Pay-back time for film-makers: Go back to your locations!

“These days it’s simply not good enough to use the old response… “If people know about it they’ll care for it and do something”. Wrong. They’ll just go on being conned that it’s all perfect out there, with endless jungles, immaculate Masai Maras, and untouched oceans. What planet are they on about?”

These words come from Richard Brock, one of the world’s leading and most senior natural history film makers.

If you haven’t heard his name, chances are that you know at least some of his many creations: he worked in the BBC Natural History Unit producing, among others, the highly successful Life on Earth and Living Planet series presented by David Attenborough.

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative Image courtesy Brock Initiative

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is a department of the BBC dedicated to making TV and radio programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme, especially nature documentaries. It celebrates 50 years in 2007.

Richard Brock worked with them for 35 of those 50 years. He left them a few years ago, according to his own website, ”concerned by the lack of willingness to address the real current state of the environment”.

He then started his own independent production company, Living Planet Productions, which has made over 100 films on a wide range of environmental topics, shown all over the world. As his archive of films and footage mounted up, Richard felt that there was something more, better, that could be done with this resource.

“We’ve been celebrating nature by bringing its wonders to the TV screen all over the world. Now that world is changing, faster and faster, and nature needs help. Films can do that, at a local level, be it with decision-makers in the government or in the village,” he says.

He adds: “When you consider the miles of footage and thousands of programs sitting in vaults out there unused, it seems tragic that the very wonders they celebrate are dwindling, often because no one tells the locals and tries to help. That is why I believe its Payback Time for the wildlife television.”

Thus the Brock Initiative was born. To quote from their website:
“He decided to set up the Brock Initiative, to use his archive of footage, and to ask others to do the same, to create new programs, not made for a general TV audience, but made for those who are really connected to the situation in hand: local communities, decision makers, even that one fisherman who uses dynamite fishing over that one coral reef. Its about reaching those who have a direct impact; reaching those who can make the difference.”

As he emphatically says: “Showing the truth on some minority channel is not the answer. Showing it where it counts, is.”

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative

I hope those development donors and corporate sponsors, who try to outdo each other in supporting programming going out on BBC World (an elite minority channel in most markets) hear people like Richard Brock — long-time BBC insiders who know what they are talking about.

Those who make documentaries on wildlife, natural history or environment (and wild-life of humans) are trapped in their industry’s many contradictions. They go on location filming to the far corners of the planet, capturing ecosystems, species and natural phenomena. Yet for a long time, many have avoided talking about or featuring the one species that has the biggest impact on Nature: Homo sapiens (that’s us!).

Whole series of wildlife documentaries have been made, by leading broadcasters and production houses of the east and west, without once showing a human being or human activity in them. Almost as if humans would ‘contaminate’ pristine Nature!

In recent years, more film-makers have broken ranks and started acknowledging the human footprint on the planet and its environment. But a good many documentaries are still made with ‘pure’ wildlife content, with not a thought spared on the wild-life of our species.

Richard Brock is one who has refused to follow the flock. And he has also punctured the highly inflated claims — promoted by BBC Worlds of this planet — that broadcast television can fix the world’s problems.

As we have found out here in Asia, it’s a judicious combination of broadcast and narrowcast that can work – and we still need the participation of teachers, activists and trainers to get people to think and act differently.

At their best, broadcasts can only flag an issue or concern to a large number of people. For attitudes and behaviour to change, that needs to be followed up by narrowcast engagement at small group levels.

Taking films to the grassroots need not be expensive, says Brock. In fact it can be done inexpensively.

These are not programmes for broadcast to western audiences demanding BIG productions – you are often showing films to people who have never even seen TV. The effort comes in showing the right thing, to the right people, in the right way, and not about expensive effects, top quality cameras or cutting edge effects.”

Using donated archive footage cuts costs dramatically. New footage, important for putting a film in a local context, can be taken on small miniDV cameras and editing can be done on any home computer. In this way, it becomes feasible to put together a film even for a very small, but crucial audience.

The Brock Initiative, started and funded by donations from its founder, has projects in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, the UK and Indonesia.

Read more about the Indonesia project

They also offer wildlife and nature footage free to those who want to use moving images to make a difference.

Read Richard Brock’s formula for making films that make a difference!

As our species’ wild-life pushes our living planet closer to peril, we need many more Richard Brocks to try and reverse disturbing trends at the edges of survival — almost all of them in the global South.

It’s pay-back time, film-makers!

Related blog posts:
End this callous waste – open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance

Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the Development Pill

Contact The Brock Initiative

The Three Amigos: Funny Condoms with a serious mission

For some reason, my blog post with the highest number of daily hits for the past few days has been what I wrote in mid April: ‘Beware of Vatican Condoms – and global warming’.

I’m not sure if the interest is really in condoms, the Vatican or global warming, but since we must be demand-driven, here’s a new condom story! It concerns the three funniest condoms I’ve met.

Image courtesy Three Amigos website

They are called The Three Amigos – they are three differently shaped and coloured condoms, each with distinctive personality. They go places — certainly more than your average condom — to airports, forests, football games, recording studios, even television talk shows!

They are funny, amiable and out to have a good time. Occasionally they are also fallible and gullible — just like many humans are.

And like many of us, they grapple with hard choices in life – for example, between caution and temptation, or between right and wrong.

So far there are 20 adventures of The Three Amigos — each no longer than a minute: in those precious few seconds, a compact story is told with stunning effect. Talk about packing a punch.

Wherever they go, and whatever they do, the three friends have one mission: to remind us of many ways in which we can help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The Three Amigos is a series of twenty Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in the form of short comedic sketches, featuring three animated, talking condoms. Some 80 volunteers in Canada, India and South Africa have created this ground-breaking behaviour modification programme to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

It is a multi-award winning series that has been endorsed by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who believes these PSAs are a powerful communicating tool to encourage people to change their behaviour.
Read Desmond Tutu letter here
See testimonials from all over.

The Three Amigos The Three Amigos The Three Amigos The Three Amigos

The Three Amigos is a north-south joint production. Its producers are Brent Quinn of South Africa and Firdaus Kharas of Canada. They are jointly responsible for the project and its contents.

Firdaus Kharas, who was also the Director of the series, is Ottawa-based and specializes in the creation of television programmes, feature films and animation. Most of the productions are international in creation and on international themes such as children’s rights.

We met Firdaus in person when TVE Asia Pacific organised the International AIDS Film Festival 2004 in Bangkok, as part of the XV International AIDS Conference held in the Thai capital.

We screened The Three Amigos every day, always to a packed house. Amidst the often depressing, long-format documentaries dealing with the death and misery unleashed by HIV (very much part of the HIV story), the animated cartoons livened up the audience — and showed that discussing HIV on television can be funny yet serious at the same time.

Producer Firdaus Kharas at TVEAP's AIDS Film Festival 2004 Producers Brent Quinn (L) and Firdaus Kharas

Earlier this month, July 2007, I showed a dozen of The Three Amigos PSAs as part of my presentation on ‘Who is afraid of Moving Images?’ at the regional communication capacity building workshop under our Saving the Planet project, held in Khao Lak, Thailand.

Our participants, all engaged in non-formal education through civil society organisations from South and Southeast Asia, had interesting things to say about The Three Amigos. In conservative Philippines that extends the Vatican’s dictates, for example, our friends can’t go very far — and it was uncertain if they could go on the air at all.

In conservative yet secular India, some of it could get on broadcast television – but not the more explicit ones. Clearly, making fun of sex, sexuality and sexual habits is a very delicate task, and such humour does not always travel across cultures.

In Thailand itself, The Three Amigos will have no problems of media and public acceptance. After all, condom use has been popularised by the well known Senator Mechai Viravaidya, better known as Mr Condom.

Read what Senator (Mr Condom) Viravaidya and actor Richard Gere said at our AIDS Film Festival 2004 in Bangkok.

As Asia grapples with an increasing incidence of HIV, countries will have to make some hard choices on confronting the epidemic. One choice is how to make the best use of tried and tested, existing public educational materials like The Three Amigos, all too willing to traverse Asia spreading their message: use condoms to stop AIDS.

Watch The Three Amigos online at their website

How to order tapes of The Three Amigos

PS: The website is careful to stress this:
“These PSA’s should be used as one component only in a comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention programme. The PSA’s will not be appropriate in all settings and in all cultures and careful evalualtion of the appropriateness of each PSA should be made.”