Natural History: Joining the pack

David Anderson (U.S.)
October 1, 2004

David Anderson (U.S.)

Though David Anderson had considered becoming a filmmaker, he instead found himself running his own business – Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari – ferrying people into the waters off the Southern Californian coast to spot dolphins and whales.

But providence has a way of getting people to where they need to be, regardless of what they plan. After years on his catamaran, Anderson found himself ‘seeing things most people didn’t realize were there,’ he says – blue whales, orcas, pods of dolphins 5,000 strong. Back on shore, however, his stories didn’t do the visuals justice. So he picked up a camera.

More than five years later, he had Wild Dolphins and Whales of Southern California, a 60-minute film featuring footage shot above and below the water. Observes Anderson, ‘I wanted this film to be something different. I wanted it to be told from my perspective… I’ve taken a lot of people out and I know what kind of questions they have about the animals.’

He also wanted the film to be an environmental record of the diversity and abundance of the wildlife off the Cali coast. ‘It gives people a yard stick,’ he says. ‘How are you going to protect something you don’t even know is there?’

Initially, Anderson shot on a single-chip Mini DV cam he bought for about US$700, but then jumped to a Canon GL2. He says the quality of the film surprises people, especially when they find out the equipment on which it was acquired. He also began editing on a $100 program called VideoWave, but transition issues caused frames to be dropped. After much frustration, he switched to Adobe Premiere. Says Anderson, ‘In the beginning, a lot of my choices were made because I didn’t have any money.’

In total, Anderson spent about $5,000 on the project. The film was intended to go straight to dvd as a take-home for his clients, but he submitted it to the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula where it won best amateur film, took second for peoples’ choice, and won merits for unique footage, music, conservation message and educational value. No distribs have signed on yet, but there is already interest in his second project, a feature about blue whales shot on Super 16mm.

Ajay and Vijay Bedi (India)

***Award Winners***

Some filmmakers learn the craft, and some are born into it. Ajay and Vijay Bedi are distinctly the latter. Fraternal twins – Ajay is five minutes older – the Bedi brothers grew up in a natural history family.

Their grandfather, Dr. Ramesh Bedi, was a renowned author and photographer who had more than 100 books on Indian flora and fauna to his credit. Their father and uncle, Naresh and Rajesh Bedi, are a famous filmmaking duo who run Bedi Films in New Delhi. Says Ajay Bedi, ‘We feel very fortunate to have grown up in an environment where art of any sort is appreciated, and creativity is given an avenue to prosper… It gives us immense pride to be the next generation of a filmmaking family, and though expectations might surround us, we believe we will certainly be able to add to this legacy.’

Their effort begins with their first solo project, The Policing Langur. A 30-minute film, it examines India’s problem with wild monkeys and the solutions that are being proposed. As human and monkey populations increasingly overlap, the monkeys have become a plague, raiding houses, offices and schools, and attacking people who try to stand their ground. Notes Bedi, ‘Delhi’s urban monkeys have become extremely dangerous, bold and aggressive over the years… During filming, I was also attacked, which resulted in four stitches on my chin and a broken camera that cost me £800 (US$1,440).’

Langurs and other monkeys have deep roots in the Hindu ethos, and are considered the incarnation of the monkey god Hanuman. Proposed solutions to the monkey menace must, therefore, be sensitive to the beliefs of millions of Hindus.

In Delhi, one solution has been bigger monkeys. A more powerful, dominant langur can keep its wild relatives in check, so a force of policing langurs has been created to protect Parliament, the presidential house and other important government buildings. Notes Bedi, ‘We tried to capture the colorful vista of man/monkey relationship in India that stretches from mythology to the modern, and makes for a captivating tale of veneration, tolerance and co-existence.’

The film was shot over six months in four locations: the Kanha and Corbett National Parks, to pick up sequences in the wild; and Varanasi and Delhi for the film’s religious background and monkey menace sequences. At one point, a camera team was almost arrested for filming outside Defense Headquarters. Bedi observes with some irony, ‘Strangely, even government press-accredited cameramen are not allowed to film in these areas, but the marauding monkeys roam freely.’

The film’s budget is about $8,000, with some support coming from Delhi-based media body the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Naturally, generous technical support was also available in-house at Bedi Films.

The Bedi brothers are currently working on their next film, The Cherub of the Mist, a film on red pandas. Says Bedi, ‘The pandas have been captured in all their glory, courting and mating, nest building, and rearing the newly-born. [It will also feature] the success story of the reintroduction of two captive-bread females, Mini and Sweaty, into the wilds of Singalila National Park in the eastern Himalayas.’

Manuel Berdoy (U.K.)

In the strictest sense of the word, Manuel Berdoy is not a filmmaker. He’s a zoologist and a teacher at Oxford. But when it comes to explaining animal behavior, it’s hard to beat the moving image. At least, that’s what some of his students thought.

‘I gave a couple of talks and some people came to see me afterwards and said: ‘It would be really nice to see what you mean,” recalls Berdoy. ‘In retrospect, maybe they meant my talk was so completely obscure they didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. But, in an Oxford, arrogant kind of way, I took it to mean they wanted to see moving examples of what I was talking about, rather then just graphs and statistics.’

The Laboratory Rat: A Natural History is the result. The 27-minute film studies a colony of domestic rats released into an outdoor enclosure where they are left to compete for food, shelter and mates – just as they would in the wild. The film balances domestication against evolutionary programming, and is composed in segments that explain particular behaviors. It is designed to stand complete or to be pulled apart by topic.

Funding came from a government grant and much of the film know-how came from cameraman and friend Paul Stewart (who also holds an Oxford PhD). Berdoy was adamant his crew be biologists, as he wanted them to have a deep understanding of the issues explored. That choice was reflected in even the music. In a scene demonstrating infanticide, Berdoy says it would have been easy to go over the top. But infanticide is a common event in many mammalian species, so Dario Marianelli, a former student of Berdoy’s who did the music, sought an air of melancholic inevitability instead – a perfect match for the biology.

Rat was filmed over six months, followed by three months of editing and rewrites. As the £20,000 (US$35,000) budget came from grants, Berdoy says he had the liberty to craft the film he wanted, rather than what a broadcaster might expect. That freedom was essential, as Berdoy isn’t always impressed with natural history programs. ‘The questions I see in film,’ he observes, ‘are often non-questions. They are straw men on which to hang impressive footage. They are often not the questions we would ask, yet those can be fascinating.’

Berdoy believes viewers are ready for some complexity. ‘There can be more of an integration between science and art… To understand why a flower is the way it is doesn’t detract from its beauty, but rather enhances it. That is a little bit of what we wanted to put in this film. Understanding why things are the way they are is a scientific endeavor, but it is not because it is a scientific question that it should be dry. Quite the opposite… And scientists are partly to blame. It’s easy to moan about the fact that the films we see are a gross simplification, or are wrong or are boring. If we don’t like it, we should be more involved in the process.’

The film has already won best non-broadcast film at Jackson Hole, best newcomer at the Living Europe Film Festival, a commendation and a craft award at the Learning on Screen conference, as well as best non-broadcast and several merit awards at Missoula. Rat was picked up by California-based distrib Wild Logic after the latter fest.

Berdoy says he loved the experience of making Rat, but has no plans to make producing a full-time job. Observes the Oxford prof: ‘I would be delighted to make others – when, or if, I have something to say.’

Patrick Rouxel (France)

Patrick Rouxel began his film career doing post-production for features and commercials, most recently for Paris-based post/FX house Macguffline. But about a year ago, Rouxel decided his work had to mean something more, and he turned to conservation.

Tears of Wood was the result. A 26-minute film on the impact of the wood industry on the Indonesian rainforests, the film is told from the point of view of an indigenous orangutan, and has no dialog or narration.

The project had mercurial beginnings, with Rouxel unsure of what the story was going to be or how it would be told. Since he’d grown up in Malaysia and Singapore before attending university in California and Paris, Rouxel’s childhood ties suggested Southeast Asia as a starting point. So, he decided to go to Indonesia and film everything natural that interested him. He bought a tripod and a Sony PD100, the smallest camera he could find, and left for two months of shooting in the national parks of Sumatra and Borneo. When he returned home, Rouxel bought a Mac, took a course in Final Cut Pro and started editing.

Unfortunately, his footage underscored his lack of focus. ‘I didn’t really have a story,’ he admits. ‘I had the idea of filming the orangutans, and I wanted to do something where you would discover the forest through their eyes,’ he says. But the thread was missing.

Considering the ornate wooden steps of a local Paris library, Rouxel found his thread – the path of exotic woods from the jungles of Indonesia to the first-world consumer. He got back on a plane for three more weeks of filming the logging industry at work.

Rouxel followed the trail from the harbor into the national parks, where logging is done far from tourists in areas designated for ‘research’. Says Rouxel, ‘I gave a few packs of cigarettes to the guy who was selling the trees and he told me I could film. I went to different factories and said I was a school teacher interested in filming some stuff for my students, and I got away with it.’

Rouxel would have loved to include helicopter shots of the deforestation, but he was footing the bill for this US$9,000 doc himself. As it was, he had to call in favors from friends for the scoring, sound design, foley and post. ‘It really started off as a home movie,’ he notes, ‘and in my head, it still is. But having the know-how and the experience of working on feature films [allowed me] to put in a bit of good finishing in the end.’

Rouxel turned over the copyright for Tears of Wood to an environmental NGO, hoping it would use the doc to raise money and awareness for orangutans. After a year of inactivity, he reclaimed it and submitted it to Missoula. There it won best independent, best music video, and merits for the soundtrack and conservation message. It also attracted the interest of Cali distributor Wild Logic.

Rouxel is already well into his second film, a yet-to-be-named project about how Indonesian deforestation affects the people who work in the timber industry, connecting their fate to Western consumers. As of press time, he was still on the hunt for a production company to help finish it.

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