My family has been making documentaries for half a century. In 1956, my father and a then unknown director named Louis Malle made the film The Silent World, which won international acclaim and took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards.
Over the next several decades, we created ‘reality television’ when it was actually reality. Millions of viewers around the world saw the ocean and its amazing species and fascinating, remote habitats for the first time. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau bore witness to the dawning of the age of discovery in documentary filmmaking.
Trends, technology and the explosion of the number of cable and satellite outlets have significantly changed the landscape for documentaries. We have exponentially increased both the amount of product and venues for them to be seen. But have we revisited our philosophy? Why do we make these films?
Certainly we continue to endeavor to educate, entertain and inspire. We want the images and words we create to capture the imagination and interest of people across the globe. Our goal is to ‘flip the switch’ in the minds of viewers so they have a greater appreciation and understanding of the topics we present.
Those of us today whose canvas is the natural world feel a greater sense of urgency than ever before. Our planet is under siege. From rainforests in the Amazon to the ice flows of the Arctic, and from the savannahs of Africa to the depths of our ocean, time is not on our side. Pollution, global warming, depletion of species and destruction of habitats are all compounding to put both nature and ourselves in peril. Educating the policy makers of tomorrow will always remain a goal. But educating the policy makers of today is critical.
With our latest television series, coproduced by San Francisco’s KQED and PBS, Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures, we have entered a new era of filmmaking I like to call ‘outcome-based documentaries.’ With acute crises facing so many aspects of nature, it’s vital that those who are in a position to make decisions to protect the environment – now – see the films we are making and utilize them as a catalyst for change.
This gives all of us an added burden. We need not only to make art, but also to gain access and provoke action. Our films should have a mission that encourages policy makers to understand the imperative for the planet and what they can do to make a difference.
The first two episodes of the new series, ‘Voyage to Kure,’ focus on the looming degradation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 1,200-mile archipelago stretching out from the main Hawaiian islands. These pristine habitats and fragile populations of species are under increasing pressure from the by-products of human cultures thousands of miles away. Widespread publicity about debris-strewn beaches on these islands and the impact on vulnerable wildlife spawned ongoing communication with federal policy makers. In turn, the dialog drew the attention of President and Mrs. George W. Bush.
We were asked to preview the episodes at The White House with the president, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle, and other key decision-makers. The president was truly struck by what he saw. He instructed his staff that night to ‘get it done,’ and within weeks we were invited back to The White House for a ceremony during which the president declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a National Monument – the largest protected marine habitat in the world.
While the swiftness of this action can’t be expected from every well-intentioned film, it reinforces the power of docs and the kind of outcome we want from our efforts. Strategic viewing of documentaries that offer a clear plan of action to policy makers can have a greater impact than all the lobbyists that circle capitals around the globe. We need to think more about outcomes when we select topics for films about nature. Our message has to be clear and credible without being inflammatory. And, we must get our work seen by those who can impact our planet. We have power beyond art.
I encourage us all to use it.