Every two years at the JHWFF, filmmakers and programmers debate the role of conservation in natural history documentaries, and whether programs with strong conservation content can hold their own in the ratings game. This year, the debate widened to whether producers and distributors of natural history programs bear any added responsibilities for protection of wildlife and habitat beyond program production and its broadcast in the `First World’. This year’s debate, however, resulted in developments.
The festival’s board of directors voted to add a `conservation clause’ to the festival’s mission statement. The new amendment acknowledges a measure of responsibility for heightening public awareness of the state of the world’s wildlife and dwindling habitat. The amendment was adopted unanimously by the festival’s board of directors after a vigorous debate on the original amendment, proposed by Chris Palmer of National Wildlife Productions.
Opponents of the measure expressed concerns about injecting bias against films without conservation content submitted to future festivals, including those that might advocate anti-conservation perspectives. Although the word `conservation’ was finally omitted from the new amendment, advocates of the bolder original, including Palmer, seemed satisfied. ‘It’s an important step which should lead to more emphasis on conservation at future festivals – in panels, panelists, award categories, [and] awards. I believe that it will make a difference over time.’
Palmer cautioned that much of the heavy lifting will fall upon the shoulders of producers who need to work with broadcasters to overcome the bad ratings syndrome associated with conservation-minded stories. ‘Broadcasters are driven by ratings. It’s up to individual producers to come up with strong conservation stories which can also entertain and get good ratings. It can be done. For example, our [NWP] IMAX film on whales has grossed over US$40 million so far.’
‘Hopefully, by working together we can exert pressure to get more good conservation stories onto television,’ exclaimed Allison Argo, who produced The Secret Life of Cats, voted best conservation film this year, ‘and reach other audiences with our films as well. We need mutual support to maintain our commitment.’ Argo also expressed the hopes of many that there would be strength in numbers. ‘Many broadcasters don’t like to hear the `C’ word. Hopefully, together we can find ways to make conservation entertaining and even fashionable again, and convince programmers to be more receptive.’
Films with conservation themes permeated the ’99 festival. Winners with the eco-friendly message include: Island of the Sharks by Howard and Michelle Hall, with a special jury award of Merit; Wildlife for Sale: Dead or Alive, by the CBC, for best investigative; and Guyana’s Natural Heritage, from Conservation International, for best PSA/VNR.