diver and conservationist Valerie Taylor happened the opposite way.
“I suppose the difference here is that while Cousteau, certainly in my life, was a household name, Valerie Taylor was not,” she said. “So actually as a kind of ‘hidden figures’ character, what really drew me to Valerie’s story is just simply how badass she is as a woman in this incredibly male-dominated world of pioneering divers. And she had a profound transformation particularly in the realm of sharks. It was this very unlikely pairing and juxtaposition of this absolute bombshell, gorgeous, blonde badass character against an equally badass predator of the ocean. She began as a hunter, and very early on, had a very visceral first-hand encounter of actually how sharks behave. It gave her the insight into the very, very early recognition that they’re not actually to be feared, that we’re not in their diets. In her words, they are creatures that you can play with. Her trajectory, similarly [to Cousteau, was] as a hunter to a passionate advocate.”
The conversation also featured the creatives behind films about other pressing moments in history, such as “Rescue,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary about the 2018 Tham Luang rescue, in which 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave. While the mission was recent and widely reported on by journalists, Vasarhelyi spoke on the necessity of understanding stories like these in the context of the perspectives being offered.
“What we do is subjective, and we are not claiming otherwise,” she said. “This is my interpretation of events and my own moral compass that’s guiding it. And I try to think that I can live with myself the next morning and that I’m motivated by the right reasons. But there are a lot of people out there who are motivated by making money or motivated by bringing down some political party, and they also claim to be journalists.”
Matthew Heineman, whose film “The First Wave,” tells the story of health care workers at a New York City hospital in the first four months of the pandemic, concurred.
“I think the average person who watches a documentary on Netflix thinks the documentary is the truth,” said Heineman. “I think there are two sides to the debate. It’s how we hold ourselves accountable, but it’s also about how it’s presented to the general public, who I think for the most part receive documentaries as a biblical piece of information.”
Filmmaker Max Lowe could speak directly to the importance of understanding subjectivity and personal connections in documentary filmmaking. His film “Torn” chronicles the death of his father Alex Lowe, a climber who tragically died along with climber and cameraman David Bridges in an avalanche on the Tibetan mountain Shishapangma.
“I saw the potential in sharing this vulnerable exploration with an audience and the power that it could have for other people to process their own traumas,” he said. “It was that kind of peripheral perspective as a storyteller that made me see the value in pushing my family to try and do this. In all my storytelling, I always strive to put myself in the shoes of my characters, because I think as a documentary filmmaker, it is truly the only responsible way to move forward in telling a story. As if you were there in it yourself.”
Watch the full conversation above.