‘The Final Inch’: Real ‘Oscar’ would be polio’s global eradication!

Not longer just a drop in the ocean...

No longer just a drop in the ocean..?

The Final Inch didn’t win the Oscar for the best short documentary film made in 2008. But the nomination has given a boost to the film and its cause: even before its official release in April 2009, it is already raising global awareness on the major public health challenge of banishing polio from the planet.

The Final Inch is a testament of the health workers around the world laboring to make polio the second globally eliminated disease behind small pox, says director Irene Taylor Brodsky.

The 37-minute film, due to air on HBO on 1 April 2009, looks at the “the final stages of a 20 year initiative” to eradicate polio. It focuses the polio vaccine efforts in India and Pakistan, which are among the last four countries where polio is still endemic (the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria).

Watch the trailer for The Final Inch:

The campaign to eradicate polio is now 21 years old. World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and Rotary Foundation embarked on this campaign in earnest in 1988, and as a young (and equally earnest) science journalist, I remember writing about its early strategies, goals and targets. But the virus has proven to be a lot more stubborn than originally expected.

Well, the campaign has scored remarkable victories, and a little over 1,600 people in the world were stricken by polio in 2008. (AIDS and malaria, in contrast, killed more than three million people.) Compare that with 350,000 cases per year when the global onslaught started, and we see there has indeed been progress.

But the virus – and the crippling disease it causes – persists in several poor, densely populated countries in Asia and Africa. Updates are available from Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Thus it’s the ‘last inch’ – or last mile, if you like – that’s proving the hardest to traverse. In a perceptive essay published in Newsweek in January 2009, Fred Guterl noted: “It’s not easy to wipe a disease off the face of the planet—especially one like polio, which spreads easily and quickly through contact and occasionally through contaminated food and water. Only one in 200 children who contract the virus shows symptoms (usually paralysis), which makes the other 199 silent carriers.”

It’s not just biology that polio eradicators are up against. Indeed, human superstition and religious dogma have made the final inch particularly contentious and treacherous for public health workers.

In 2005, TVE Asia Pacific started distributing a global documentary on immunisation called Fragile Lives: Immunization at Risk. It showed how at least 2 million children die every year from diseases that that vaccination could easily prevent.

Foot soldiers of the largest non-military army in history engaged in its final battle

Foot soldiers of the largest non-military army in history engaged in its final battle

At one point, the film takes us to Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, to show how polio, eradicated in most of the world, stubbornly persists in a few countries. This very poor state with its 272 million inhabitants had two thirds of the world’s polio. We talk to the glamorous young cricketer, Mohamed Kaif, who helps publicise a massive campaign to get every single child to the vaccination booths. The film discovers the strange reason behind why so many Muslim parents refuse to have their children vaccinated.

The Final Inch features the heroic efforts of Munzareen Fatima, a field worker in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, who is a part of UNICEF’s Social Mobilisation Network for ensuring vaccination coverage. She reaches out to her target group through personal and public intervention programmes.

As she told IANS: “It has been a tough journey for me over the last five years to convince 470 families at Dufferin block in Khairnagar to administer polio drops to their children. I met with resistance from the families, who initially refused to immunise their children. The conservative community also belittled me for stepping out of home to campaign against polio.”

India is not alone. If anything, misplaced resistance to polio vaccination has been stronger in Pakistan. As IPS reported in August 2006, the country’s drive against polio was hit by both rumours and litigation.

The news story, filed by Ashfaq Yusufzai in Peshawar, noted: “The reliability and safety of oral polio vaccine (OPV) has been put under scrutiny in Pakistan after wild rumours that it causes impotency snowballed into a writ petition in a high court.”

Bill Gates: geek power and bucks to battle polio...

Bill Gates: geek power and bucks to battle polio...

Religion-inspired superstitions have often stood in the way of achieving sufficient vaccination coverage, leaving room for viruses to spread again. Religious leaders sometimes strengthen the hand of those making pseudoscientific claims, says South African science writer George Claassen. Writing in SciDev.Net in April 2008, he noted: “Attempts to eliminate polio in Nigeria, for example, ran into problems when Datti Ahmed, the chair of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Kano state, referred to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative as ‘modern-day Hitlers… who have deliberately adulterated the oral polio vaccines with antifertility drugs and contaminated them with certain viruses which are known to cause HIV and AIDS.'”

This brings up an interesting scenario of virus vs. virus. Richard Dawkins, the well known British evolutionary biologist and writer, has called religion the most malevolent form of a ‘mind virus’. According to Dawkins, faith − belief that is not based on evidence − is one of the world’s great evils. He claims it to be analogous to the smallpox virus, though more difficult to eradicate.

Of course, the mistrust of vaccines is not just limited to the developing world, nor is it always inspired by religion or superstition. Sometimes over-protective moms can be just as irrational. Fragile Lives, for example, took us to Dublin, Ireland, where there have been two serious outbreaks of measles – largely due to mothers rejecting vaccination because of the MMR controversy. In some parts of Ireland only 60% instead of the necessary 95%, have been vaccinated.

How ‘Hole in the Wall’ ICT experiment inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

21st Century, here we come...

21st Century, here we come...

With the 81st annual Academy Awards (Oscars) to be announced on February 22, all eyes are now on the nominated movies.

Updated on Oscar night: Slumdog wins 8 Oscars out of 10 nominations!

Few films in recent years have generated as much buzz as Slumdog Millionaire, the British-Indian film based in the slums of Mumbai. It has won five Critics’ Choice Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards, and is nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Much has been written about the movie’s depiction of India’s stark urban realities of poverty, organised crime and street children. But there is another face of India that the movie captures: how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing culture, economy and social relations in the world’s largest democracy.

I just called to ask...

I just called to ask...

Early on, film critic Ben Walters spotted this aspect. He asked in The Guardian on 9 December 2008: Is Slumdog Millionaire the first truly 21st-century film? Among his reasons: “Jamal works in a call centre decorated with London Underground paraphernalia and whose employees are kept up to date on EastEnders plotlines to improve their chances of successful small talk with their customers. Aptly enough, the customers are mobile phone users – another emblem of 21st-century connectivity – and a mobile plays a crucial part in the story’s climax.”

Indeed, the mobile phone combined with live broadcast television both feature in the story’s climax. The film was partly shot on the actual studio set used by Kaun Banega Croreparti (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. As I wrote earlier, the cerebral world of quizzing blends seamlessly with the rough world of Mumbai slums to produce an enthralling 120 minutes.

And now it turns out that a real life ICT experiment triggered the idea of the Slumdog story.

Indian author Vikas Swarup, on whose 2005 novel Q&A the movie is based, has recently revealed how he was inspired by the hole-in-the-wall project. This was an initiative by Dr. Sugata Mitra, chief scientist at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Mitra embedded a high-speed computer in a wall separating his firm’s headquarters from an adjacent slum, he discovered that slum children quickly taught themselves how to surf the net, read the news and download games and music. He then replicated the experiment in other locations. Each time the results were similar: within hours, and without instruction, the children began browsing the Internet.

Swarup told Indian Express in January 2009: “That got me fascinated and I realised that there’s an innate ability in everyone to do something extraordinary, provided they are given an opportunity. How else do you explain children with no education at all being able to learn to use the Internet. This shows knowledge is not just the preserve of the elite.”

Discover your world...

Discover your world...

Dr Mitra’s project was the subject of a 2002 documentary film, called Hole in the Wall, made by the New York based production company GlobalVision.

The film was introduced as follows: A revolution in information technology is redefining poverty, as how much you know is becoming just as important as how much you own. “The Hole in the Wall” examines one possible solution to the growing technological gap between rich and poor — the so-called ‘digital divide’ — that threatens to consign millions to an “information underclass.”

The film was made by Rory O’Connor and Gil Rossellini. An 8-min version was broadcast by PBS in October 2002 in their program Frontline/World. A 60-min version was screened at the United Nations in New York City in December 2002. The film has been widely screened, and won several awards.

Initiator of the Hole in the Wall project carries on his mission to adapt ICTs to serve the unmet needs of India’s poor. Watch Dr Sugata Mitra talk about his work in this TED Video:

Sharing archives: Will broadcasters (finally) put planet before profit?

I have long wondered if both radio and TV broadcasters store their archival material in black holes – into which everything disappears and nothing ever comes out. And certainly, nothing is shared with anyone else.

In a widely reproduced and commented op ed essay written for SciDev.Net in November 2008, titled Planet before profit for climate change films, I noted:
“It isn’t just climate-related films that are locked up with copyright restrictions. Every year, hundreds of television programmes or video films — many supported by public, corporate or philanthropic funds — are made on a variety of development and conservation topics.

“These are typically aired once, twice or at best a few times and then relegated to a shelf somewhere. A few may be released on DVD or adapted for online use. But the majority goes into archival ‘black holes’, from where they might never emerge again. Yet most of these films have a long shelf life and could serve multiple secondary uses outside the broadcast industry.”

Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?

Escape from the Southern 'black hole'?

Well, it seems things are changing, albeit very slowly. Last month, we welcomed the announcement from Al Jazeera sharing their news footage online through a Creative Commons license — the first time that video footage produced by a news broadcaster is released for commercial and non-commercial use.

Now comes the news that Australia’s public broadcaster ABC is releasing selected content from its vast archives for non-commercial use by others. And we must thank Charles Darwin for that.

On 12 February 2009, to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, ABC started releasing some archival materials, all based loosely around the theme of evolution and mutation. This Australian first was achieved through ABC’s collaborative media site, Pool.

In an imaginatively named effort called Gene Pool, ABC started off with a recording from its archives of genetics professor Steve Jones talking about Darwin’s life and work.

The next offering to Gene Pool would be a clip from ABC’s Monday Conference in 1971 featuring Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich talking about climate change (yes, it’s from 38 years ago!).

These materials are being released under the Creative Commons 3.0 licence allowing people to reuse or remix them in any way they like — as long as it’s for non-commercial use.

On Gene Pool website, ABC said: “You can also create your own work exploring the themes of evolution and mutation in lateral ways, and share them back into the Gene Pool.”

A framework for sharing...

A framework for sharing...

As Creative Commons Australia explained: “This means that people can tweak, twist and remix the files to create their own creative interpretation of the themes of evolution and mutation, and share these results with the rest of the world. The idea is to build a whole community up around the project, remixing and reusing the ABC archival material in new and previously unthought of ways. This all culminates in a public exhibition of Gene Pool pieces at Melbourne’s RMIT on November 24th – the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species.”

They added: “Just imagine what gems might be hidden away in ABC filing cabinets, waiting to be discovered and put to good use by the population that payed for them in the first place.”

That’s precisely what I’ve been saying for a long time – the taxpayer-funded broadcasters like BBC, NHK or ABC (and their equivalents in other countries) have no moral right to lock away their archives on legal or technical grounds. And to think that some of the content thus held up could actually help us in winning history’s eternal race between education and catastrophe!

Nothing escapes this one...for now

Nothing escapes from this one...for now

The BBC – hailed as a model public broadcaster worldwide – is among the worst offenders on this count. It holds one of the largest archives on environment, natural history and wildlife filmed all over the planet for several decades, yet it stubbornly refuses to share this material with anyone, even when it’s only for strict non-commercial, educational use. Read one example in my July 2007 blog post, The Lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree.

This myopic selfishness is contrasted (and put to shame) by exceptional film-makers like Richard Brock (who worked with BBC Natural History Unit for 35 years before leaving it unhappy over its rights management) who have decided to open up their personal video archives for non-commercial use especially in the majority world where such material is in short supply.

We can only hope that ABC’s move would build up pressure on the stubborn old Auntie BBC to finally relent. In fact, this might be a chance for all those public broadcasters – many of them now ‘Aunties without eyeballs’ – to redeem themselves at last, ending decades of copyrights tyranny. (And if that puts their inhouse lawyers out of a job, they can join greedy bankers now lining up for public forgiveness!)

ABC says about its tentative steps to the world of open archives: “It’s a small offering to start but there’ll be a lot more to come. We’re working madly behind the scenes getting clearance to release more more more.”

Watch this space…and keep an eye on that Gene Pool!

Return of (true) Mass Media: Let there be millions of sparkling conversations!

Being the fourth monkey?

Being the fourth monkey?

“Historically, organised and commercialised mass media have existed only in the past five centuries, since the first newspapers — as we know them — emerged in Europe. Before the printing press was invented, all news was local and there were few gatekeepers controlling its flow. Having evolved highly centralised systems of media for half a millennium, we are now returning to a second era of mass media — in the true sense of that term. Blogs, wikis and citizen journalism are all signs of things to come.”

This is how Sir Arthur C Clarke and I summed up the transformative change that is currently taking place in the world of mass media, in an essay we co-wrote for the Indian news magazine Outlook in October 2005.

We’d given it the title ‘From Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist’ – a formulation that I’m still proud of – but the editors changed it to ‘Arise, Citizen Journalist!’. Of course, our original title made evocative sense only for those who knew the popular culture reference to the movie Citizen Kane.

I recently had a chance to revisit these issues and explore them further in a half-hour, in-depth TV interview with media researcher/activist and fellow citizen journalist Sanjana Hattotuwa. This was part of The Interview series produced by Young Asia Television, and broadcast on two Sri Lankan TV channels, TNL and ETV during the second week of February 2009.

Sanjana covered a wide range in his questions. Starting with a brief reflection on my 21-year association with Sir Arthur Clarke, we moved on to the bewildering world of new media and its co-existence with the mainstream media. We discussed the fragmentation of audience and the concern that some current and would-be bloggers harbour: is anyone listening or reading?

And more importantly, how do we get conversations started and going. I look back on my own experience as an active blogger for almost two years, and assert that if we have something new and worthwhile to say, and know how to express it well, we can slowly build up an audience. There’s no blueprint or road map – everything is in ‘beta’ mode, and the name of the game is try-it-and-see!

Here’s that full interview on YouTube, broken into four parts:

Sanjana Hattotuwa talks to Nalaka Gunawardene – Part 1 of 4:

Sanjana Hattotuwa talks to Nalaka Gunawardene – Part 2 of 4:

Sanjana Hattotuwa talks to Nalaka Gunawardene – Part 3 of 4:

Sanjana Hattotuwa talks to Nalaka Gunawardene – Part 4 of 4:

Judging the ‘Green Oscars’: Memories of Wildscreen 2000 Festival

Shooting wildlife...in moving images

Shooting wildlife...in moving images

What happens when a small and culturally diverse group is flown in from different parts of the world, put up in a comfortable hotel, fed well — and mandated to watch two or three dozen excellent films and asked to come up with a selection of ‘the best of the best’?

That pretty much sums up the experience of the final jury process of international film festivals that have a competitive element. The festival secretariat lines up the logistics but entrusts all the rankings and selections of entries to an independent jury – which typically serves without pay, and works long and hard.

Hosting the Wildscreen Film Festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which ended last evening, brought back memories from eight years ago, when I served on the global jury of Wildscreen festival in Bristol in October 2000. It wasn’t just the turn of the millennium that made the festival especially remarkable that year. In some ways, Wildscreen 2000 marked a significant change in how wildlife and natural history films are assessed and honoured.

wildscreen-festivalI’ve done this a few times before and since 2000 — among them Earth Vision (Tokyo) in 1993 and Japan Wildlife Festival (Toyama) in 2003. But being on Wildscreen jury was special, for it’s considered to be the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival — the ‘green’ equivalent of the Oscars.

Serving on film festival juries can be both tedious and highly rewarding. On the plus side, I get to watch the best of contemporary factual film making on these subjects from all over the world, and then discuss their relative merits with some of the best professionals in the industry. The downside is that no jury can ever satisfy all film makers who enter their work, nor come up with a selection that is universally accepted: after every festival, there are those who feel their creations didn’t receive the recognition they deserved.

While all the film juries I have served on managed to reach consensus decisions, it often wasn’t easy. Much depends on the jury chair’s ability to find common ground among jury members who hold diverse – sometimes even opposite – views. Wildscreen 2000 jury was very ably chaired by Peter Goodchild, who came from a background of science film making, and was once editor of BBC’s Horizon science series (He was called in on short notice when the chair designate Christopher Parsons, co-founder of Wildscreen, fell ill.)

Endless golden sunsets...

Endless golden sunsets...

Among my fellow jurors were conservationist Dr Lee Durrell and Canadian film-maker and co-inventor of Imax Roman Kroitor. Jane Krish, then Executive Director of Wildscreen, kept us going and made sure there wasn’t too much blood on the expensively carpeted floors of the Bristol Marriot hotel where we were holed up.

Details of what happened during that week is now buried too deep beneath sediments of memory. I remember watching and discussing some great films in great company and racing against time to reach our decisions for the awards night. Parallel to this, the festival’s multiple events were taking place in nearby venues but we couldn’t join them – except some social events in the evenings.

I’m only sorry that I haven’t got a single photograph of that occasion in my personal collection – it was a year or two later that I started the routine of taking my camera on all my travels. But I’ve just located, from the digital archives two laptops ago, the opening remarks that Peter Goodchild made at the awards ceremony, which he’d typed out on my machine. That neatly sums up our extraordinary experience:

“In the past week my jury and I have, in effect, left the human race. During our four days’ viewing we have seen no less than 54 films. And in that time we have tramped over billions of tons of sand, swum in every ocean of the world with trillions of fish, experienced 80 full moons, watched the production of 30 tons of elephant droppings, around 120 copulations (not ourselves), 15 rapes (not ourselves), 210 killings including 30 infanticides, several thousand insect bites, and we have done all this in temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit below and temperatures of 50 degrees Centigrade above.

“In those aforementioned copulations we were privy to the sight of a pair of 1 ton testicles accompanied by what looked like 3 meters of stout garden hose, but was referred, very tastefully, by the narrator as a ‘flexible friend’.

“And so it goes on, 73 assorted prehistoric animals, 18 symphony orchestras, around half a dozen heavenly choirs and — we have refrained from killing each other and we learned that Nature is prolific, but merciless, that humankind has screwed things up quite a bit, and still is, but we are beginning to try to remedy our ignorance and mistakes. And now we return to you here with the results of our deliberations amongst what is, with one or two exceptions, an embarrassment of riches…

Panda Award, a.k.a. 'Green Oscar'

Panda Award, a.k.a. 'Green Oscar'

From then on, each member of the jury took turns in announcing winners in various categories, some technical and others more editorial. Each winner received the coveted Panda Award, affectionately (and unofficially) known as the ‘Green Oscar’. Wildlife film-makers from Australia, Britain, France, India, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and the United States shared the honours that evening.

Each Panda award was introduced with a brief citation. I presented two: the Conservation/Environment Award and the award for the best film entry from a country that did not have a long tradition of making natural history films.

When presenting the latter, I noted: “It is tempting to draw parallels between the natural world and the world of natural history film making. There are enormous inequalities and disparities in both. Film makers everywhere find it increasingly difficult to raise adequate budgets, but this has always been a stark fact of life for film makers in those parts of the world that lack a long tradition of producing natural history films. In these harsh conditions, the resourcefulness and ingenuity of film makers are tested on many fronts.

“This festival received relatively few entries from such parts of the world and from such film makers, but we understand that it is better than last time. This indicates the presence of talented professionals working against many odds, and trying to exploit the medium to raise public understanding of the environment. The finalists we saw bear testimony to the resolve and commitment of their film makers — who clearly know the art of story telling on television in ways that best engage their audiences. And we need to remember that some of them reach out to hundreds of millions of viewers. These people can make a difference for the planet.”

The award went to Indian film maker Mike Pandey, for his film Shores of Silence: Whale Sharks in India. The 25-minute film, made in early 2000, was the first ever revelation of the killing of whale sharks on the Indian coastline. It so stirred the collective conscience of the authorities, that the government banned the hunting of these endangered marine creatures seven months later.

Every jury’s selection sends out signals, and this is especially so when it concerns the natural history film industry’s most coveted awards. Beyond selecting the winners, our jury also recommended the expansion of the festival’s scope in two ways.

Firstly, we pointed out that simply documenting animal and plant behaviour and their habitats was no longer adequate in a world facing a multitude of environmental crises. There was an urgent need, we said, to mainstream films that looked at the nexus between the natural environment and human society – both conflict and harmony between the two.

Secondly, we recognised the rapid changes taking place in the worlds of broadcasting and web, which challenges film makers to try out new formats or genres, including some that used much shorter durations than those used in wildlife and natural history films until recently. Reviewing eligible film formats was necessary, we said, in an industry that was embracing multimedia to retain or attract eyeballs.

As Peter Goodchild noted in his remarks: “There’s little doubt that there will be increasing demands for personality led programmes, for cheaper format programmes and, because a valuable award – a panda on the mantelpiece – is one potent way of moderating any feared slides into banality, it seemed to us that the Festival needed to create an award rooted in entertainment, where good work in this kind of programming would be recognised.”

It’s heartening to note that Wildscreen festival took note of these recommendations, as evidenced by changes in subsequent editions of the festival. But Peter’s words still hold true: “What is needed, in our view, is to keep testing alternative forms and approaches, expanding the range of programming and avoiding the dangers of a rut based on a past successes.”

The quest for next David Attenborough continues…

Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough

Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough

I spent most of today at the Wildscreen film festival being held at the British Council Colombo. Naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough featured prominently in two films screened: Can We Save Planet Earth? (2006) and Life in Cold Blood: Armoured Giants (2008).

For me, it was more than a fascinating journey to far corners of our endangered planet in the company of the world’s best known broadcaster, and Britain’s most trusted public figure. I recalled how in this very venue, as an eager teenager growing up in the simpler, pre-web days of the 1980s, I watched his pioneering series Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984). These path-breaking series redefined how natural history documentaries were made, and inspired a whole new generation of film-makers and nature lovers. A quarter century later, I’m still hooked.

Over the last 25 years, Attenborough has established himself as the world’s leading natural history programme maker with more landmark series: The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005). The final chapter in the ‘Life’ series is Life in Cold Blood (2008).

As fellow broadcaster Jeremy Paxman noted in a Time magazine tribute to Attenborough: “Life After Death is almost the only natural-history series yet to be made by Attenborough. In a career that has taken him to every corner of the world, he has explored life in all its richness — from mammals and birds to plants and reptiles. No living person has done more to make the people of Planet Earth aware of the world around them.”

Close encounters?

Close encounters?

But as I wrote in May 2007, “like all creatures big and small in the great Circle of Life that Sir David has so avidly told us about, he too is mortal. At 81, it’s time for the world to look for the next David Attenborough.”

In his Time tribute, Paxman noted that what distinguishes Attenborough is “that boundless, schoolboyish enthusiasm, the infectious joy of discovering the infinite variety of life”. Yet as the popular song goes, dragons live forever, but not so little boys – so the quest for the next Attenborough has quietly preoccupied the minds of many practising or following the world of natural history and environmental film making.

I’m not obsessed with this question (and I wish Sir David many more years of life on Earth and life on the airwaves), but I today popped it to Jeremy Bristow, a producer of environmental programmes at BBC Television, at the end of his fascinating master class on The role of films in Environmental Conservation. Jeremy’s most recent project has been two films hard-hitting films on Climate Change with Sir David Attenborough for BBC1 and the Discovery Channel.

The bad news is that despite searching far and wide – even some competitions – the David Attenborough has yet to be discovered.

“There are many talented, passionate natural history film makers and some of them also have good screen presence — but none to match Sir David,” said Jeremy Bristow. “I know many in the natural history film world have kept their eyes open for a potential successor.”

Perhaps Sir David is a unique product of his time and circumstances, Jeremy speculated. Certainly, there weren’t too many getting into this business in the early days of television broadcasting. The first major programme series to feature Sir David was BBC’s Zooquest, which ran from 1954 to 1963. And then, one thing led to another…and more than 50 years later, he’s still in the business.

To me, it’s the voice – authoritative without at all being pompous or pontificating – that gives Sir David enduring and endearing appeal. Time called it ‘the voice of the environment’.

Now is the time when that voice of reason, moderation and passion is needed more than ever. A time when the natural world is under siege from human-induced accelerated climate change even as the world of science takes daily beatings from assorted fundamentalist forces.

At 82, Sir David still remains not just our most versatile ambassador to the natural world, but also one of the best spokespersons for the rigors of science and intellectual curiosity.

Here’s a recent example of Sir David – taking us on a quick, animated guide to evolution of life on Earth, in a 2009 documentary called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life to mark 150 years since Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of the Species:

Shooting wildlife or wild-life: Environmental film-makers’ dilemma

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

The Wildscreen film festival got underway at the British Council Colombo this morning.

The keynote address was delivered by Sri Lankan minister of environment and natural resources. The British Council asked me to speak a few words at the opening as TVE Asia Pacific is a local partner for this event.

Here’s what I said, which sums up why we are in this business:

We are delighted to be partners in hosting Wildscreen film festival in Sri Lanka. We thank our friends at the British Council and Wildscreen festival for this opportunity to join hands.

May I say a brief word about ourselves. We’re Television for Education Asia Pacific — trading as TVE Asia Pacific. We’re a regionally operating media foundation anchored in Colombo and engaging developing countries of Asia. We were set up in 1996 by a group of Asian and European filmmakers and TV professionals to cover the full range of development issues using broadcast television, narrowcast video and now, the web.

We are driven by a belief that what is happening in the world’s largest and most populous region has far-reaching implications not just for our region — but also for the entire planet.

When introducing our work, I like to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi. Once, when asked by a visiting foreign journalist for his views on wildlife in India, he said: “Sadly, wildlife is declining in our jungles, but wild – life is increasing in our cities.”

It is precisely this wild–life that interests us more. In our work we keep asking: when life itself is going wild, what hope and prospects are there for wildlife, Nature and environment?

For example, we’ve literally just finished a short film looking at environmental restoration of Afghanistan. This will be screened to the environmental minister from around the world who will gather shortly for the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi.

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

Capturing wild-life is now the focus and concern of wildlife and environmental film makers everywhere. There was a time, not too long ago, when films used to simply capture the beauty of Nature and the diversity or behaviour of plants and animals. Such documentation is still very necessary and useful — but it’s no longer sufficient.

In the past couple of decades, all film makers have been challenged to look at how our own ‘wild’ ways of living affects:
– each other in our own human species;
– the rest of Nature and other species; and
– also, the future of life on Earth.

We see this transformation reflected in the content of films entering Wildscreen and other film festivals. I saw early signs of this when I served as a juror at Wildscreen 2000 festival. This process has gathered momentum since.

To remain relevant and topical, films can no longer just cover ‘green’ subjects — they have to acknowledge the ‘brown’ issues as well as the harsh black-and-white, life-or-death concerns such as climate change.

At the same time, we have seen a rapid diversification of formats or genres — especially with the emergence of online and mobile platforms. These now compete with broadcast television to engage audiences. This is both good news and bad news for us engaged in film making and film outreach. Yes, we now have more ways of reaching people than ever before. But engaging audiences is harder: people have more choice — and more distractions!

Of course, we can’t just give up the good struggle and walk away into those beautiful sunsets. At TVE Asia Pacific, we believe that making good films is only half the job done. Distributing them far and wide is just as important. This is why the slogan of our own organisation is: Moving images, moving people!

In that process, film festivals such as this one play a key role. We’re very happy to add an extra day of screenings to this event. On Saturday in this auditorium, we’ll be showing a number of films on climate change and sustainable development drawn from our own catalogue of films we distribute to broadcast, civil society and educational users across Asia.

These are small efforts in a big world. I can only hope all these help us in winning history’s greatest race – which, according to H G Wells, is one between education and catastrophe!

Wildscreen comes to Colombo: Feb 12 – 14

Wildscreen comes to Colombo

Wildscreen comes to Colombo

Wildscreen, the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival, will be touring India and Sri Lanka in February 2009.

Nine wildlife or environmental filmmakers from the UK will be coming to India and Sri Lanka as part of this event, organized by the British Council. The festival will also see screenings of wildlife and environmental films from across the world, some of them winners of the Wildscreen festival’s Panda Awards, the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.

The Wildscreen Festival was founded by Sir Peter Scott in 1982. It has been organised every alternate year for the past 25 years, and is now considered to be the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival. Held in Bristol, UK, it attracts hundreds of delegates from around the globe who work in film, television and new media, as well as those involved in environmental conservation.

The Festival is coming to Sri Lanka for the first time. The programme, held at the British Council Colombo on 12 – 13 February 2009, will screen several award winning films on climate change and wildlife, showcasing the best of current environmental film making worldwide. On 14 February 2009, TVE Asia Pacific will present a selection of films on environment and sustainable development drawn from their global catalogue, which includes some Sri Lankan and South Asian titles.

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Bill Gates and mosquitoes: World’s top geek now works for its meek

More bugs from Gates...

More bugs from Gates...

Bill Gates can’t seem to get enough of bugs.

On 4 February 2009, he let loose a swarm of mosquitoes at the TED 2009 technology, entertainment and design conference in California to highlight the dangers of malaria.

“Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he reminded his audience of leading scientists, designers, researchers and entrepreneurs. Turning to an upturned jar on stage, he announced: “I brought some. Here…I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

Luckily, the mosquitoes were not carrying the disease. But it had the intended effect. Wired editor Chris Anderson, curator of the show, suggested a headline: “Gates releases more bugs into the world”.

Watch Bill Gates’s mosquito moment:

Watch the full 20-minute video of Bill Gates at TED 2009

As stunts go, this one was pretty mild and harmless. There are many shocking ways in which the harsh daily realities of the world’s poor can be brought into gatherings of the rich and famous. They could be served glasses of the contaminated, sludgy (and often smelly) water that tens of millions drink everyday. Or all the toilets could be locked up and the keys thrown away – for good. Or electricity supply could be cut off, or frequent ‘black-outs’ or ‘brown-outs’ could be staged. You get the idea…

Of course, few event organisers would dare try any of these, if only for health and safety considerations. Reminds me of a rare exception: when he was director of information with the UN’s population agency (UNFPA), journalist-turned-UN official Tarzie Vittachi once hosted delegates of a high level meeting to lunch which consisted soley of a bread roll and a glass water. He told his guests: the meal was better more than what most poor people in the global South on any given day.

Bill to the rescue...

Bill to the rescue...

Meanwhile, billions of poor and needy – and not just those in the majority world – are glad that Bill Gates caught the ‘development bug’ and has switched his formidable creative energies (not to mention his billions) to address their survival issues. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which carefully manages the giving away of Gates wealth – operates on the belief that all lives have equal value. “We think all people deserve the chance to have healthy, productive lives”.

They have set priorities such as improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the developing world, and improving high school education in the United States.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently described it as a paradox: “In these brutal economic times, one of the leading advocates for the world’s poorest people is one of the richest.”

He noted: “Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

In his TED talk, Bill Gates addressed two questions that occupy much of his time these days: How do we stop Malaria? How do you make a teacher great?

Look, no computers!

Look, no computers!

He said: “The market does not drive scientists, thinkers, or governments to do the right things. Only by paying attention and making people care can we make as much progress as we need to.”

He called for greater distribution of insect nets and other protective gear, and revealed that an anti-malaria vaccine funded by his foundation and currently in development would enter a more advanced testing phase in the coming months.

“I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved,” he said. That’s the geek in him talking: marshall all information, analyse problems, respond strategically — and keep at it.

A friend who now works with the Gates Foundation confirms how the charity seeks evidence and rigour in all its social investments. This is no bleeding-heart do-gooding or ‘social work’ for its CSR value. The new wave of geeks lining up to serve the meek bring business acumen to the development sector long under-served by unimaginative aid agencies and self-serving UN organisations.

As Kristof wrote: “Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

Gates has announced that despite the economic crisis the Gates Foundation will increase spending by US$500 million this year.

In late January 2009, the billionaire philanthropist released the first ‘Annual Letter from Bill Gates‘ where he discussed his work at the foundation and spoke candidly about what has gone well, what hasn’t.

He compared his earlier work at Microsoft with the challenges he now tackles at the charitable foundation. “What I’ve found now is that really those same key elements are there. The opportunity for big breakthroughs is absolutely just as great–now it’s vaccines, it’s seeds that have better yield, it’s ways of sharing teaching practices…they will take the same kind of patience that we had for software breakthroughs.”

Just ahead of the letter’s release, Nicholas Kristof talked with Bill Gates about why aid to developing countries is more important during the economic downturn and vaccine breakthroughs on the horizon. Watch the interview:

Read: Bill Gates’s Next Big Thing by Nicholas D Kristoff, published in the New York Times on 24 January 2009

“It’s an immensely exciting time for people working with video!” – Sam Gregory

Sam Gregory

Sam Gregory

“It’s an immensely exciting time for people working with video. More and more people creating and using video, more places to share it, more ways to place it in front of people who can make a difference.

“It raises challenges too: saturation of images and compassion-fatigue, finding your place to be heard, and the safety and security and consent issues that arise when many more people are filming each other.

“But overall I think we’re seeing a really powerful moment for individual expression but also collective accountability being supported via image-making.”

So says Sam Gregory programme director of Witness, a human rights organisation which uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. The New York-anchored organisation works around the world to ’empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change’.

Sam is a video producer, trainer and human rights advocate who knows and taps into the power of moving images to move people. He was speaking with Indian journalist and cyber activist Frederick Noronha in an interview just published at the Info Activism website.

Sam recalls how he was once making films and also involved in activism, and ‘frustrated at how the two didn’t fit together’.

He adds: “In the traditional TV documentary world, the advocacy purpose of film was under-utilized. The fact that you got 500,000 viewers for a TV broadcast told you nothing about whether that turned into action. So I started looking for ways to really make the video fit as a tool for real advocacy and change-making, and came upon WITNESS.”

Read full interview on InfoActivism website

We at TVE Asia Pacific worked closely with Sam in 2002-2004, when we implemented a collaborative Asian regional project called Truth Talking where Witness was a partner. It was through Witness that I met courageous info activists like Joey R B Lozano.