`To conserve the natural world'

Print edition : February 23, 2007

Naturalist David Attenborough in "Life in the Undergrowth", from the Wildscreen package.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Festival Manager Sarah Mitchell.

THE ONCE-IN-TWO years six-day Wildscreen Festival in Bristol attracts 600 delegates - from old hands in the industry to complete newcomers. Free screenings in the evenings and weekend for the general public draws full houses. They are shown not only films nominated for the awards but also films not easily accessible, particularly those from overseas. The official screenings are of the 74 finalists from over 400 entries from 40 countries. The 20 awards are given for every aspect of wildlife film-making from editing and sound to campaign and conservation.

The last festival saw an Indian (Barkha Dutt) winning the award for breaking news about the Sarus cranes. The best children's film is chosen by a jury of children. The Golden Panda, also called the Green Oscar, is Wildscreen's coveted top award.

As part of its 25th anniversary celebrations, Wildscreen launched its first major outreach programme in India in January in association with the British Council and the British High Commission. Wildscreen India conducted workshops and screened award-winning films such as Planet Earth, Paranormal Pigeons and Conflict Tiger in New Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Chennai. Master classes by directors like Mike Salisbury, Jeremy Bristow, Laura and Harry Marshall, as also editor Martin Elsbury and marketing expert Pam Beddard, became interactive sessions. The "star" was of course Jane Goodall, who delivered the keynote address.

In this interview, Sarah Mitchell, Festival Manager, Wildscreen, tells us more about the adventure.

Films on wildlife require huge budgets for travel, prolonged shoots and technical excellence. Do you skip awards in some categories if entries do not meet high standards?

That happened in the past. But our judges very much keep in their minds that people have different budgets. You'd be surprised to know that it's not films made on the biggest budgets that always come through.

But wildlife films demand exquisite cinematography. And that doesn't come cheap.

Yes, they can be very expensive, and we can't fund them, being a charity ourselves. But initiatives like Wildscreen India are a great way to tell people, look, there are many ways to make a good wildlife film. Jeremy Bristow is doing a workshop explaining that you don't have to have big budgets to make powerful films. There are many types of wildlife films, not just what we see on television. The most important films are often conservation or campaign films arousing awareness. Planet Earth is often criticised for not putting in a conservation message but just showing you how beautiful the world is. There are others who have messages.

Honestly, I don't think people need feel disheartened that they don't have big budgets. There are films made right here in India without huge sums of money. Mike Pandey made such an important film about hunting wild sharks [Shores of Silence]. It was [screened in 2000] in our festival. That film actually changed legislation!

Festival Manager Sarah Mitchell.-

Does showing a campaign film at a festival produce such concrete results?

We do raise awareness, yes. However, you also have to show your film not only to large audiences, but also to the right people - and influence them as Pandey did. Wildscreen did not have campaign films before; that's something we've done in the last two festivals, and opened up new areas. After all, our mission is not just to show good films but to inspire people to conserve the natural world.

Do opinion-makers and politicians attend your festival?

To be honest with you, it would be unlikely that a politician would come to a Wildscreen event. We found much more interest in the Indian press about our work than in the U.K. That's the way the British press works.

Have you taken the festival to cities other than Bristol?

Coming to India is our first time out of Bristol. That's why we're so excited. Our team members have busy working lives and can't take time off for the entire tour. So we split into three groups to maximise our reach.

How did you choose India for your first outreach programme?

This very original idea came from our chief executive Harriet Nimmo when she attended a wildlife festival in New Delhi. We couldn't have done it without support from the British Council and the British High Commission. The British Council also brought Jane Goodall. It's great to see her again. We feel she's one of our team.

How has India responded to this Wildscreen initiative?

Pitching talks to the right level required thought. Not everyone was equally knowledgeable. But those who knew more said they were happy to have their thoughts confirmed. We've learnt so much in India, it has been a most inspiring trip. It's not a we-teach- you-learn thing. Not at all. It is learning from each other. Coming to India has made us realise that the audience is very different here than at home. And if you are making films - or screening films - globally, you must know this crucial difference.

What kind of thought went into your choice of subjects at these workshops?

Three team members have a good knowledge of India as they have worked on films here before. Harry Marshall was even born in south India. We consulted the experts and the British Council and tried to put together a programme that would have wide appeal and relevance to the kind of work going on here.

We brought many films but could show only six. We are leaving 16 films in the British Council library. Hopefully they can be sent to schools as well. You know, in Ranthambore we went to the local school outside the reserve. The wildlife park is such an integral part of the village but none of the kids had actually entered the park or seen a tiger! I thought it would be wonderful if we could send some of the films made in Ranthambore to those kids. So that they know what they have at their doorstep. Films should go back to the countries where they are made, and ideally in the language of that country.

With so much visual material, why did you not have a tie-up with local television channels in India?

It's certainly something we should do in the future. It has been a learning process for us this time, a beginning. Great things can happen now.

How far do you think Wildscreen has impacted on raising awareness in your own country?

It doesn't have everything from the data bank, only material that can be used by anyone in educational presentations. We have written information authenticated and held high by experts. We get 25,000 hits each day from all over the world. It's grown beyond what we could have imagined.

We've just recently had funding to collect the history of the genre as British wildlife film-making is going to be 100 years old. The old films are a joy to watch. Some of the footage is amazing. At the last festival we had a special day for wildlife photographs. It was so successful that we had a two-day event in London, with photographs by professionals and amateurs.

The English poets celebrate nature in a very emotional way. Have you had an event about nature and poetry?

I don't think we have. It's a wonderful idea.

A scene from "Planet Earth".-

When you do prison screenings, how do the inmates react?

Recently, we showed two films in a Bristol prison - a light-hearted film about monkeys in South Africa that come into cities and raid people's houses... [Laughing] May be we shouldn't have shown that, but it's a nice little film. Just to balance it we also showed a hard-hitting film about bush meat trade in South Africa. The prison's educational authorities contacted us later and said that the men discussed the film for weeks.

Why Bristol?

Bristol is the home of natural history film-making. The BBC's natural history unit was started in Bristol some 60 years ago, and because of that other people set up post-production companies there, as also independent production houses specialising in wildlife and related subjects.

Have you changed your focus in the last few years? Do you notice any change in people's attitude towards their environment?

We are looking more into earth sciences, campaigns and environmental programmes. Climate change is an important fact now. Very few people deny that it is happening. We need to make sure we are clued into the large picture. We must be concerned about the whole habitat, not just individual species. We must certainly take Wildscreen to other places. We'd love to go to China, while continuing our relationship with India.

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