The lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

This photo was taken in August 2005 in Toyama, Japan, which is some 200km east of Tokyo. The occasion was during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival, held in Toyama every other summer since 1993.

I am seen with Brenda and Neil Curry, my film-maker friends from South Africa. That was a memorable night for Neil, whose remarkable film, The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, won the festival’s highest award.

The 50-min film captures the delicate relationship between the elephant, the Emperor Moth and the Mopane Tree (scientific name: Colophospermum mopane). It was produced by Oxford Scientific Films for BBC Natural World, bringing together the creative talents of Neil Curry, Alastair and Mark MacEwen, and Sean Morris.

Here’s the full official synopsis of the film:
Mopane woodland has been symbolic of African bush for centuries but its ecology is often misunderstood. Its importance to the fragile ecosystem is paramount. In this programme we show the delicate relationship between the elephant, the emperor moth and the incredible mopane tree. We also show the vital impact this ecosystem has on a local family who depend upon the delicious harvest of mopane worms to supplement their diet, and the precious resources the mopane tree provides in order to survive in the mopane woodland of Botswana.

Foreign delegates, staff and volunteers of JWF2005 Neil Curry accepting the Best of JWF2005 award on behalf of his team

I was in Toyama as a guest speaker, talking about TVE Asia Pacific‘s Children of Tsunami media project, which was then in progress.

Brenda and Neil, originally from the UK, now live in wine country off Cape Town. Neil is the quintessential natural history film-maker: meticulous in his approach to a story, passionate in what he covers, and with tons of patience.

Most natural history film-makers go for animal subjects. It’s much harder to do an interesting film about a plant or tree that stays in one place and does not have an annual breeding cycle like animals.

That’s just one of many reasons why The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree is outstanding. It tells a complex story of an ecosystem that is inter-dependent and in balance.

The film, made in 2004, also won the top award at WildScreen (Bristol, UK), considered to be the oscar awards in wildlife and natural history film-making.

A stand of Mopane laden with seed pods - image courtesy Africa Hunter Image courtesy Tourism Botswana

Now here’s the rest of the story, which is not as upbeat. Neil spent many months in Botswana filming this story, and wanted to take the finished film back to the communities where it was shot. The wildlife parks and schools in the area, he knew, could make good use of the film to educate the local kids, adults and visitors.

What would be simpler than that? Get a VHS or DVD copy and pass it on to them, right?

Wrong. When I met Neil in the summer of 2005, it was more than 18 months since the film was made. For much of that time, he had been trying to obtain permission from the BBC to share a non-broadcast copy of his film with the people in Botswana. His request was passed from person to person, and from division to division, with no clear decision made, and no permission granted.

The BBC had invested funds in making the film, and had a legal right to decide how and where it was to be used. Focused on ‘revenue optimisation’ and ‘returns on investment’, its bean-counters could not care less whether the film-maker wished to share his creation with the local people whose reality he had captured.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is alarmingly wide-spread: every year, excellent environmental documentaries and development films are produced, most of them using public funds (who pays the BBC license fee? The British public!). Yet these films are locked up in complex copyrights that prevent them from being used by anyone outside broadcast circles.

As I said in my recent speech to Asia Media Summit 2007:
Even where the film-makers or producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright policies stand in the way. In large broadcast organisations, it is lawyers and accountants –- not journalists or producers -– who now seem to decide on what kind of content is produced, and how it is distributed under what restrictions.

I don’t know if Neil Curry ever cleared the rights to screen the film to small groups of people in Botswana or elsewhere in Africa. But I think of this every time BBC World cries its heart out for the poor and suffering in Africa.

This is one global broadcaster that does not put its money where its mouth is.

In fact, the BBC’s accountants must be laughing all the way to their bank.

Read my related posts: End this callous waste: Open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance!

Public funds, private rights: Big mismatch in development film-making

27 July 2007 – Neil Curry responds to my views on optimum duration of natural history documentaries

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

5 thoughts on “The lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree”

  1. Since posting the above blog, I’m very glad to have heard from Neil Curry himself. In a recent email, he wrote:
    “It’s a sad fact, as you say, that there must be thousands of programmes that could have been useful in terms of helping us to live better on the planet, that have had only one or two flightings on television and have then been dumped into some archive where no one ever sees them again.

    “When I ran the International Environmental Film Festival here in South Africa, individual film makers were almost always willing for their films to be used afterwards for conservation education in schools and so on. The television companies on the other hand almost always refused permission. It’s that kind of thing that turned me into a conservation-cynic long ago – sadly. I’m pleased that Richard Brock is trying to do something about it.”

    For more information on the Brock Initiative started by Richard Brock, see my blog post at:

  2. Broadcasters and production companies who lock up good development films claiming copyright have no moral right to talk about povery reduction or conservation. Next time you see one of them engage in such hypocricy, ask them one simple question: Do you restrict or relax your copyright of development films, especially when it concerns their use in the majority world? If yes, tell them to shut up and leave the stage. If yes, applaud them, even hug them (if possible!)….

  3. I loved this simple film.
    i nearly didn’t watch it, due to its unasuming and gentle start, but soon it had me fascinated.

    It showed the interrelatedness of all things and the connections-networks- of life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: