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iRep International Documentary Film Festival

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Last month I visited Lagos for the iRep International Documentary Film Festival. The annual festival is held in Freedom Park, a park converted from the site of an old colonial prison and now a popular venue for the fast-growing Lagos cultural scene. Freedom Park is a space that plays host to a wide variety of cultural events, and it’s been a favourite spot of mine in the city since visiting there during it’s development. As my family and I were given a tour around the park I remember thinking how unique it is for the city: a piece of Lagos history, a forum for local musicians and artists to exhibit, and a scenic, green community space; designed for local people of all social classes to gather and enjoy culture. Little did I know then that the park would also become the venue for one of my own personal milestones – my first screening with a Q&A.

The film was due to be screened on the last day of the festival (Sunday), and so I took the opportunity to enjoy the festival and see some of the other films being screened. One film in particular that I enjoyed was Faaji Agba, a documentary about the highlife, palm wine and juju musicians who were playing before the beginning of the afrobeat movement in Lagos. The film sees the musicians as they are united for a tour of New York (a lot of fun – most of them have never left Nigeria), and aside from being very nicely shot and edited it’s a great story that makes for a fun – but also heartwarming – ninety minutes.

I was more nervous than I thought I’d be leading up to the screening – my father had widely publicised the event, both to friends and family and to filmmakers, and so the screening room was packed. While I really don’t enjoy watching my film (for the 20th time or since it was finised…), it seemed most people in the room did, and the subsequent Q&A lasted for about twice as long as the duration of the film! I was joined on stage by my main contributors and the owners of Drill Ranch, Peter Jenkins and Liza Gadsby, and so the discussion went way past the events on screen. The theme for this years festival was “change: documentary films as agent provocateur”, and so it was appropriate that the Q&A became a forum for discussing the major environmental issue that has arisen in the last year: that of the proposed superhighway through the forest and national park land near to Drill Ranch in Cross River state. I won’t go into too much detail, but to summarise the state governor Ben Ayade has set out plans for a road through the forest and to revoke land rights for 10km either side of the road, amounting to 25% of the area of the whole state. It’s a road that doesn’t make any sense; there is another road with a similar route that serves more people and is in dire need of repair, whereas this road seems to only impact the people who live along the route negatively. The most obvious explanation for the road is for access to the forest for logging companies, and the whole project is suspicious – logging has even begun without the legally necessary Evironmental Impact Assessment. Peter and Liza are part of a group that’s trying to halt the project, but it’s a difficult battle to fight against a state governor in Nigeria (more about the campaign here).

Photo courtesy of Jane Mote, from Twitter

 
While the future for the last of Nigeria’s rainforest looks pretty bleak at the moment, I think it’s important to have hope. A lot of Nigerians I’ve shown the film to say they are surprised that this amazing forest is in their own country, and so hopefully a few more might feel like it’s something work protecting. I also hope that giving Peter and Liza the opportunity to speak to some young  Nigerian filmmakers might have had some impact – who knows, maybe we’ll see some more films about conservation and the environment come out of Nigeria soon. And maybe they can create the conversations required to make lasting change. I certainly hope so.

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Back to Nonsuch Park: Twitching Challenge Round 4

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A bit of a belated post as I’ve been busy lately (see next post!), but I headed back to my old local park to walk my mothers dogs (on 23rd March), and while I was there I though I’d do my first twitching challenge in a while. Here are the results of round 4…

  • Woodpigeon (sound, sight) – 2 points.
  • Coal tit (sight) – 1 point.
  • Magpie (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • Green woodpecker (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • Carrion crow (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • Great tit (sound) – 1 point.
  • Chaffinch (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • Ring-necked parakeet (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • House sparrow (sight) – 1 point.
  • Robin (sight, sound) – 2 points.
  • Wren (sight) – 1 point.
  • Blackbird (sight) – 1 point.
  • Greenfinch (sound) – 1 point.
  • Great spotted woodpecker (seen, heard) – 2 points.

Total: 21 points. Not bad for an hour while walking the dogs, and not having been to Nonsuch park in a while. Although it is spring and there were a lot of birds around – I heard a lot more, but there are still a lot of bird calls I don’t know, so I guess its a sign I should be trying to learn more! Until next time…

Awards Season, and My First Award

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As the traditional awards season draws to a close with the Oscars this Sunday, for me it seems like awards season has only just begun. I’m lucky enough to have had my film The Drills of Afi Mountain nominated for four festivals this year, the first of which occurred over the weekend. Wild Film Fest is a festival run by students from the University of Exeter, and in it’s second year of running it has a very professional small festival feel; speakers from the wildlife filmmaking industry, screenings and an exhibition of photographs spread across three days made for an altogether well organised event, culminating in a showcase of films and the presentation of awards on Saturday night.

The standard of films was very high, with films coming from both UWE and Salford wildlife filmmaking courses as well as from Exeter students, which is especially impressive when I remember how little I knew about filmmaking when I was studying there for my undergraduate degree. I particularly enjoyed the winner of the cinematography category, Medieval Monsters (produced by Oliver Mueller of the Salford course), which had some stunning macro shots and really did justice to the beauty of it’s insect characters, making me feel quite inadequate in my own camera operating skills!

I’m very flattered to have been awarded the best film for both the conservation category, and as the overall festival winner, receiving a new trail camera and a GoPro Hero 4 Session camera as prizes, both of which I’m hugely grateful for. It’s really nice to know that people like the film, and considering that it was while studying at Exeter that I realised this was what I wanted to do, I’m thrilled that it was Exeter students that presented me with my first ever award for a film I’ve produced.

In the mean time, here are the other festivals I’ve been nominated for, watch this space for news of how I do:

Animal Film Festival (27th February), California

International Wildlife Film Festival (16-24th April), Montana

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (17-23rd October), New York

Wildlife Telly Over the Christmas Period

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Christmas. A time for some of the worst television of the year – endless nostalgia programmes, repeats of Christmas specials and a whole channel dedicated to watching Jamie Oliver cook Christmas dinner for his family. A time when the potential to broadcast to a large viewing audience is at it’s peak, and yet for some reason commissioners decide that what everyone really wants to see is what was on last Christmas, and the Christmas before that, oh and then let’s just listen to the Queen answer the world’s problems with a Christmas tree anecdote and a quote from the bible. And so, like last year, we sit through our yearly dose of Christmas specials and a particularly ridiculous episode of Eastenders.

While there probably wasn’t anything in the natural history genre this year to rival the Queen’s speech or Eastenders for viewing figures, if you did manage to sort through the usual festive rubbish there was actually some good wildlife TV to choose from. The most obvious attempt from the genre to bring in a large Christmas audience was Snow Chick, the latest from John Downer Productions in filming a species’ most intimate moments. The camera work was fantastic as can be expected from JDP, and there were some touching scenes like the one where a chick finds its way into a huddle for the first time and is embraced by the huddle of other chicks rotating to keep warm. The show had a good balance of humour and “aw” factor, and while it was a bit mushy for me (made worse by Kate Winslet’s narration), it was entertaining and well suited to a BBC One Christmas audience.

The rest of the natural history output throughout the festive period however, seemed to be dominated by something new for Christmas television: conservation. I had heard some big words about more conservation on the BBC from commissioning editor Lucinda Axelsson at Jackson Hole in October, but while I was pleased to hear the BBC talking the talk I didn’t expect to see them walking the walk so soon. The conservation/climate change episode at the end of The Hunt was much more than the usually quite weak message buried under stunning BBC blue chip images; this time an entire epsiode was focused on discussing the issues and showing the people working to conserve our natural world. And that was just the beginning – the successful Gordon Buchanan “Family & Me” format continued this year with Gorilla Family & Me, and the second of this 2-part series was about the different ways that the rangers and other staff at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park are conserving Grauer’s gorillas and their forest home. Gorilla Family for me was a landmark for the BBC in it’s balance between an emotional story, investigative science, and a proper discussion on conservation. The viewer is introduced to the gorillas through Buchanan in the first episode, and by the end of the hour is drawn into the incredible experience it must have been to meet Chimanuka and his family. Thermal imaging cameras bring the scientific element – we haven’t seen gorillas at night before – and then by the second episode the audience is primed for a discussion on the conservation of these magnificent beasts. Buchanan talks to the rangers about the dangerous work they do fighting poachers, and we hear about their hope for ecotourism in the future – something Buchanan even gets involved in directly as he helps them to habituate a new gorilla family to a white face. The engaging plot and structure of the series are clever but also work to prove that there are stories in conservation that translate well onto the screen; hopefully this will be something that we now see more of. Continuing on the subject of gorillas was ITV’s John Bishop’s Gorilla Adventure, where the comedian went to meet the Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda who provide veterinary help to wild gorillas. Interesting that even ITV is showing a conservation story, and the programme managed to  not only highlight the plight of mountain gorillas but also discuss the region’s change from being one of volatility to one of peace and stability, with a strong sense of community. Quite heavy stuff for ITV, but an important story and again hopefully a sign of more like this to come for broadcast television.

It may be that it’s the 30th anniversary of the death of gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey that we’re suddenly seeing gorillas on TV this Christmas, or it could even be just that gorillas are on trend this year after Virunga. But hopefully, for whatever reason, conservation on TV is here to stay. I imagine Dian Fossey would have particularly enjoyed the new TV trend this Christmas. Let’s hope it’s one that continues into the new year.

Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 2015

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As I walked up the stairs in Jackson Lake Lodge to the lobby for the first time, my breath was taken away by the incredible view of the Teton mountain range through the 60-foot windows before me. And as if that wasn’t already enough, the murmurs from hotel guests about a grizzly bear outside eating an elk carcass confirmed to me that this was a place well suited to hosting America’s best known wildlife film festival.

This year’s festival was preceded by a conservation summit discussing elephant conservation, which featured awe-inspiring talks from speakers such as Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole and Iain Douglas-Hamilton on their experiences with elephants, and their respective projects working to protect them. The “UWE 5” (Alice Marlow, Ida May Jones, Ben Morris-French, Nick Poole, Tom Richards) were tasked mostly with filming these keynote speeches, and so we were lucky enough to listen as these giants of the conservation world warned us of what needs to be done, not just in conservation but in filmmaking as well.

As the week progressed it was hard to distinguish between conservation summit and film festival, not least because so many of the big films had a conservation message. Racing Extinction was one in particular that I was excited about, and it didn’t disappoint – I don’t think there was anyone in the screening who wasn’t visibly moved by the film, and it deservedly won the Best Theatrical award at the Teton Awards Gala. The winner of the coveted Grand Teton was former Silverback Films producer James Reed with his film about the life of a Bajau hunter, and it didn’t disappoint: a compelling tale of a man’s relationship with the ocean with stunning underwater cinematography, Jago: A Life Underwater is truly an enchanting film.

After a week of filming, driving, setting things up, taking them down, meeting people and watching great films, the “UWE 5” were suitably shattered. But after being in such an inspirational place among so many passionate filmmakers, we’ll all go back to work with much renewed vigour and aspirations to make films like the ones we’ve seen in Jackson.

The Drills of Afi Mountain

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On Tuesday I finished my Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking, and so from here I take the plunge into the big wild world of trying to get a job. Although that’s actually not really the case, as I’ll be travelling to America on Thursday to volunteer at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, but after THAT I’ll be trying to get a job…

Anyway, while I’ll be doing that I’ll also be submitting my film to film festivals, so wish me luck! Here’s the final film, and I’ll be posting more details on festivals as I hear back from them.

The Drills of Afi Mountain trailer

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So after nearly nine months of work, I’ve very nearly finished off my Masters film, which is now called The Drills of Afi Mountain. The film will be ready in the next few days (so watch this space!), but in the meantime here is my trailer. Remember to watch in HD, and enjoy!